January 1, 2013

A Melbourne Christmas

There's yummy food in Hobart, and lovely buildings in Australia's second-largest city. Too bad Sri Lanka don't quite show up for the second Test

December 12
Leave Hobart airport worn and weary and am comforted by how small the place feels. The town is over the other side of the river from my accommodation, but the Russian motel owner insists I have to see the city today. He moved here eight years ago, and it does not surprise me to learn that he is also an immigration agent, specialising in bringing people to Tasmania.

"This is the greatest place in the world to live," he says. "If you live 15 minutes from where you work, people ask, 'What the hell is wrong with you? Where are you living?'"

"Unemployment is high here too, but I don't tell that to my clients."

December 13
First sighting of the gorgeous Bellerive Oval. It's so close to the edge of the Derwent River you feel that if a strong easterly blows in, the stadium could slide into the water.

The view from the press box is lovely. "It used to be better before they raised the southern stand," complains an Australian journalist.

"We should enjoy the view we've got now, because in a couple of year's time, it won't be there," another chimes in.

Meet Mahela Jayawardene for a short interview at the team hotel later in the afternoon. He's got his fingers crossed about the Bellerive pitch.

"Hopefully they'll leave the grass on and our quicks can get something out of it," he says.

"Not a request you always hear from a Sri Lankan captain," I reply.

He flashes a smile. "That's the only way we're going to win a Test match here."

December 14
I had heard from several journalists that Hobart's press-box food was the best around, but I had been skeptical. The city is charming but a little vanilla, which doesn't usually make for a vibrant culinary scene. I was wrong. So very wrong.

They serve up oily, fresh, flavoursome salmon on the first day, and I'm hooked. The fish are farmed, rather than wild, but the brochure provided to each reporter claims that that did not compromise on taste, and I am not in any position to argue.

I'll have my cheque made out to cash, please, Tourism Tasmania.

December 15
Coming from Sri Lanka, where the largest contingents of spectators at Test matches are routinely the hordes of groundstaff, I had hoped to witness the kinds of numbers cricket's best format deserves in Australia. I soon find it is not to be the case in Hobart, where the stands are sparsely occupied on all five days. Strangely, Tasmania Cricket's chairman then goes on to warn, "If you don't like Tasmania, don't come here," which seems to me like the opposite of what needed to be said.

December 16
So Mahela never got his wish, and for the first three days of the Test, the Hobart pitch is fairly tame. Tillakaratne Dilshan gets a warm ovation for his hundred, from an almost entirely pro-Australian audience. Australians want their side to win, but perhaps not always at the expense of good cricket, which they appreciate better than most.

December 17
As I leave the ground in twilight, several local teenagers in their swimming costumes are daring each other to take a dip in the Derwent. I test the water temperature with my hand and proceeded to suppress a loud slew of expletives. They make them hard in Tasmania, I've heard, but I'm not sure that will slow hypothermia down any. They all seemed terrified of taking a dip, but intent on making fun of each other for not going in first.

December 18
The Sri Lankan contingent in the press box breaks the news on Peter Siddle's suspected ball-tampering on day three, leading to much murmuring and covert calling for the remainder of the day.

"Was Australia too quiet for you blokes?" a local journalist asks in jest.

I'm called by an Australian sports radio station to outline Sri Lanka's position on the whole issue, which is basically: "We think he maybe, might have, possibly raised the seam a teeny bit, and we're very concerned, but also, under no circumstances, in any way, are we ever going to make an official complaint."

At the end of the day the ICC sends out a press release claiming Siddle had already been cleared by the umpires at the end of day three, which is information that might have saved everyone time, stress and migraines, had it been brought to light promptly.

December 19
Catch a very early flight to Melbourne, and first impression of the city is that everything seems to be a slick operation. Traffic doesn't appear to be a major issue. The public transport is frequent and punctual, though a tad expensive. And being very cosmopolitan, there seems to be a huge variety of eateries.

Arrive at my lodging, fairly close to the city, to find that it is right across the road from an establishment of dubious ethics named The Harem. I offer a friend money to go in dressed in a kaftan, wielding a falsetto, claiming he is a eunuch looking for work. He briefly considers and wisely declines.

December 20
Does not take long for me to run into another Sri Lankan in Melbourne, on the tram. We discuss the team's chances, and his assessments are about as pessimistic as mine, but we both hope we are proven wrong. He tells me about the massive Sri Lankan community in Melbourne.

"There seems to be a Sri Lankan concert every other week, and in some of the suburbs, you will meet more Sri Lankans than Australians."

Several of the team have family and friends here too, whom they have been visiting, while the other Sri Lankan journalists are also spending time with relatives. I quickly begin to feel like the only Sri Lankan in the world who doesn't have family in Australia.

December 21
Meet Asanka Gurusinha for an interview and he is as thoughtful as he is gracious. The beard is gone but the gut has been embellished. He's going back to Sri Lanka just before Christmas and is there for a month. He's particularly excited about this visit because he will be catching up with the legendary class of '96.

"We are playing a charity match in Colombo on January 11. I think the only members of '96 World Cup team who can't come are Marvan [Atapattu], because he'll be here with the team, and Kumar Dharmasena, who might be umpiring. Murali will definitely come if his team gets knocked out of the Big Bash.

"After the match we will have a dinner just for the players and families, so I'm really looking forward to that."

Oh, to be a fly on that wall.

December 22
The most striking thing about Melbourne's central business district is the juxtaposition of the old and the new. Flinders Street Station is right across the intersection from St Paul's Cathredral. They are two of the oldest and most majestic buildings in the city. On another corner of the junction is the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, a senseless modern cube in a fractured shell. The friend who is travelling with me tells me he hates the ACMI building, but personally I'm a fan. Without the awful there, right in view, perhaps the enduring charm of the two other buildings would not seem so stark.

December 23
The MCG is as overwhelming as I'd imagined. I go down to field level and stride onto the playing surface with as much confidence as I can muster, so as to look like I am allowed to be walking to the pitch. I just want to get a feel for what it would be like to stand in the middle. I'm stopped about 10 metres in from the boundary, though, and even with a press pass around my neck, I can't argue my case for getting a closer look at the surface.

December 24
Melbourne CBD on Christmas eve is more enchanting than I expected. There is a fair share of last-minute shoppers and the usual commercial gimmicks associated with the holiday, but there is also a festive atmosphere that is quite irresistible. The town hall's façade is lit up beautifully, and a crowd admires the building from across the road as trams buzz regularly by.

December 25
I am tasked with working on Christmas day, and to my dismay, Jayawardene and Michael Clarke both give press conferences nearing 20 minutes each.

Meet with a couple of old friends for a drink after a lonely Christmas dinner in Chinatown, and go to bed excited about covering my first Boxing Day Test.

December 26
The crowd is over 67,000 and the roar for Mitchell Johnson as he approached the crease to deliver his hat-trick ball is an experience that will never leave me.

"I almost pulled up halfway through my run-up because I was about to smile. I couldn't concentrate," Johnson says at the end of the day.

December 27

Receive an invitation to have lunch with MCC members on day four - apparently a Boxing Day Test tradition for journalists. Someone in the press box is skeptical the game will last that long, but I go to Sri Lanka's defence, foolishly, in hindsight.

Finish work early enough to sample a little of Melbourne's nightlife and a few locally made drinks, including something called a "Dirty Granny cider". 

December 28

Am up bright and early to talk about Sri Lanka's chances in the Test on the radio. Proceed to take even more careful aim at my foot as I predict some fight from the visitors. Sri Lanka pull the trigger for me in the first few overs of their innings. Most Sri Lanka fans are unsure whether to laugh or cry. Mitchell Johnson goes on a bouncer rampage and Sri Lanka's physiotherapist Steve Mount ends up spending more time in the middle than most of their batsmen. 

December 29

Wake up still unsure of what to make of what happened the previous day, but it only gets worse as I hear of Tony Greig's death. I call Sri Lanka's team manager, Charith Senanayake, for an injury update, but end up relaying the news of Greig's passing, which leaves him speechless - a reaction many Sri Lankans will have had to the news. 

December 30

As Sri Lanka have no media activities planned, I explore Melbourne a little more. Have the best dumplings I've ever had, and take a peek inside St Paul's Cathedral and Scots Church, which are as beautiful on the inside as their exteriors. There are Australian Open billboards everywhere, and I sense a twinge of longing to see Roger Federer play, but I will be gone long before the tennis starts. 

December 31

Tens of thousands of people have flocked to the CBD on New Year's Eve, and as the calendar rolls over, I see why. About a dozen sets of fireworks go off in perfect synchronisation from the top of various skyscrapers about town. Even the sleepy children who have been dragged around the city muster a smile and a shout. Surprisingly few drunks to negotiate on the long walk home.

Andrew Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here