Around the cricket world in 260 days
Get invited to Jamnagar, from where Ranjitsinhji ruled his princely state of Nawanagar. Never imagined Ranji would feature on this trip twice, unplanned, after a visit to his summer castle on the west coast of Ireland. Visit the Summair sports club - Ranji was its founding patron - which houses the stumps and ball from the match in which he passed 3000 runs in the 1899 first-class season for Sussex, the first batsman to do so.
On a day trip to the various visually stunning forts in and around the city of Jaipur, we come across a poignant message honouring the passing of Phillip Hughes on the wall of the Nahargarh Fort, and are reminded of how tight-knit the cricket community is. There are banners and posters here and there in the city promoting competitions for local kids to be part of the IPL franchise Rajasthan Royals, but generally cricket is at its lowest ebb in November. One can only imagine what it will be like now with the eighth edition of the IPL underway.
Visit one of the seven wonders of the modern world, Taj Mahal. No photograph ever could do justice to the beauty of this marble edifice. On the ride back to New Delhi, stop to watch a game of gully cricket in the grounds of a temple, next to a Muslim cemetery across from the tomb of Itmad-ud-Daula. Pile of bricks acts as stumps on a dug-up pitch. The batsman, Ahmed, launches everything to leg-side boundary and has to help the fielders identify the lost ball since he knows exactly where he hit it.
Teach my wife to make a ball to play cricket with using an old cycle tube. She cuts thin rings from the tube, wrapping them around a center core of small stones and newspaper. After 45 minutes of hard work, she has recreated the ball with which I used to play cricket with my cousins. Childhood relived as we have a hit in a friend's front yard in Delhi.
Interview former India opener Madhav Apte at his spacious residence in Mumbai. He gives us a tour of his home. There is a framed signed picture of Sir Don Bradman, a gift from Clarrie Grimmett and framed paper cuttings from his time as a schoolboy taking all ten in an innings. He's still active at the age of 83, playing badminton and tennis. After nearly two hours of cricket chat, he bowls some legbreaks to my wife to see how much cricket she has picked up on the trip. Not much as it turns out.
Any trip to South Africa is incomplete without a visit to the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg to understand the troubled past of the Rainbow Nation. A series of well-thought-out exhibits enlightens us on the state-sanctioned discrimination system that disadvantaged a majority of South Africans, and the struggle for liberty and equality led by, amongst others, the great Nelson Mandela. It is a testament to the vile perversion human beings are capable of, and also the indomitable will of the human spirit to overcome the toughest obstacles.
First Test between South Africa and West Indies at the Super Sport Park in Centurion. Take the convenient Gautrain from Jo'burg to the stadium in Pretoria. Incredibly excited to see live for the first time Dale Steyn bowl in a Test. The accreditation has not been sorted but Cricket South Africa makes alternate arrangements and I get to my seat in the outdoor press box just in time for the first delivery. Fans lie on the grass banks, enjoying beers and a variety of foods while keeping an eye on the proceedings in the middle. During the lunch break, fans are allowed on to the field to take part in impromptu games of cricket or to just stroll around.
Get to watch two of the greatest modern-day batsmen - Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers - pile on the runs. Steyn has an ordinary first innings but rolls into form in the second, taking a six-for and in the process destroying the overmatched West Indians. The match is over in the first session of day four.
Rent a car and drive 500km to Kruger National Park, a massive preserve of African veld and wildlife. Spend two days exploring the park at 15kph, astounded and surrounded by giraffe, zebra, rhino, lion, cheetah, hyena, and more, and after 48 hours have still barely scratched the surface. Learn that despite their massive size elephants are quite silent when we are ambushed by an entire herd crossing the road. Easily the highlight of the trip: to be driving around in a car inside a park almost the size of New Jersey, watching nature in full glory.
Port Elizabeth. Rain-affected drawn Test. Gives us time to explore some of the game reserves and parks in the area, and partake in the most traditional of South African outdoor activity - the braai. One of the South African journalists is gracious enough to host us and we tuck into the orgy of grilled meat.
Land in picturesque Cape Town on New Year's Eve. Another braai. Spend the entire New Year's day at Newlands waiting to interview Kraigg Brathwaite and Marlon Samuels. Brathwaite keeps the appointment but Marlon skips it. After looking for him for an hour, am told that he has fallen asleep in the dressing room!
