Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Professional contracts: still a mystery?

The ECB has today issued a press release which states:

The England and Wales Cricket Board has announced that 18 players from the England Women’s Performance Programme have been awarded new contracts, which have come into effect from this month.

This has been greeted with universal acclaim on twitter, understandably. As I said in this Cordon article just after the contracts were first announced back in February:

The day those contracts were agreed upon is probably the biggest in the history of English women's cricket since the day in 1926 when some women on holiday in Colwall decided they wanted to form a Women's Cricket Association.

We cannot praise the ECB too highly for this decision.

But that is not and should not be the end of the story. What struck me about today's press release is simply this: aside from listing the players who will be awarded contracts (and I could have made a good guess at which ones they would be, even back in February), it tells us nothing we did not already know.

When the ECB first announced these contracts, we were promised that details would follow. Where are they?

Three questions in particular seem to me to be of central importance:

1) How much are the contracts actually worth? It's all very well to say that our female cricketers are now going to be professionals, but what does that mean in real hard cash terms? If we are entitled to know how much our male cricketers are paid, why does that not extend to the women?

One reason why this would be helpful is it would give us a point of comparison with the Australian system. CA's current contracts for its female cricketers puts its top players (Ellyse Perry etc) as earning something like $80,000 Australian dollars annually. These new ECB contracts are being billed as something over and above that, as a fully professional set-up – but are they? And if CA can tell us how much their top female cricketers are getting paid, isn't it reasonable to expect the ECB to do the same?

2) What, precisely, is happening with Chance to Shine now that the players will not need to supplement their income with coaching roles? I can take a reasonable guess that most players will be continuing with their ambassadorial roles, given that we have been given no evidence to the contrary, and some of the contracted players are continuing to tweet about their work, but it would be nice to have this confirmed publicly. How will it fit in with the new system?

This is also important because it begs the question: if England players are continuing with coaching work outside of training and playing cricket (and I'm not saying they shouldn't be, because their work as role models is obviously hugely important), are they really the professionals they are being billed as?

3) Finally, it's pretty obvious that there will be different tiers of contract under this new system. That is the way central contracts work: players are allocated pay according to their perceived value to the team. It's a fair assumption that Charlotte Edwards will, quite rightly, be earning more money under this new system than, say, Tash Farrant.

Which begs a whole set of new questions:
-What are the different levels of contracts, and how much will each type of contract be worth?
-In practice, how many of the 18 players are fully professional, given that some of them will be at a lower end of the pay scale than others?
-Who out of the 18 has a top-tier contract, and who doesn't?

There's evidently a debate to be had here about whether we, the general public, deserve to know what the ECB consider to be the perceived worth of each of the players. It could be highly embarrassing if a poor performance led to a player being “downgraded”, or even dropped off the pay scale altogether. Personally, I think that if we want the women's game to be seen on equal terms with the men's game, those debates should be taking place publicly. It will get people talking – and that can't be a bad thing for women's cricket.

You might think differently. Either way, the point is that ultimately, today's press release leaves me with more questions than it provides answers. Is this really all the detail we are going to get about these new contracts? Perhaps more importantly, is this really all the detail that the ECB think we deserve to know?

Amidst the showering of praise on the ECB which has greeted today's press release, no one – no one – has questioned the complete lack of new information surrounding the contracts. Blindly praising the ECB is not enough; goodness knows it wouldn't happen in the men's game. If we really want parity between men's and women's cricket – and we do, right? – we need to be asking these questions.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Women's World Twenty20 Preview

The Women's World Twenty20 officially kicks off today with the Australia-New Zealand game; for the first time, it will be contested by the top 10 teams, instead of the usual 8. Unlike in the men's tournament, there is no “pre-qualifying” round, which means, excitingly, that hosts Bangladesh (as well as the other “minnow”, Ireland) will each have the opportunity to play three of the world's top teams in the group stages. Whatever happens in the games, then, this is going to be a pretty historic tournament.

