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The long tail

Greg Chappell next to a sign of a street named after him Getty Images

To understand cricket in Brisbane, look away from the Gabba's blinding light towers and long shadows. While the main games throb in that stadium, the sport pulses through the city on suburban grounds, in venues such as Graceville and Toombul, Valley and University.

It is in clubs like these that the game in Brisbane has evolved, with skills and traditions learned, passed on, and remembered. For some, these traits lead to higher places and baggier caps. The rest depart, having contributed to Brisbane's cultural cricket footprint.

Like the poinciana and jacaranda trees that form the backdrop of these games, it is the hardy, resilient players who flourish in the hot and humid climate. "It's tough," says former Queensland fast bowler Greg Rowell. "[Cricket is] played in the heat of the summer, so it's punishing physically."

A lawyer who last played first-class cricket in 1999 - after district cricket in Canberra, Sydney, Hobart and Brisbane - Rowell, at 48, remains connected to the grassroots as chair of Queensland Cricket's grade committee. "There's a good culture in Brisbane grade cricket," he says. "I'm a fan of it."

A major part of that culture is the social side, which sees players from rival clubs get together off the field. Rowell also likes the way the competition acts as a school for fast bowlers. Within a couple of seasons at his club, Wests, for instance, Rowell bowled in an attack including Queensland greats Craig McDermott, Carl Rackemann and Dirk Tazelaar.

"One of the things about playing in Brisbane is that couch grass - so important for good wickets - grows almost ten months of the year," he says. "In the southern states, on the other hand, it does not start growing until later in the season." This physical peculiarity means that pitches in Brisbane are suited to fast bowling, while those down south help spinners. It explains why, in Queensland "there has been a run of fast bowlers", in Rowell's words, a line that stretches from park grounds to the green-tinged Gabba.

There is also a long and proud trail of players from the bush. Over Christmas in Brisbane, a cluster of grounds at Marchant Park hosts the 67-year old Country Week carnival. From senior-citizen farmers to green youngsters - who are made to umpire at square leg for hours - everyone downs tools and picks up from where they left off in the summer.

In each of these city or country outfits, there are people like Rowell who want to stay involved in an area of great importance to the sport. "Club cricket is the cornerstone and foundation of Australian cricket," emphasises Rowell.

Michael Jeh, a Valley regular for more than two decades, still fills in when the lower grades are short. "It has lost none of its competitiveness and much of its charm," he says of the local cricketing culture. "They play in exactly the same hard-nosed way that the Australian team plays but when you don't even have the skill to carry it off, it can look sad," Jeh says, pointing out that even at the sub-district level, the sledging can be fierce, with the junior games boys copying their televised heroes.

Those role models appear most visibly at the Gabba, a ground that, in recent times, has been nicknamed the Gabbatoir. It has been the scene of brutal triumphs for Australian sides - and previous versions of rampant Queensland Bulls.

If cricket grounds are a reflection of a state's culture, then Queensland possesses large mobs of sozzled fans who spend afternoons trying to dodge a suffocatingly officious regime. One memorable ground announcement at a domestic game declared that anyone seen to throw a paper plane would be escorted out of the stadium. Not even the state's rules-obsessed Liberal National Party government has considered such heavy-handedness yet.

At the same time, the loutish behaviour can be disgraceful, and is responsible for many of the security controls that make viewing so demanding. "The searches and the hour it takes to get into the ground for an Ashes Test - that's the trade-off for all the previous bad behaviour," says Dean Tuckwell, another Brisbane club player with two decades of experience. He was a boy when he first went to the Gabba, when it was an actual cricket ground.

Currently the Brisbane Lions Australian Rules club dominates the stadium, which is soulless compared with the former collection of mismatched stands overlooking a greyhound track. "The old ground was wonderful," Rowell says. When he played for Queensland, 3000 people might have watched the Sunday of a Sheffield Shield game. "It was a small crowd but it made a buzz and it would feel packed," he says. "There are no spiritual undertones to the new ground, that's the AFL influence."

Before its redevelopment from the mid-1990s, the Brisbane Cricket Ground was a hotchpotch collection that had as its centrepiece the Sir Leslie Wilson Stand, a structure that angled away from the ground. There was also a large grassy hill and a beer garden in the members' section next to the dressing rooms. "The players would come out and mingle [with the spectators]," Tuckwell remembers.

Back then, the Queensland Cricketers' Club looked more like a rickety pavilion than prime viewing space for the handful of people lucky enough to squeeze into a spot on the balcony above fine leg. Long socks and walking shorts were the done thing in the "posh" areas, and bare feet on the hill.

The current Cricketers' Club, a treasured space over the fence from third man and midwicket, is one of the few spots at the ground where it's possible to view some cricket history. Another place that remembers great times past is Queensland Cricket's headquarters in Albion, a suburb just north of the city. Allan Border has a field, Ray Lindwall an oval, Greg Chappell a street, Stuart Law a stand, and Rackemann some nets. There's also a statue of Eddie Gilbert, the tiny but supremely fast Aboriginal bowler who frightened Bradman in the 1930s. In the boardroom, there's a wall-sized print of the scoreboard from Queensland's first Sheffield Shield success. That delirious celebration came in 1994-95, after 68 years of frustration.

"For a long time Brisbane grade cricket was behind, in facilities and tradition," Tuckwell says. "Brisbane had a lot of catching up to do and it's no coincidence that Queensland started to win things once these things were established." The importance of the grade scene is usually overlooked when thinking about cricket in Brisbane. It's a mistake.