First among equals
Wellington has not one but three venues capable of hosting first-class cricket. Two of those - Karori Park and the Basin Reserve - will not be used for the World Cup, but they provide a unique cricket watching experience nonetheless.
Only the truly committed will be here on game day. Under grey skies, bitter winds sweep over the Makara hills, bringing chilly damp air to the fields of Karori Park. Deprived of shelter from trees or grandstands, they can count only on the walls of a small café and a raincoat on the back. Grim, wind-hardened faces squint out at the players, going through the motions of their cricketing purgatory. Pity the players - they who have no choice but to be here - but do not pity the spectators. Watching cricket in Wellington can be an endurance sport on its own, made possible in awful weather conditions by the simple act of deciding to be there.
They wear battered raincoats, carry a thermos of tea, and ham and cheese sandwiches wrapped in thin plastic. They sink slowly into the few park benches with a view of the field, impassive through the slow progress of the day. An exchange of a word or two with whoever sits down next to them to mark a wicket or a particularly classy cover drive, then back to slow fossilisation.
The seasons change daily in Wellington, and the second day of the match brings bright sunshine and a gentle breeze. Fair-weather fans begin to congregate around the outfield, forming small clumps around picnic baskets and blankets. With no security guards or fences, bottles of wine are slipped out of paper bags. Karori Park is vast and flat, with an expanse of field that stretches away from the main game. Matches are set up on the unused pitches: backyard cricket on a grand scale. The players play on, oblivious to the enjoyment of summer around them.
A young father slowly pushes a baby in a pram around the outfield, taking care to pull the shade away to give the young one an uninterrupted view of the game, pointing out this detail and that, explaining the tactics and strategies, his audience giggling at the sounds and shouts. When the lunch break takes effect, he crosses the boundary line, walking the pram up to the edge of the square, to the thin wire that rings the pitch. He picks up the baby, holding him so he can see the wickets, introducing him to the obsession that the father hopes will one day take hold.
He got here at 10 on the dot. The ticket said play in the Test match starts at 10.30, but he got here at 10. No matter, a good chance to beat the queues that will strain the entrances at each end when the first over approaches. Walking in at the Adelaide Road end, he turns left after having his bag checked by security. Nothing to see in there: a small radio, a newspaper, and some warm clothing for if the wind picks up. He settles into a spot on the brick terraces, watching the groundsmen finish their final preparations. Taking out a broad copy of the Dominion Post, he turns immediately to the back page, where the teams are laid out. Meticulously, he reads every article about the game, noting the contests that await. The players jog out, and he folds the paper away, taking out the radio and putting the earphones in. Bryan Waddle's cheerful, jovial voice fills his head, describing the sight on the field. Now the cricket season, so abstract before it was laid out before all his senses, has truly begun.
The kids get bored easily. Holding miniature cricket bats and tennis balls, the play on the field quickly becomes secondary to the main event: pick-up games using the long straight alleyways that run into the bowels of the stands. One hand one bounce, the oldest has to bat left-handed, hit the ball on the field and you're out - all the house rules are debated and tested. Batsmen and bowlers rotate quickly, wickets tumbling every few minutes. The fielders slowly drift away, with so few positions except short leg and long off to fill, their interest taken by the boundary riders. When the game finally winds down, the one who owns the miniature bat takes it over to the picket fence and holds it out to the fine-leg fielder. "Can I have your autograph?"
As the afternoon drifts on, the sunlight and the crowds shift to the grassy banks. Here they lounge on the slopes, sipping beer from plastic cups. They marinate in sun and watery beer. When the day is almost over, the gates are opened to the public for cut- price admission. The Basin Reserve becomes a thoroughfare for those leaving work in the CBD, taking the opportunity to see the last few overs of the day on their way home. A man in a suit is spotted by a particularly rowdy group of supporters, who snigger at his formal outfit. A chant starts up: "Take your tie off, take your tie off!" The besuited man hears, looks around, and realises he is the subject. For a second he looks almost affronted, before relaxing and grinning up at the chanters. "Take your tie off, take your tie off." He loosens the knot and slips it over his head, which earns a small cheer. The man in the suit holds it aloft and theatrically swings it around his head, causing the bank to erupt with applause. He sits down for the last over of the day. The Basin Reserve banks have won over another convert.
Everyone walks the causeway to get to Westpac Stadium. A trickle at midday, then a stream, then a river, then a flood of fans, walking purposefully to catch the first ball. They pile out of trains that shuttle regularly into the station underneath the stadium, thousands coming into town from the northern suburbs. Buses from the south, the east, the western suburbs, all full. There isn't a spare car park in sight for miles. Still they come, huge groups of revellers walking in from the city, stopping at the pubs along the way for just one more quick one before the stadium. If the Basin Reserve is the temple of cricket in Wellington, the Westpac Stadium is the modern mega-church. A congregation of the casual and the committed: come one, come all.
Half the ground loses the sun early and wraps up against the chilly breeze. The other half bakes. Soaking in watery beer, pounding pop songs and the dry Wellington sun, the punters get louder. They are part of the game here, not just spectators. The Cake Tin, as the stadium is affectionately known, becomes a cauldron when it is full. The Kiwi quick is pulled to the crease each ball by a steady rise in noise, reaching a crescendo when the ball is let loose.
The crunch of bat on ball echoes, picked up by stump microphones, and bouncing around the concrete walls. It flies high in the air, hanging at eye level with those sitting at the very top. The noise changes, yearning, pleading for the fielder to get underneath it. Nobody prays silently here; thousands of voices urge the fielder on. Get there. Get there.
Running at full tilt, the man on the boundary reaches up with both hands. Mere metres away, hundreds of hands stretch out, pointing at the ball. It's right there! The fielder leaps, fingers grasping at the air. The ball hits a hand, smacking into the palm and bouncing up. Trying a second time, the hand swipes, misses, the ball falls on the ground and stops, just over the boundary. The fielder ruefully picks it up and throws it back in, wondering how he managed to miss it. A group of young men in the front row howl with laughter, at their friend with the bruised hand, and the even more bruised ego. But then the replay comes up on the big screen, and he raises his arms in mock triumph. He may not have made the catch but at least he was part of the game.
Alex Braae is an Auckland-based writer who bowls sneaky inswingers. @awbraae