Winding through New Zealand and Australia, a spectacular setting for a World Cup showcase

Paul Radley offers his dispatches from Nelson, Auckland and Brisbane through his first week covering the 2015 Cricket World Cup in New Zealand and Australia.

A general view as the UAE played Zimbabwe in their 2015 Cricket World Cup opening match in Nelson, New Zealand on February 19. William West / AFP
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The National’s Paul Radley is in Australia and New Zealand for the cricket World Cup. Here is his diary of his first week there.

Day 1

Dubai-Brisbane-Auckland-Nelson

This part of the world may be decked in bunting welcoming visitors to cricket’s big show, but the other national pastime is easy to spot, too.

While in transit at Melbourne airport, Glen Jackson, the former rugby player turned referee from New Zealand, is milling around, on his way home after officiating at the Six Nations in Europe last weekend.

Then at Auckland’s domestic terminal, for the final leg of the lengthy trip from Dubai to Nelson, players from the Brumbies Super Rugby team walk in.

Jackson goes completely unnoticed. Rugby union has yet to completely take hold in Melbourne, a city in thrall to other distractions, chiefly Australian rules football.

In contrast, dressed in team-issue kit, compression socks and recovery tights, the Brumbies are difficult to miss in Auckland.

You get the impression most Kiwi blokes – many of whom stop their conversations and ogle – would know them even if they were dressed in camouflage. In New Zealand, rugby is an obsession.

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Day 2

Nelson: Zimbabwe beat UAE by four wickets

Cannot imagine the UAE players are missing the home comforts of Sharjah.

Saxton Oval, where they make their World Cup 2015 debut, is a world away from the desert.

The main surviving footage of the national team playing at World Cups is of the 1996 vintage losing to South Africa.

The grainy images show a sparsely populated backdrop of grey concrete stands, at an unprepossessing stadium in ­Rawalpindi.

Nelson could not be any more different. The grass banks that circle the playing area are well-peopled by idling adults and kids wearing face paint, enthusiastically clapping thunder sticks.

Beyond that the vista is just sublime. Behind the players’ pavilion are the mountains of the Richmond Ranges and on the other side of the ground is Tasman Bay, then the Cook Strait, which separates New Zealand’s North and South islands.

On a clear day, it is a stunning scene and must be one of the most picturesque venues to have hosted a World Cup match.

Day 3

Nelson

Superficially, New Zealand seems to be defined by two things: rugby and the Lord of the Rings movies.

Directly opposite the UAE’s team hotel in Nelson is the jewellers that manufactured the ring that Elijah Wood’s Frodo Baggins was tasked with chaperoning all the way to Mount Doom in the films.

It is a small, unremarkable place named, prosaically, The Ringmaker. Still, the workmanship must be decent enough, Gollum was pretty convinced it was precious.

Various members of the UAE tour party are spotted in Nelson’s centre in the morning, killing time before their lunchtime flight 50 minutes south to Christchurch, then – Cyclone Marcia permitting – four hours north to Brisbane. Although they have played only one match, the UAE are halfway through their tour, having played warm-up matches in Napier and Melbourne before the tournament started.

The duration and geographical diversity of this trip must be taxing for the amateur players of the national team.

Handy, then, that they have three Emirates Airline employees among their number, who are used to flying.

Day 4

Nelson-Brisbane

The Maori name for New Zealand, Aotearoa, means “long white cloud”, and it is obvious to see why on the 6.40am flight from the South Island’s northern tip, to Auckland at the top of the country.

After crossing the Cook Strait, a blanket covers the northern land mass from coast to coast. It is disturbed only by the peak of Mount Taranaki poking through in the south-east corner of the North Island, like a forgotten-about salt-seller underneath a tablecloth.

Connecting flights to Brisbane are unaffected by tropical Cyclone Marcia, which is battering Queensland.

Flights to the Gold Coast, south of Brisbane, are cancelled. In some areas, 100 millimetres of rain – close to the annual average in Abu Dhabi – has fallen in one hour. At boarding in Auckland, we are told to expect a bumpy ride.

Upon arrival, the skies are slate grey and water teems down the windows in Niagara-like proportions.

At the hotel, a family of Bangladeshis, all clad in the green shirts of their national team, look wholly forlorn as their fixture with Australia at The Gabba is a washout.

Day 5

Brisbane

Dodging showers, the UAE fit in a first training session since arriving in Brisbane, at Allan Border Field in a suburb called Albion.

A couple of players comment it was a hard session. Meaning good. In the bad old days, “hard” would have meant hassle.

It is a marker of the changing, upwards-looking perspective of the UAE team that challenges are now deemed a good thing.

Meet coach Aaqib Javed in the afternoon to discuss progress. Listening to him is always an uplifting experience, no more so than when he is on one of his favourite subjects: Imran Khan, his former Pakistan captain.

The way he describes Imran’s fabled wounded tiger speech, which set in motion the 1992 World Cup win, is stirring even now.

Twenty-three years on, you get the impression Pakistan’s old crew could get together and still win the World Cup if Imran willed them to.

Day 6

Brisbane

Aaqib estimates he has been to Brisbane 20 times, such is the repetitive circuit of international cricket tours. Life was probably very different the first time.

When Pakistan won the World Cup in 1992, they had little immediate sense of the frenzy it created back at home. No social media or Skype back then.

How times change. Walking into the city in the morning, a young backpacker is sat on a bench having an in-vision argument with her mother back home in the UK, via the wonders of FaceTime on her iPhone.

Travelling essentials have clearly moved on a long way from a Lonely Planet, a toothbrush and some mosquito repellent.

Billy Connolly, the Scottish comedian, is gigging at the Queensland Performance Arts Centre, on the south bank of the Brisbane River. Tickets are an eye-watering A$400 (Dh1,140) a pop. Availability is still scarce. Good work if you can get it.

Day 7

Brisbane

Brisbane gets its name from the river on which it was built, rather than the other way round. A pedestrian walkway that crosses it, the Kurilpa Bridge, is so named, apparently, after the Aboriginal word for South Brisbane.

It means “place for water rats” and reflects the fact Aboriginal ancestors used to cross the sandbars that formed at the river bend.

While the steamy heat of Queensland is likely to suit UAE’s players in their pool match on Wednesday, the Irish have a few reminders of the green, green grass of home, too. The outfield at the Gabba, where the teams have spent two days training ahead of their encounter, is a perfect hue.

Like Dubai International Stadium, the field is sand based. It drains rapidly, which is handy when a storm hits mid-match, but it is difficult to keep the grass looking lush. Exactly as in Dubai, it often requires a top-up of spray paint to ensure it looks good, which the curator is busy doing this afternoon.

pradley@thenational.ae

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