It's going to be historic for another reason, too. In 2009, in the inaugural WWT20 tournament, England played New Zealand in the final at Lord's, and strolled home to victory by six wickets. In the wake of their loss, New Zealand's then coach Gary Stead said: “today felt a little bit like the amateurs playing the professionals”. This is the first world tournament in which that will, in fact, be the case: over the last 12 months both Cricket Australia and the ECB have announced contracts for their female players which are lucrative enough to allow them to train and play cricket full-time. Suddenly, two of the competitors in this tournament are fielding groups of professionals – the first in women's cricket for over 100 years (and arguably ever).

Australia are the defending World Twenty20 champions, having beaten England by 4 runs in the 2012 final; and it is generally acknowledged that England and Australia are right at the front of the pack in terms of women's cricket rankings. The coming of professional contracts will, surely, only put them further ahead?

But there is one salient fact which glib, easy predictions of an England-Australia final tend to overlook: and that is that the top-ranked teams in women's cricket (England, Australia, and 3rd ranked team New Zealand) have no experience whatsoever of playing international cricket in Bangladesh. The conditions, and the pitches, will be completely alien to them.

Contrast that with the other teams in the tournament, and it's evident that in one respect at least, the lower-ranked teams are ahead of the game. The 2011 World Cup qualifiers (featuring West Indies, Pakistan, South Africa, Ireland and Sri Lanka) took place in Bangladesh; West Indies won all their matches. And Pakistan and India have both just finished T20 series' against Bangladesh, played at Cox's Bazar, with Bangladesh whitewashed on both occasions. Add that to the fact that Twenty20 is a notoriously unpredictable form of the game, and I genuinely believe that – as the 50-over World Cup did last year – this tournament could throw up some real upsets.

Group A
Australia may have come out on top in the T20 leg of the recent Ashes series (the scoreline was 2-1), but their recent problems with the bat cannot be ignored. Jess Cameron, their top-scorer in the 2012 tournament, averaged just 13 across the Ashes series and was dropped for the final T20 game; Ellyse Villani has suffered a similar lack of form at international level. And Meg Lanning, whose firepower will be crucial to Australia's chances, now has the added pressure of the captaincy to deal with, thanks to Jodie Fields' injury.

Australia may have the most talented all-rounder (Ellyse Perry) and spin bowler (Erin Osborne) in the competition, and a very experienced squad, but I don't think it's going to be as easy as all that for them. I'm left wondering whether their loss to West Indies in the warm-up match might be a sign of things to come.

New Zealand
New Zealand may have just beaten West Indies 4-0 in the T20 series, but that was in home conditions; I don't hold out huge amounts of hope for them in this tournament. Two of the world's top all-rounders, Sophie Devine and the incomparable Suzie Bates, may both be in form, and Morna Nielsen may have just taken 3-9 in the warm-up against India. But New Zealand demonstrated a shocking lack of batting depth during the October tri-series against West Indies and England, collapsing from 74-1 to 106 all out in one of their matches. They have followed this up in the warm-up matches by being bowled out for just 48 by England, which somewhat proves my point. If they reach the semi-finals, it'll be because this is the weaker group in the competition.

Pakistan have a top-quality spin attack which includes left-arm orthodox bowler Sadia Yousuf, who has 37 T20I wickets and took 4-9 against Ireland in the 2013 qualifying tournament. And having beaten England for the first time ever in a T20 at Loughborough last July (Nain Abidi made 45), and won the tri-series in Qatar in January against Ireland and South Africa, they looked to be on an upwards trajectory. But they have followed this up with a 2-0 loss to Bangladesh in an ODI series earlier this month. Frankly, with levels of consistency which mirror their male counterparts, it's difficult to predict how they might fare in this tournament.

South Africa
The South African team is a bit of an enigma. Filled with experienced, quality batsmen like captain Mignon du Preez and keeper Trisha Chetty, as well as the talented Lizelle Lee, who made her debut against Bangladesh in September last year, they have recently enjoyed an ODI series win against Pakistan. But in the 2009 and 2010 tournaments they lost all their matches, and given that they've never beaten Australia or New Zealand in an international match, and they finished fifth in last year's World Cup, it would be difficult to predict a different result this time around.

