It is eccentric to attempt to get around Australia by train at the best of times. Weekly, slow and bumpy: to try to do so under the constraints of a World Cup schedule marks a descent into lunacy. Any sane person, of course, flies.
So, naturally, come February 10, I'm standing on a platform, with blazer and raincoat, temperatures heading into the mid-thirties Celsius, about to undergo my first experience of both overseas ODI cricket and Australian rail travel. This suburban hop from airport to city centre is no more than an hors d'oeuvre for the main trips: the Overland (Melbourne-Adelaide), Indian Pacific (Sydney-Perth), and the Ghan (Darwin-Adelaide), the latter two crossing Australia from east to west and north to south respectively.
Melbourne is where the journey starts, for both me and England. Before the off, though, there are a couple of dates to keep: one at the MCG with 85,000 Australians, and one at the Gabba with about eight.
Trudging through the semi-suburban surrounds of the Gabbattoir, it's easy to comprehend why it has been such a fortress for Australia. It could not honestly be called a pretty ground. Crows circle with catlike caws. Animals lie dead on the roads. It's even bordered by Vulture Street. The only positive aspect is that its concreteness is camouflaged by the locality's style. Inside, Victoria are feeling the heat in the Sheffield Shield; even the redoubtable Chris Rogers falls soon after his fifty, as the visitors slip to a massive defeat.
Having doubtless enraged many Brisbane residents, I can only hope to assuage their ire by commenting on the contrast between the unfriendliness of the structure and the friendliness of the people. One older steward, bless her, offered unprompted advice on where to buy cheaper refreshments than inside the ground ("But you didn't hear that from me"). I also wonder what the stewards at Lord's would make of my attempting to bring in a bag full of dirty laundry, as I did here with little problem.
If the Gabba is Fort Knox, the MCG is the Colosseum, and it's England's turn to be thrown to the lions. It's almost as much an ordeal for the England supporters. For my part, I'm sat next to a monosyllabic Barmy Army member - a creature I didn't know existed - and a quiet young Yorkshireman. To be fair, there isn't much to be said about the English performance.
Feeling quite glad to leave the scene of such a train crash, it's time to head to Adelaide. To use one of many mangled railway-cricket metaphors, if the suburban trains I've taken thus far have been T20s, the Overland is an ODI. Taking ten hours to cover the 828km from Melbourne to Adelaide is only slightly faster than Majid Haq-pace (wrong word). It really is all about the journey.
That doesn't necessarily mean luxury. The Overland's decor is tired, the seats worn, and the exterior rather shabby. Yet masses of space and friendly staff mean there's none of the tension of a commuter train. The staff go to great lengths to explain both the importance of locking the lavatory doors to avoid unintentional exposure to the entire carriage, and also the complicated procedure for opening doors between carriages. "If the door is closed, press the yellow button. If the door is open, press the yellow button. If someone's just gone through the door, press the yellow button." I'm not entirely clear, but I think one is supposed to press the yellow button. Give me something simple like the DRS protocol every time.
It may not be popular with the England management, but I strongly recommend looking out of the window. Once we've sidled out of the Melbourne industrial build-up - mainly graffiti and open crossings - the landscape reveals itself as being predominantly flat, crossing flat areas, with extra-flat bits thrown in. Coming from the UK, with its hedgerows and field boundaries to break up the view, it's a little on the sparse side, but after passing North Shore, there's a little more greenery and signs of cultivation. As we head into South Australia, though, the country looks drier. Trees with yellowing foliage stand limbs askew. A water pipeline running beside the track testifies to the scarcity and value of the resource.
However, once we cross the Murray River, the contours slide closer. The train winds its way through cuttings, past a copper mine, and beside vineyards. The colour palette increases its range, too, with reds, greens, and yellows spreading themselves over the rolling hills.
The Overland has been a useful warm-up fixture, but after the one-day slog comes the test: between the two Test venues of Adelaide and Perth. The Indian Pacific, from Sydney to Perth, via Adelaide, takes three nights to cross 4352 km. Boarding in Adelaide, I'll only spend two nights on the train, but since they'll be in a chair rather than a bed, I could be in for a harrowing time.
Talking of ordeals, England v New Zealand will be on, but there's no internet connection available on the train, and little mobile reception as we head into the outback. I anxiously survey my fellow passengers to assess chances of cricket discussion. My heart sinks: I'm surrounded by an Austrian, a Dutchman, a Swiss girl, two Japanese, several Germans, and a couple of Quebecois Canadians. Prospects of cricket chat are not looking good. I'm doubtful about how many of them even realise there's a World Cup on.
Isolation is the name of the game as we cross the Nullarbor, all salt bush and straight lines. It holds the longest stretch of straight track in the world, straighter than Boycott's bat. At times Alastair Cook must have felt as alone and exposed as his namesake, a tiny halt in the middle, literally miles from anywhere. With four inhabitants, the place has been effectively abandoned.
Happily, before dying of cricket drought, in the on-board café I get talking to a softly spoken Australian couple from Perth. He admits to being more of a Test guy; good man. The next day I overhear snatches of a middle-aged lady passing on the England score to an expat Englishman. It appears that being away from Twitter and television was a mercy. The lady and her husband turn out to be from New South Wales. He describes her as the cricket fanatic: a refreshing break from stereotype.
This is definitely one of the main benefits of this type of travel. Unlike flights, where you can don an eye mask and retreat into your cocoon for ten hours, 36-hour train journeys give you no option but to interact with your fellow inmates.
Time runs in a peculiar way on the train. Much like England's supposed anachronistic approach to batting, stuck somewhere in the wilderness of the 1990s, the Indian Pacific has its own time zone as it trundles westwards across the Nullarbor, to soften the two-and-a-half hour jump from South Australia to Western Australia. It's easy to lose track of minutes, hours, and even days, as one unfortunate passenger discovered: waiting patiently by the door on the morning of the third day, he had to have the news broken to him that there were still 24 hours to go.
On the fourth day since its Sydney departure, Perth welcomes the Indian Pacific. Pacific, however, is definitely not the word to describe the Indians as they batter the UAE at the WACA. UAE's hopes of a grand derailment are quickly ground under the wheels of the Indian locomotive.
Associate participants remain on the mind, as 11 days later the Ghan sets off from Darwin, in the Northern Territory. It seems the least that could be done for the Afghan cameleers who assisted in the laying of the track was to name the train after them. One would have thought the least the ICC could do for the Afghans today would be to invite them to the next World Cup.
At 901m and 2019 tons, the Ghan is nearly as long as the World Cup schedule, and as heavy as three Inzamams. Two locomotives are used, but only one is actually required to move the train: the second provides back-up in case the first conks out in the desert. A sort of captain and vice-captain relationship.
Unlike the Indian Pacific leg in Red Service (or translated into Jeremy Clarkson: Scum Class), on the Ghan I've moved up the order to Gold Service, which means a private cabin, complimentary meals, drinks, and off-train excursions around Katherine and Alice Springs. It's immediately obvious that the clientele in Gold are of a different demographic to those in Red. The average age has jumped about 30 years: unsurprising, since a Gold fare's cost would be out of the reach of most under-25s.
While the cabins, dining car and lounge car are delightful, as in Red, fellow passengers provide the most interest. A Melburnian lady and I end up discussing everything from dogs to the death penalty (she approves of the former, disapproves of the latter). She then reveals she used to be a private investigator. I immediately replay our conversation in my head to see whether I inadvertently revealed any embarrassing secret, such as supporting the England cricket team. Later, in the Queen Adelaide dining car, shattering my xenophobic stereotypes, I find an American who claims to not know much about cricket but nonetheless is well up on the World Cup group standings. I'm also deeply flattered to be mistaken for a member of a travelling cricket team, thanks to my wearing a Bowral shirt.
Strip away the luxuries of Gold, and you get Red, with its sense of shared challenges, not least of which is the sleeping arrangements. Compared to an airplane, it's far superior: the legroom is enormous, and the angle of recline vastly more generous.
Nonetheless, it's much more of a trial than Gold, which is designed to be virtually a holiday in itself. Here in Gold, the shared challenges are of a different, more long-term nature, as one would expect from the altered demographic: one picks up on spousal bereavements, or details of poor health. Yet dinner arrangements throw passengers closer together, providing companionship, and an overall sense of shared holiday-making.
All rails lead, apparently, to Adelaide, where the Indian Pacific pauses, and the Overland and the Ghan terminate, as do England, with their World Cup "campaign" going dramatically off the rails / hitting the buffers / running out of steam (take your pick of hackneyed railway cliché) at Adelaide Oval.
Time for the last leg, both of the World Cup and the three Great Southern Rail journeys. Whether the best has been saved till last remains to be seen. As regards the journey, though, this section is definitely in with a shout, as we run through the flat farming plains of South Australia, through the wooded valleys of the rather un-mountainous Blue Mountains of New South Wales, and past Victorian English-style station buildings on the run in to Sydney. With more Australians in evidence on this particular leg, it's a matter of enduring the gleeful, though good-natured, jibes about England's exit.
After 8339km, this is the end of the line for me. You'd say it was a good run. It pales into insignificance, though, when compared to the joint journey of Sri Lanka's powerhouses, Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, which also ends that day in Sydney. Goodbye to Great Southern Rail, and goodbye to these greats of the subcontinent.
"You're a strange dude," was the succinct assessment by an Australian after I explained my choice of train travel across the country. It's probably true that no one but an Englishman in the mid-day Australian sun would contemplate such a course. As with the World Cup, it's not fast and it's not smooth, yet why wouldn't you love it?
Liam Cromar is a freelance cricket writer based in Herefordshire, UK @LiamCromar