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Digging up Darwin's cricketing links

The wonder of Test cricket in Darwin, as Dr Johnson might have said, is that it is there at all. It's a smallish town of around 60,000 people - not enough to fill the MCG on Boxing Day - and it had never staged so much as a first-class match before this week when Australia and Bangladesh rolled into town.

The crowds have been modest, but the reaction and the fine facilities have persuaded the Australian board to try the experiment of Top End cricket again next year, when Sri Lanka will be more bankable visitors. John Ah Kit, the Northern Territory's sports minister, is even more bullish, hoping for Darwin Tests in four of the next five winters.

Alongside the Australian and Bangladesh flags by the scoreboard flutters the NT flag. It's an unusual mix - a black panel, featuring the stars of the Southern Cross, and a larger brown one with a daisylike flower on it. Or rather, not brown, as I was quickly corrected by a local: "It's ochre, mate. And that's not a daisy, it's a Sturt Desert rose."

Just one of Australia's 385 Test cricketers was born in Darwin - Damien Martyn. And but for a persistent hand injury picked up in the World Cup, when initial X-rays showed no break but later ones showed up five tiny fractures, Martyn would be here strutting his stuff out in the middle. Instead he's at home, hoping to be fit in time for the one-day series which follows next week's similarly historic inaugural Test in Cairns.

But Martyn doesn't have many memories of living in Darwin - his family left when he was three, in the aftermath of Cyclone Tracy, which flattened the town at Christmas 1974. "I don't remember anything about the time when we lived there, and given the effects of Tracy, that's probably just as well," he relates in the tour programme. "All the same, I obviously have an affinity with Darwin. My parents met there, and we still went back for school holidays to visit my relatives when I was a kid, so my memories are really happy ones."

Martyn may not be here, but the Australian dressing-room still contains one representative of that black-and-ochre flag. Tim Nielsen, the assistant coach and performance analyst, who was brought up in the Northern Territory, although he was actually born in Forest Gate in the east of London.

But Nielsen isn't exactly a genuine EastEnder: "No," he says with a smile, "my parents were on a grand tour. My Dad was a schoolteacher, but he wanted to play some cricket in England before he took up an appointment in Canada, and I sort of popped out along the way."

By the time Tim was four, the Nielsens were back in Australia, and Dad was teaching in the Northern Territory. "We started in Tennant Creek, then when I was about six we moved to Nhulunbuy, which is over the other side of NT, near the Gulf of Carpentaria."

And then they started sliding southwards. "I went to high school in Alice Springs, and I matriculated in Whyalla, which is in South Australia. By 1986 I was in Adelaide, playing for West Torrens, and then I made it into the SA Shield side."

Nielsen had a long career for South Australia, where he broke Barry Jarman's long-standing wicketkeeping records in the course of 101 matches through the '90s. He might have won the odd Australian cap, too, but for the perpetual presence of Ian Healy below the baggy green.

In August last year Nielsen, who's now 34, took up his new post, which combines practice throwdowns and warm-ups with computer scrolldowns and boot-ups. All in all these days he spends more time on the net than in the nets.

"I really enjoy the coaching side," he says. "I had three years coaching at South Australia under Greg Chappell, which was great, and then this job came up. They wanted an extra pair of hands in the coaching area, and also needed someone new to take on the data capture. It involves taking the TV feed through a computer and recording information on each ball, so if, say, you want to see how Steve Waugh batted against offspin you can just call all the deliveries straight up. Most of the countries are doing similar analysis now. It's a fulltime job, and I'm loving it."

Steven Lynch is editor of Wisden CricInfo.

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