Ireland are the real underdogs in this tournament, given that only three teams could progress from the qualifiers, and they came third. Their stand-out players are captain Isobel Joyce, whose 72* took them to victory against the Netherlands in the qualifiers and who top-scored for them in the recent Qatar tri-series; and Clare Shillington, so far the only Irish woman to score an international Twenty20 century. But they are a young, inexperienced squad (medium-pacer Lucy O'Reilly is just 14 years old; leggie Elena Tice is 16) and realistically are unlikely to win any of their games. Good to see them getting the opportunity to compete at the top-level, though.

Group B
England have the best captain, the best keeper and the best fielder in the women's game at their disposal: enough said, perhaps, especially given that Ashes-winning performance in the Hobart T20 from the aforementioned captain (92*). Australia may be defending champions, but England have just won the multi-format Ashes...twice.

And yet...they are coming into this tournament on the back of two pretty poor batting performances in those second two T20s (totals of 98 and 101), and in Bangladesh they will be batting on unfamiliar pitches. And given that spin is likely to be crucial in this tournament, the fact that England are still without both Holly Colvin and Laura Marsh has got to be a concern (the uncapped Jodie Dibble and Rebecca Grundy are in the squad as replacements). Edwards may be experimenting with herself as a third spin option (she bowled an over in the final T20 at Sydney), but relying on a bowler who prior to Sydney had not bowled in T20Is since October 2011 is not really ideal.

I hope I'm wrong, but as an England fan, I'm worried.

West Indies
It's pretty obvious that West Indies have the most dangerous two players in this competition: Stafanie Taylor and Deandra Dottin (whose 38-ball century, the fastest in all international T20 cricket, men's and women's, came during the 2010 tournament). But, as well as this firepower, they also have two of the most dangerous bowlers: offspinner Anisa Mohammed, and left-arm medium-pacer Shanel Daley, who is the 2nd-ranked T20I bowler according to the ICC's criteria.

They have a good track record in the World Twenty20: they reached the semi-final in 2010 having knocked out the defending champions, England, in the group stages. And this series is coming on the back of their appearance in the 50-over World Cup final, and a victory in the tri-series against England and New Zealand. Their one issue may be a lack of batting depth in their squad, aside from Taylor and Dottin. But they've just beaten Australia by 16 runs in the warm-up fixture, and I'm going to go right ahead and call it: I reckon they might just make their second successive global tournament final.

India, one of the traditional powerhouses of women's cricket, appear to be a team on the decline. Beaten at home in January by Sri Lanka, who won the T20 series 2-1, they are also entering this tournament having failed to reach the Super Sixes stage of the 50-over World Cup which they hosted. And thanks to the BCCI, who don't appear to give a damn about women's cricket, they have played very little international cricket over the past couple of years.

They do have significant weapons in their armoury: their in-form, elegant batsman and captain Mithali Raj; Jhulan Goswami, possibly the fastest bowler in the women's game; and left-armer Sravanthi Naidu, whose figures of 4-9 against Bangladesh earlier this month helped take India to a 3-0 victory in that T20 series. Even so, it's hard to foresee them getting anywhere near to the semis.

Sri Lanka
One of those “minnows” who can't quite be considered a minnow any more, in the wake of their victories against England and India at last year's World Cup, and their more recent T20 series victory against India in January. Their key player will be Shashikala Siriwardene, the captain and a talented all-rounder who is the only Sri Lankan to currently feature in the ICC's T20 rankings. I'm also excited to see how Eshani Lokusuriyage (aka Kaushalya), who was the star of their World Cup campaign last year when she hit fifties against both England and India to bring home victories against the top sides, performs. Given their experience of these conditions, I can see Sri Lanka causing a few upsets over the next fortnight.

The hosts. Duh. Which presumably gives them some kind of home advantage, given how little international women's cricket has been played on Bangladeshi pitches. And in captain Salma Khatun, their leading wicket-taker and run-scorer in T20Is, they have a spinner who can exploit those conditions. Batsman Fargana Hoque, who has just hit 35 against Pakistan in the T20 series between the sides, also looks promising. And they did record their first ever ODI series victory earlier this month, beating Pakistan 2-0. Having said that, given the other teams in their group, I can't see them winning a match in this tournament.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Homeward Bound

I landed into Heathrow on Thursday lunchtime, and have spent the last few days in a jet lagged heap on the sofa: it was a long flight, and it's been an exhausting month, getting to grips with city after city in the space of a few days. But I promised one last entry about my trip, so working on the premise of “better late than never”, here it is.

I decided to spend my last day in Australia doing something which is supposed to be pretty much compulsory if you ever visit Sydney: catching a ferry out of the harbour. So, having packed up all my stuff for the final time and checked out of the hostel, I headed down to Circular Quay, and boarded the Manly ferry.

Why is catching a ferry compulsory? Essentially because of the incredible views as you sail out of the harbour. As illustrated below:

Manly is a town about a 30-minute ferry ride from Sydney, with a wonderful surf beach amongst other things. I had a walk around, and went to sit on the surf beach for a while, appreciating that this would be my last taste of sunshine for a while. It was really lovely.

About 3pm, I caught the ferry back to the city, which turned out to be an adventure in itself: the water was very rough on the return crossing, a fact I failed to realise when I sat right at the front of the boat. A few minutes into the journey, several huge waves splashed all the way into the ferry and I got drenched. Nice!

Back in Circular Quay, I sent a final postcard, and finally got round to doing some serious souvenir shopping, including purchasing one of those cheesy T-shirts with a koala bear on the front, as well as a real-life functioning boomerang (well you've got to, haven't you?!) Then, after one last look at the bridge and the Opera House, I set off on the long journey home.

Initially, this meant catching the train to Sydney Airport, finally saying goodbye to my enormous rucksack at the check-in desk, eating waffle fries from Hungry Jack's (that's Burger King to you and me), sitting on a plane to Melbourne for an hour, and finding a remote corner of Melbourne Airport to spend my last hour in Australia drinking one last frozen coke (they are so good!) and, fittingly, watching a BBL match.

And then there was a 14-hour flight to Doha and an 8-hour flight to Heathrow, which meant three dinners, two breakfasts and two lunches in the space of 24 hours. Finally, at 12.30pm on Thursday, UK time, I was home.

As we touched down on the tarmac it was already peeing it down with rain. Welcome home, Raf, London seemed to be saying.

So here I am, back in the UK, and reflecting on my adventures. Already Australia feels like a long time ago. But, as well as leaving me with some lasting, wonderful memories, my month there has taught me a lot: about cricket journalism (I still think it's the best job in the world), about being on tour, and about myself. Mainly that I am quite capable of finding my way around a strange country and strange cities if I put my mind to it, and that I quite enjoy doing so. As someone who'd never even flown by herself before this trip, those are some pretty big revelations.

I want to end by thanking some people:
1. The folks at ESPNcricinfo and All Out Cricket, who made the trip possible in the first place.
2. Amy, who made Perth so much more enjoyable, who always calls it as she sees it, and who, along with Mel, risked getting locked in the WACA for me three nights in a row.
3. Brad and Matt, who generously showed me the best of Hobart and its surroundings, as well as what a real Aussie BBQ is like.
4. All the journalists I spent time with out there who treated the women's game with the respect it deserves, and the whole way along made being in the press box fun, especially Eliza and Jesse.
5. All the other lovely Australians I met, who even when they were making fun of the England men's cricket team did so with great affection, and who made me want to come back to their country as soon as I possibly can.
6. And last but not least, Mel, who showed me the best places to eat and the best beaches, who made me laugh on countless occasions, who made sure I was never lonely, and who remains my Favourite Australian.

I can't say that I'll miss sleeping in a dorm room, sharing a bathroom with a million other people, breaking my back and shoulders dragging my enormous rucksack around, or having to apply insect repellent every time I ventured outside for more than five minutes. But I had the best month of my life Down Under, and I've fallen in love with Australia. I will definitely be back, with any luck sooner rather than later.

For now, it's back to the PhD.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Hobart to Melbourne to Sydney

Sorry about the length of this post, but thee last few days of the tour have been a bit manic, as the schedule for the three T20s meant fly-match-fly-match-fly-match.

On Thursday afternoon I flew out of Hobart. Being at the airport was interesting. There are only two gates, and very few flights to Melbourne that day. So, after I'd been there about half an hour, in strolled the Australian and English men's cricket teams (the women had flown out a lot earlier in the morning). The airport, for an hour or so, felt like it was some sort of Ashes cricket village, with the teams, as well as lots of fans, the players' families, and a whole heap of cricket journalists.

Coming back into Melbourne was actually a lovely feeling. Strangely like coming home. I've spent the longest here out of anywhere on my trip, and I guess that feelings of massive affection for this city have crept up on me without me really noticing.

I spent Friday morning in Fitzroy Gardens, and also wandered into the Melbourne Museum and did a free guided tour, which I really enjoyed. The museum is a great mixture of natural history – a “forest room” with real life plants and trees growing around you; a million stuffed animals; and a blue whale skeleton – and exhibitions about Melbourne's history, including its Aboriginal past (and hopefully future).

Friday afternoon was the second T20, my last at the MCG. The one thing about double-headers is that they really highlight the disparities which still exist between men's and women's cricket. Doing that post-match press conference with Charlotte Edwards in the gym at Bellerive, for example, with people from the men's set-up continually walking in and out and interrupting, was very irritating. I guess she's used to it, but it makes my blood boil.

However, there are bonuses: the food is way better, and you occasionally find yourself in a lift with your childhood hero (Nasser Hussain in my case). It's hard, being a member of the press corps, because sometimes you aren't allowed to be as fan-girly as you really would like to no photos of me and Nasser, I'm afraid.

On Saturday, after one last look at Fed Square and one last tram ride, I flew to Sydney. Leaving Melbourne was pretty sad – but hopefully I will be back.

But arriving in Sydney was incredible. I caught the train from the airport, right into Circular Quay. As I emerged from the station, there, right in front of me, was the Harbour Bridge – and then, just a little way to the right across the water, the Opera House. I was rooted to the spot, not even feeling the weight of my now stupidly heavy rucksack on my back, staring. I've been to many amazing places on my trip, but being here in Sydney, suddenly, I really was actually in Australia.

In Sydney, I was staying in the YHA in The Rocks, which is right near the Harbour Bridge. This initially meant climbing up some very steep stairs with my bag, which was NOT fun. But there were also the most spectacular views of the city:

It's also an interesting place to stay for another reason: it's right on the top of an archaeological site known as The Big Dig, a recently excavated area of The Rocks. The Rocks district is the oldest part of Sydney, where the first settlers lived, and when they dug it all up about 20 years ago, they found a whole load of interesting stuff that is now on display in the building.

On Saturday night I was invited out by a girl in my dorm room, Sophie, to go for dinner with her a couple of the other girls who are staying here. We went for noodles, and then wandered into Chinatown, as it was Chinese New Year. On the way back, Sophie and I stopped for “scary jugs” in an infamous bar called the Scary Canary. It was, true to reputation, filled with backpackers out for a good time, so we drank our luminous blue cocktails, and left. The night ended with a whole group of us going for more drinks in the Australian, which is a “buzzy” (Aussie slang) pub right next to the hostel. By 1am I was exhausted, so crawled off to bed.

On Sunday morning I was up early enough to have a wander around The Rocks district and explore a bit. Apparently much of it was almost pulled down in the 1970s by the government, but local protests, including by the construction workers asked to do the job, eventually triumphed, and many of the gorgeous old buildings were saved. Thank goodness! I also went to see the famous Rocks markets, which were selling a ton of amazing hand-crafted goods, though sadly very few things that would survive a 10,000 mile flight home.

The final match of the series was being held about 30 minutes train ride out of the city centre, at the ANZ Stadium in the Olympic Park. I was amazed by the size of the Park, which is almost a city in itself, and had a wander around (and a sneaky ice-cream) before making my way up to the press box. I was excited to discover that this was the same stadium where Jonny Wilkinson kicked that famous drop goal in 2003, breaking a million Aussie hearts in the process! Unfortunately, the reverse occurred on Sunday, with both England men and women defeated in their matches. The post-mortem for the men's side really begins here, I guess, and out of sheer curiosity I went down to watch the men's presser this time, which happened to be the one in which Ashley Giles confirmed he is applying for the job of England coach. Exciting, and interesting to see how different (by which I mean way more journalists and way less honesty) these post-mortem conferences are to the women's ones.

