March 14, 2015

Parks and recreation

The action on the other side of the fence has been a revelation at all of the New Zealand venues in this World Cup

Eden Park gets territorial © Getty Images

The group stages are nearly done. Each ground has had its chance to jazz itself up and show itself off for flagship fixtures and days in the sun. Let's look at how they performed.

Eden Park, Auckland
First and foremost, New Zealand versus Australia - one of the shortest but most turbulent epics we'll see - created a cricketing atmosphere and noise level rarely seen outside the subcontinent, all schadenfreude, frenemies and good humour. With a backdrop of perfect sun, both sets of fans had their moments of fun, and Kane Williamson's final thwack - and the sheer pandemonium it created - was an honour to enjoy live. Throw in the emotional induction of Martin Crowe to the ICC's Hall of Fame and this was a mighty special day.

Auckland has the World Cup's best DJ. Case closed. This mysterious character reads the game better than Mike Brearley and drops his tunes accordingly. He's been helped by some legitimately bum-squeaking games that certainly support his craft, but anyone with the wherewithal to drop Pete Seeger's vintage classic "If I Had a Hammer" when the stumps go flying or Creed's "With Arms Wide Open" when the umpire calls a wide deserves the keys to the city.

He was on top of his game during Australia-New Zealand but his performance in Pakistan-South Africa was a veritable tour de force: it rained, so he played Travis' "Why Does It Always Rain on Me?" AB de Villiers fought back to leave the game in the balance, so he dropped "Staying Alive", then Ellie Goulding's "Anything Could Happen". It ended, and we all breathed once more, and he played "Thriller".

Tunes aside, those peculiar Eden Park boundaries make for great cricket. Not because they're easy to clear, but because of what they do to a batsman's brain. Australia became so preoccupied with hitting straight that they forgot there were runs on offer elsewhere, while New Zealand - in particular Trent Boult and Daniel Vettori - bowled a length that was almost impossible to hit down the ground. When a boundary isn't a perfect oval, judging second and third runs becomes art over instinct, and while we wouldn't want them this pear-shaped everywhere, these funky shapes perhaps make the cricket better, not worse.

What are the odds a Scot would be homesick in Dunedin? © AFP

University Oval, Dunedin
Dunedin deserves enormous credit for the welcome it laid out to two sets of Associate visitors, Scotland and Afghanistan, who each played a pair of games at the picturesque University Oval. The Scots, what with Dunedin being the Edinburgh of the South, were the most natural of fits in the blustery, beautiful town. Bars, cafés and restaurants in the city centre hung saltires outside, one going as far to declare that it was "proudly supporting Scottish cricket since 2015". A sign outside the train station reveals that Edinburgh is just 18,869km away, and no doubt Preston Mommsen's men felt right at home, especially when a bagpipe-playing competition happened in the centre on gameday with all participants donning kilts.

Afghanistan, however, weren't such an obvious fit, but the local authorities were determined it make it work, handing Afghan flags to neutrals entering the ground. Afghanistan's fans vociferously sang a selection of distinctly Barmy Army-sounding tunes in support of their team, who even the most cold-hearted curmudgeon couldn't help but admire. Two of the World Cup's cult heroes - Hamid Hassan and Shapoor Zadran - provided a pair of contrasting World Cup highlights at the ground too, as Hassan borrowed Zadran's boot against Sri Lanka, and then they shared that joyous partnership to down Scotland.

The lack of New Zealand games didn't poop the party at Saxton Oval © Getty Images

Saxton Oval, Nelson
Kids. Everywhere. Kiwi kids in Zimbabwe colours, chanting "UAE, UAE, UAE". Kiwi kids in Black Caps jerseys, barracking for Bangladesh. Kids trying to start Mexican waves; kids clamouring for a mere moment on camera; kids rolling down the perfectly manicured banks. Welcome to the World Cup at Saxton Oval, perhaps the most beautiful in an array of beautiful cricket grounds in New Zealand.

That's how Nelson dealt with the news that they'd be the only New Zealand venue without a Black Caps pool game, and all three would be played midweek: they got the kids in, and by the truckload. The result was a soprano-led scream, a high-pitched murmur of fun and frenzy. All the players, whether Emirati, Caribbean or Irish, were heroes to this lot, and they flocked against the hoardings in the hope of autographs. Hopefully they got the bug, and it sure looked like they did.

Nelson also saw some wonderful on-field action. It got the early upset that everyone had predicted, with Ireland's clinical chase against West Indies. Saxton saw UAE push Zimbabwe deep, and Bangladesh crush Scotland's second big chance of a first-ever win. Six of the World Cup's least glamorous sides - five of them will be competing for two spots next time, don't forget - but three fine games and three better parties. Saxton Oval was the Associate of World Cup venues - pokey, pretty and plucky - and all who visited loved the place for it.

Afghanistan turned out to be a major drawcard at McLean Park © Getty Images

McLean Park, Napier
It would have been easy to jump to swift conclusions about Napier's World Cup contribution after its first game, between UAE and Pakistan. This was a tough sell: a Wednesday day-nighter in a small town, between two mismatched sides short on travelling or local support, on a grey, moody day. Almost inevitably, it was an utterly one-sided contest, too. There was a mighty fine orange-clad crowd-catch from one of the 2000-odd who casually filtered in, but that was about it.

Four days later, though, the place was transformed, with the Black Caps and Afghanistan in town. Afghans came from all over New Zealand for a party. At the Art Deco Soundshell before the game, traditional Afghan music pumped out and hundreds danced. The short walk to the ground was equally joyous. The thousands of New Zealand fans, however, were initially left a little disappointed at their side being asked to bowl first, but as Afghanistan settled after Trent Boult's and Daniel Vettori's initial bursts, they started to loosen up. Not a patch of green was visible on the palm-tree backed grass banks, and over 10,000 packed in on a scorcher to see the home side do their thing. When that thing was done, and with the sun out, all in attendance left reflecting on one of the World Cup's finer days.

Temperatures soared inside the Cake Tin when Southee and Co destroyed England © Getty Images

Westpac Stadium, Wellington
Wellington was where New Zealand's fire really started, as Tim Southee and Brendon McCullum marmalised England with big swing and big swinging. The Cake Tin is perfectly oval and is a bowl of loud, echoey noise and swirling breeze when full and the sun shines. There has also been a whopping great cruise ship parked outside, which added to a feeling - alongside perfect sun and the white building- and tree-covered hills to the other side - that this could be the Caribbean.

Wellington has been the most one-sided venue so far, with England putting in two embarrassingly inept performances against New Zealand and Sri Lanka. For the latter, flights down from Auckland were full of Sri Lankans, and they made themselves heard as Kumar Sangakkara and Co cantered home. The first game was a treat, even if the lights didn't need switching on and those coming after work would barely have caught a ball's worth of action. But New Zealand destroyed England, so all was right with the world for the 30,000 who packed in.

Going green: Indian and Irish fans mixed at Seddon Park © Getty Images

Seddon Park, Hamilton
Seddon Park is great. It's in the middle of town, it's predominantly grass-banked, it's ringed by leafy trees, and you can walk most of the way around by a picket fence. It ticks other boxes too: the boundaries are small, meaning runs flow and the crowd, especially those on the banks, are always in the game. The draw was kind to Hamilton too - South Africa-Zimbabwe was a tasty clash, India-Ireland a battle of raucous fans, and there's a New Zealand game to come yet.

India-Ireland was a festival of colours. The green banks were replaced by pale blue and orange, while Irish folk did their best to make noise, mock England and dress as leprechauns. The sheer noise that greeted Shikhar Dhawan's century was normal service in his homeland but the sight of Indians and Irish mingling was special, especially considering all that our game is going through.

Hagley Oval: prim until one gent decided to be improper © ICC

Hagley Oval, Christchurch
No ground at this World Cup carried the weight of its city quite like Hagley Oval did for Christchurch. The earthquake still looms large just about everywhere you go in the city, whether in destruction, reconstruction or commemoration. That the games between Pakistan and West Indies and England and Scotland fell a day either side of the quake's fourth anniversary only served to heighten the sense that Hagley was a symbol of the city's rejuvenation. The ground, which had temporary grandstands put in after a successful Boxing Day Test, now has a quaint county outground feel to it, with a conifer-coloured backdrop and velvety green banks.

One man stole the Christchurch show. We have no idea who he is, but we know an awful lot about him. The Hagley streaker during the England-Scotland game, you naughty thing, you. Completely starkers, he broke onto the field, sidestepped a couple of security guards, and did a beeline for a small gap between a wall and a tent, by which I had the misfortune to be stood. Past he sprinted, warts and all, and headed for the wild, which turned out to be pristine and peaceful Hagley Park. To get there he had to sprint through the nets and haul himself over a rather spiky looking fence, which could have had disastrous, life-altering consequences. But escape he did, only to realise he was in a park. On a Monday afternoon. And he was naked.

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