'Very quiet' motels, and never-ending cheers
Flying from Wellington to Auckland to Whangarei for the warm-up match. Second leg is on a Beechcraft that seats 20. Airline lady calls out "Whangarei" to make sure we get on the right plane. She goes to the back, looking out for the remaining passengers. She then climbs on board, welcomes passengers, and gives safety instructions. She then closes the door and fastens it. She then clambers into the co-pilot's seat, visible to all passengers, as there is no partition. Charlie is quite the allrounder.
The flight provides views of the Tasman Sea on the left and the Pacific Ocean on the right. New Zealand is a narrow country, and it really tapers off as you go north on North Island. Soon Charlie jumps out of her seat, welcomes the passengers to Whangarei and opens the door. She is not done yet. She stands by the side, offering to hold disembarking passengers' cabin luggage while they climb down the somewhat clumsy steps. "Quite the multi-tasker, aren't you?" I tell her. A grim stare is the answer.
Wait for cab outside hotel. Half an hour passes. No sign. Call them again. Apparently they have only six cabs to service the entire town on a Sunday. Two are not available today. When he turns up, the driver suspects they have gone to the cricket.
Cobham Oval is beautiful. Grass bank, picket fence, a pavilion inspired by Lord's, dark green hills in the background. It didn't exist a decade ago. The site where the old Cobham Oval stood became a warehouse under a district plan, and a spanking new one came up next to the rugby stadium.
The grass banks are tempting but it is hot. There is a stall where hats are available. Make my way there, then realise I am not carrying cash. By the time I return, the hats have sold out. It is that kind of day. Have to make do with a consolatory cap.
Subway close to motel is supposed to close at 8pm. They have shut half an hour early because "there was nothing happening". Er, something happens here ordinarily?
The night sky is clear. What a magical carpet of stars above. Have seldom seen so many. We in Mumbai usually have a protective covering of pollution over our heads that keeps out UV rays and stars.
Bus from Whangarei to Auckland. Ask driver if I can put a second bag in the luggage hold. "No, that's my job, mate," he mutters. Grabs bag and tosses it inside like a ball. The Auckland skyline with the prominent Sky Tower juts out as we cross the Harbour Bridge. Feels a touch overwhelming to approach a big city after the serenity of Whangarei.
After the bus, a taxi. Check-in and drop bag at hotel. Taxi. Eden Park. New Zealand's open media session. Transcribe interviews. Send copy. It's past midnight. Have dinner and crash. There are long days, and then there are long days.
Motel signboard also adds "Very Quiet". It is just off a major road, but it does feel quiet. There is a tennis court at the back, from where comes the sound of balls being hit. "Better to listen to that than the sound of traffic," says the owner, an old lady.
Waitangi Day, when the Maori and the British signed the historic treaty in 1840. National holiday. Turnout at cavernous Eden Park for the first day of the first Test is around 5500. For half that number, Seddon Park or Basin Reserve would have created an atmosphere. The Swami Army, the Indian fan group, does its bit here. "We do what we want, we do what we like, we're BCCI, we do what we like," they go. Follow that up with "We're so rich it's unbelievable." No dip in chanting intensity across sessions.
Indian restaurants here prepare curries mild, medium or hot as per order. To the Indian palate, they all taste similar: versions of mild. There is a fourth option, "Indian hot", at this one place. Go for it. Aah, that familiar burning sensation in the mouth after a meal. Feels too hot actually. Realise I have become used to Indian food prepared "New Zealand hot".
Test matches are too tight a schedule to soak in Auckland. Morning jog. Taxi to ground. Watch match. Attend press conferences. Write pieces. Taxi to motel. Have a drink and dinner. Sleep. Start over.
Hours after victory has been achieved, the New Zealand team walk out to the pitch at Eden Park. They come together in a huddle, sing their song, say what they have to say, and pour beer on each other. Young Kane Williamson, so calm at the crease and in press conferences and interviews, is the friskiest of the lot.
Early finish to the Test means some time off. Walk up a track and a winding road up to the summit of Mt Eden, from where you can see how water nearly encircles Auckland. The Harbour Bridge is dull in the distance, the Sky Tower is gleaming along with the rest of the towers, the sky has started to darken in the east but is still orange to the west. There are tens of people up here, taking in the solitude the summit offers and also the beauty of the urban sprawl stretching till it hugs the water. "Eden Park" clearly visible written across the seats of one of the stands in the ground downhill.
Dinner at a Thai/Mediterranean restaurant. Monday evening. Just two of us in the sprawling and tastefully decorated place. No one walks in over the couple of hours we are there, till closing time. There are so many fancy restaurants, big and small, in Auckland. Wonder how they survive with such thin walk-ins on weekdays. Guess most bank on the weekends.
Got to love how they make the most of space in cramped Wellington. Hotel has two entrances. Front one, on the ground floor, opens onto Lambton Quay. Back one, on the third floor, opens onto a road simply called The Terrace.
Lambton Quay traverses the business district, but it has just a lane each for busy traffic either direction. The footpath is broader than the road in some places. Restaurants, pubs, souvenir shops, clothes outlets, money changers, you name it, they're there. Like walking in a never-ending shopping arcade. Vibrant. Windy. Wellington.
It will take days to go through the wonders of the Te Papa Museum in detail. A couple of hours are squeezed in to marvel at the stories of early migrants to New Zealand from all over the world. Pacific Islanders, British settlers, Polish children during World War II, refugees. Aotearoa welcomes everyone. There is enough space for all under the long white cloud.
Jog along the waterfront from the Wharf Office Building to Te Papa and back. With the wind is a breeze. Returning into the wind is an effort. A man paddles a small boat furiously deep in the harbour. A motorboat zooms across the water, overtaking the boat in a flash. A helicopter appears and lands on the wharf out of nowhere.
They take their walking seriously at the Basin. Ropes are put up either side of the sightscreen when there's bowling from that end. A crowd gathers by the time the over ends. When the ropes are downed, the rush of activity makes it look like a busy pedestrian crossing. Start walking. Pause and sit on the wooden benches. Resume. Grab something to eat. Resume. Sit on the grass bank. Resume.
Press box is located right at the top of the main stand at the back. Behind the bowler's arm, but quite a climb. Final stretch steep too. From there, the radio guys have to walk in front under the roof on a suspended walkway. Reminds you of a similar arrangement at the Cricket Club of India.
At 94 for 5 in the New Zealand second innings, hopes of a three-day finish are being entertained in the press box. New travel plans are being hatched. Kaikoura, Picton, Nelson, Blenheim? Whale-watching, ferry to South Island, vineyard tour? Brendon McCullum has other ideas, of course.
Sunil Gavaskar is in one of his storytelling moods. Hilarious one after hilarious one. Narrates one about Eknath Solkar during lunch. Gets a call, excuses himself, talks, and returns. "Where was I?" he asks, and resumes immediately as soon as he is reminded.
The applause for McCullum's triple-century has a life of its own. Even after the batsman has acknowledged all corners, it continues. It then begins to fade, but revs up again with a loud cheer. And again. It rises and falls and rises again. McCullum is ready to face the next ball. The clapping won't stop. New Zealand has waited more than two decades for that one extra run Martin Crowe could not score. They want to let their captain know what this means to them.
New Zealand are closeted in the dressing room for several hours after the series is won. The occasion even gets them a visit from the Prime Minister. It has been that kind of summer for McCullum and his men. MS Dhoni and his men have to rush to the Asia Cup. Some will not even be able to visit their homes before leaving for Bangladesh. One tour blends into another. One flight into another. That applause, however, will keep echoing around the Basin forever.
Abhishek Purohit is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo