July 4, 2013

On two wheels and a prayer to Oz

One man spent over a year cycling from England to Australia to watch the last Ashes. If that's not devotion to the game, what is?

Oli Broom is not a member of the Barmy Army, though he is surely qualified. He is not strictly a journeyman cricketer, though he has played the game in locations all over the world. Having spent 14 months during 2009 and 2010 cycling from England to watch the Ashes in Australia, he is easily cast as a cricket tragic, though he doesn't come across as an anorak. He is an ordinary fan who came up with an extraordinary plan; and now he has written a book about it.

On his journey from London to Brisbane, which raised £75,000 for charity, Broom pedalled more than 14,000 miles across 23 different countries on four continents, equipped with little more than a cricket bat and a few panniers of camping gear.

Abandoning his career as a chartered surveyor, Broom set off on an adventure that saw him feature in TV bulletins and newsprint around the world - sample headline: "He cycled to Serbia armed with a stick" - and become a mini social-media phenomenon. All quite impressive for a man who describes himself as a "home bod".

Cricket certainly attracts its eccentrics - from Vic Flowers to the club players who organised a game on Everest, and Peter Chismon, the globetrotting Sussex fan - but Broom doesn't come across as a Mongoose-toting loon. He seems a little sheepish about being compared to wilderness expert Bear Grylls, quoted on the book sleeve, and is genuinely happy to have a "proper job" for the next year (working on the Tour de France's 2014 grand depart in Yorkshire). He's not the cricketing messiah, just a slightly nutty boy.

"Even now, two and a half years after I got back, I wouldn't want to do it again," he says cheerfully, reflecting on a tour that took him along 1500 miles of the Danube, across the deserts of northern Africa, through the heat and bustle of the subcontinent and into the Australian outback. "It was a hell of a long time but it just flew by. Before I left, I wouldn't have believed that I'd be able to get to Australia, and now that I'm back I almost don't believe that it was me."

There are plenty of pictures, tweets and blog entries to prove it was - as well as a potential documentary, still being pieced together by Laszlo, a Hungarian film-maker and one of the many friends Broom made along the way. Daft caper as it sounds, the experience clearly had a profound effect on its protagonist.

"It's the best thing I've ever done by a hell of a long way. Sometimes it's easy to forget that but it was just amazing to meet all these different people from around the world. That was the best bit about it, meeting these random, hilarious characters and having some very weird experiences. Part of me is a bit sad I didn't have any death-defying moments because that would have been great for the book but it shows what a good place the world is. Some of the best people I met were in Sudan, Syria - you don't hear a lot of good news about those countries in the Western press."

Broom was pole-axed by dengue fever in Thailand, knocked off his bike by a truck in Bulgaria, and had a few nervy moments with the wild dogs of the Anatolian plains

Even if he didn't confront his mortality, Broom still had to deal with a few scrapes. He was pole-axed by dengue fever in Thailand - threatening his chances of making it to the Gabba for the first Test as promised - knocked off his bike by a truck in Bulgaria, and had a few nervy moments with the wild dogs of the Anatolian plains. And that's without mentioning the sore knee that almost convinced him to give up before reaching Dover.

His fitness improved, though he could not quite keep to the original schedule he set for himself (using a thumb to measure rough distances on the map). The book conveys a sense that Broom set off on a whim and a prayer, and he candidly describes the tears and exhaustion, as well as the moments of epiphany.

"I was a stranger everywhere I went; vulnerable - emotionally and physically," he writes, after an encounter with a Serbian turnip farmer who doesn't speak English but donates him some produce for the road induces another bout of sobbing.

"I was completely underprepared and so I didn't really know what I was getting myself in for, which was the only way to do it, for me," he says. "There's a guy called Alastair Humphreys, who cycled round the world for four years, and he says in his book, if he knew everything he knew now he wouldn't have set out in the first place. So there's a sort of naivety and ignorance attached to cycling off round the world."

The undertaking was inspired by the "malady known as wanderlust" but Broom didn't return with a cure. "It definitely hasn't answered all the questions. I didn't come back at the end and think, 'Ah, I know what I want to do with my life.' I never thought I would."

While the book contains moments of introspection, Broom leavens the tale with regular comic episodes, often sending himself up. He writes of composing his own tune, "The Majesty of Industry", to sing to himself whenever he came across appropriate subjects. "In my low moments it was a melancholic Leonard Cohen-esque dirge. When I felt chipper it turned into a bouncy number that Stevie Wonder might have been proud of." In India, he is like Ahab in search of a spot of shade, only to end up in the middle of yet another scrum of men who want to touch his bike.

Cricket is to Cycling to the Ashes what jazz is to On The Road (although the comparison stops there). From the grave of former England spinner Colin Blythe in Ypres, via the unexpectedly devoted converts of the Serbian Cricket Federation, to playing in a hotel hallway with the West Bengal youth team, Broom maps the game in obscure European outposts as well as its commonwealth redoubts. The only place he couldn't get a hit was in the Australian outback.

"What I enjoyed most was just meeting people who were much madder on cricket than I am. I love cricket but meeting people like Vladimir, Haris and Slobodan in Serbia - they loved cricket. They used to stay up watching the Ashes and that series, after I got to Australia, they were up all night every night supporting England, in former socialist tower blocks in the middle of Belgrade. You just can't believe how committed they are."

Broom admits he didn't keep a tally of runs and wickets on tour, like any self-respecting tragic would. But his story is more about self-discovery and the life-affirming experience of making friends of strangers all over the world than a Fever Pitch obsession with sport.

He knows as much as anyone about spreading the game in foreign lands, though, having worked in Rwanda for the last 18 months on a project to build a cricket stadium, in addition to his travels. His "get cape, wear cape, fly" attitude may have been hung up in the wardrobe for now but when we meet he mulls the possibility of examining cricket's ever-strengthening toehold in China.

"I'd like to do some more travelling but I probably won't do a 14-month bike ride again. I definitely want to explore cricket further. I'd love to go and explore the game in India and would like that to be in a book. We'll see."

Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here