At the conclusion of another South African Test victory, opener Alviro Petersen announces his retirement from the international game. All his team-mates line up in the back of the press conference room in support, and the raw emotions of the occasion hang thick in the air.
After a marathon 22 hours of flying, land in Adelaide. Walk around the CBD and make our way to the beautiful Adelaide Oval. Watch a Big Bash game. Surprised by the turnout of nearly 30,000 on a working day even as rain comes down before the start of the match. Kids everywhere are decked out in Adelaide Strikers colours. The BBL marketing team must be doing something right to attract such a devoted audience.
Melbourne. Watch a weekend club game at the South Yarra Cricket Club's home ground. Heart longs for such easy access to cricket back in the US. Journalist Gideon Haigh invites us to nets. Spend nearly two hours bowling, and the next two days being sore all over.
Watch an India v Australia tri-series ODI. India are outplayed for large parts of the game but their bowlers make it a close game. A sign of things to come in the World Cup. Witness pink ball trials at the MCG before and after the ODI.
Overnight bus from Melbourne to Sydney. Head straight to the SCG for the Australia Day match between India and Australia. Is washed out after only a few overs of play.
Play as the 11th member on a mate's club side. Do not get to bowl or bat but the team wins - their first win of the season. Everybody congratulates me for being the lucky charm and buy several beers to celebrate the win. Wish cricket were this easy!
Queensland. After a short stay in Brisbane, where we sneak into the locked Gabba and take pictures of the ground, we head north to the tropical Cairns. The gorgeously deep blue portions of the Great Barrier Reef comes in to view as the plane circles around the mountains on the landing approach. Book a day trip out to Green Island to further explore the reef and spend another day driving in the Kuranda National Park.
Drive 400kms to Townsville to meet the couple - Patrick and Sharon - who were the inspiration behind this round-the-world trip. It was a chance meeting at Queen's Park Oval in 2012 that sowed the seeds for this adventure. Patrick takes me out to his club's nets and then on to Tony Ireland Stadium to watch a first grade match between his club and Wanderers CC, a club Andrew Symonds and Mitchell Johnson played for. Dozens of people are in the stands to watch this game. Australia truly is a cricket country.
Back in Melbourne to await the start of the World Cup. Attend the pre-match pressers of Australia and England. George Bailey as captain addresses the media and that will be his last for the tournament as Michael Clarke returns from injury. James Anderson fronts up for England and that will be the last I see of England since my plan to see them in the quarter-final doesn't work out.
Drive overnight to Adelaide to watch India-Pakistan and then a two-day drive to Canberra and back to Melbourne. Highway rest area facilities in Australia are spectacular, making the drive very comfortable. With no hotels available, choose to spend a night sleeping in the car under the stars somewhere between Adelaide and Canberra.
Never seen anything like it. A nearly full MCG, almost all of it blue, barracking for the Indians against South Africa. Melbourne has become Mumbai. Indian bowlers make their presence felt and India get home easily.
Interview ICC chief executive Dave Richardson for a few minutes in the press box, enquiring about the reduction of the number of teams in the 2019 World Cup to ten. Wishy-washy responses but I understand his plight as the face of an organisation that serves only the narrow interests of its member boards and not the wider interest of the sport.
In New Zealand. Watch some of the closest matches of the tournament. Play a promotional game of cricket at the Hobbiton movie set alongside Sir Richard Hadlee and Stephen Fleming. Take in a tour of the wineries in Waiheke Island off the coast of Auckland. Walk on the outside of the Sky Tower in Auckland, 192m off the ground.
The buzz about the World Cup is more palpable in New Zealand than it was in Australia. The local media and fans have embraced the tournament entirely and the nation is completely behind their beloved Black Caps. Brendon McCullum is repaying their faith in spades with an aggressive and risky form of cricket that has their legion of fans thinking about the trophy.
World Cup final. Australia crush New Zealand quite easily and prove their superior depth and quality in all facets of the game, in familiar surroundings.
Spend the entire match replaying the happenings of the last 260 days in my mind - the serendipitous experiences and the incredible kindness of strangers and friends that made the whole trip possible. The unbelievable journey from watching the 2011 final in my apartment in a snow-covered small town in Pennsylvania to witnessing the 2015 final from the press box at the MCG!
Flight to New York from Melbourne via Los Angeles. We are home!