As for the women's team, it wasn't a great way for them to end the series, and I was sad about that; and also sad about it ending, and my assignment as a journalist being, for now at least, officially over. But still: England have the Ashes, and I was here to see it happen. That's pretty amazing.

I started Monday by climbing the steps up onto the Harbour Bridge. Some mad people pay a huge amount and presumably scare themselves witless by doing the proper Bridge Climb, where you are strapped into a harness and climb up the outside, which takes about 3 hours. I decided to opt for the cheaper, safer(?) option of going up to the top of one of the pylons at the side. The views from there were good enough for me!

There was also a museum in there, detailing how the bridge was built. Opened in 1932, it was largely constructed during the Great Depression, and was known as the “iron lung” because it kept so many men in work while it was built. I hadn't thought before about what an amazing feat of engineering the construction process must have been: firstly putting in the foundations, to support the enormous weight of the arch; secondly, erecting cranes on either side of the harbour to lift the steel. And then, slowly but surely, the two halves were built out of steel, extending further and further out, until finally the arches were joined together, right at the end.

After that, as the weather was glorious, I caught the bus to the world-famous Bondi Beach. I thought I had seen some nice Australian beaches since I've been here, but Bondi really is everything you could wish a beach to be. Golden, soft, warm sand, stretching for miles; and a sparkling blue sea that, when I went to swim in it, sent wonderfully refreshing waves over my head. Another incredible thing is that, while you are sat on the beach, people come around to you selling drinks and ice-creams, meaning you don't even have to move when you get thirsty. Amazing!

I spent the afternoon doing the Bondi to Coogee coastal walk. It's just a tiny bit different to the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path! Stunning views, and a series of beautiful beaches all the way along, in particular Bronte, Clovelly and Coogee. To give some idea of how hot it was, I walked the whole way (a couple of hours altogether) in bikini top and shorts, which was a pretty novel experience! It was absolutely wonderful to stop on each beach and go for a cool swim.

I caught the bus back into the city as the sun was setting, and seeing the harbour all lit up for the first time was fantastic. I've seen some beautiful natural sights while in Australia, but there is something uniquely beautiful about a city like Sydney at night. Maybe there shouldn't be, but there is.

I ate dinner with the bridge in view; I ordered something called a “Journo burger” (highly appropriate) which is basically just a normal cheese burger, but bigger. Not sure what that says about journalists...

Yesterday, I walked down George Street (the main street) to the Town Hall, for the free city tour I had heard about. These run every day, and they operate on a “pay what you think it's worth” basis, which is a fantastic concept. Our tour guide, a native Sydneysider, was really excellent, with a great insight into the city that I never would have gotten otherwise. For starters, she took us into the network of underground tunnels underneath Sydney, which I didn't even realise were there. Many of them are now filled with shops, but there are apparently so many that no one quite knows how they all connect up. She was also pretty knowledgeable about the First Fleet, and told us all about how one of the most famous Governors of New South Wales, Lachlan Macquarie, rounded up all the convicts at Hyde Park Barracks one night, and locked them inside, to institute an element of control.

Governor Macquarie is everywhere in this city. And another thing I've noticed is that there are a ton of streets and places here which are named after things with which I'm very familiar back home: Liverpool Street; Oxford Street; and of course Hyde Park, which has its very own Speakers Corner. It's like being in a warped, more exciting version of London, which happens to have the Harbour Bridge and Opera House in it.

I also did an Opera House tour yesterday, which was the next best thing to actually seeing a performance (tickets for that are very expensive!) The tour was great: we got go right up inside the “sails” at the top, and saw inside three of the theatres, including some rehearsals.

We also heard the whole story behind its construction, which again I had no idea about beforehand, but is again absolutely fascinating. Basically, there was an international design competition in 1955, won by Danish architect Jorn Utzon. But, perhaps because of the novelty of his design, he had absolutely no blueprint for construction when he started leading the build. Eventually, after years of overspending and with the project nowhere near finished, he fell out with the Australian government, resigned his position, and went back to Denmark. The Opera House was, of course, later finished – but Utzon never came back to Australia, and he never saw his completed design come to fruition. Very sad really.

In the evening, I walked around the Botanic Gardens for a while, and then over to Darling Harbour (or, as it is surely inevitably known, Sydney's Other Harbour). This is on the east side of the city, a bit of a walk from Circular Quay, but it's a great place, with an adventure playground, an aquarium, fountains, and some lovely restaurants and bars. I ate dinner there, and was lucky enough to come out when it was dark: I feel like I've taken about a zillion photographs of Sydney at night since I've been here, but it is just so beautiful!

Today is my last day in Australia; I fly home tonight. I will write one last entry about my adventures when I get home, but for now, suffice it to say that I've loved my all-too-brief time in Sydney, which is clearly (sorry Melbourne and Canberra) the real capital of Australia.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Hobart, Tasmania

I spent Saturday afternoon exploring Hobart: a waterfront city, right on the Derwent River, with the central point being the docks. I ate chips on one of the piers, and admired the views: the whole city is situated within minutes of both mountains and beaches.

I also wandered along Salamanca Place, which is lined with old stone buildings, mainly now restaurants and bars. Hobart seems quite a sleepy city, especially after the busy-ness of Melbourne, but a cute one, too.

Saturday also happened to be Mel's birthday, so her lovely friends Brad and Matt took us out to dinner at a wonderful Indian restaurant in North Hobart, which served the best naan bread I have ever tasted.

Sunday was the third and final ODI, which meant a ride over the Trans-Tasman Bridge to the other side of the city, and more amazing views. The Bellerive Oval, where the matches this week have taken place, must surely be a candidate for Most Beautiful Cricket Ground In The World. It's nestled among suburbia, with a lovely beach just seconds away – and seriously, the views have to be seen to be believed.

The match itself was a tense affair: England looked a dead cert to retain the Ashes, with the Australians staging a spectacular fightback in the final 10 overs. I could barely watch (very unprofessional of me) – you can read about how tense it was in my piece for AOC.

Once that particular drama was over, Mel, Eliza and I went to Muir's for dinner, to eat some authentic Tassie seafood, including squid and scallops. Hobart is famous for its seafood, being right on the water, and it did not disappoint. In fact, the food I have had in Tasmania has been the best I have eaten anywhere in Australia (just starting to worry about getting on the scales when I get home!)

Monday was a very exciting day, as Brad and Matt were taking Mel cider-tasting in the Huan Valley, and I was invited along. This meant that I could see a little bit more of Tassie, and the drive (about a 3 hour round trip around the valley) threw up even more views that took your breath away.

With the stretches of water and the mountains, it reminded me a bit of Scotland – aside from the fact that it was a beautiful sunny day, over 30 degrees, and the likelihood is that the mountains near Stirling are currently covered in snow.

The highlight of the day was undoubtedly the cider tasting; anyone who knows me knows that I am a big cider fan. Apparently cider is just getting big here in Tasmania, because they have had problems in recent years exporting their apples. So, we visited two apple orchards, both of which have just opened up recently to the public, and I ended up trying about 10 different types of cider, including cherry, which was a new one on me. It was delicious, although the one that was 8% alcohol was possibly a little bit strong for my tastes!

Other highlights included: the scallop pie we ate for lunch; and stopping at another one of those lovely Australian beaches which seem to stretch for miles, where the sea is refreshingly cool, rather than freezing cold. Oh, and of course Mel's adventure down a cliff to rescue her sandals...she did (eventually) make it back up safely!

In the evening, Brad and Matt had very generously invited me over to their place for an authentic Australian “barbie”, about which I was very excited. It turns out that all the stories about Australians doing barbecues a MILLION times better than Brits are 100% true. First of all, everything was perfectly cooked. Secondly, we could eat outside, even as it got darker, because of the lovely weather. Thirdly, everything was cooked on a Real Barbecue, rather than one of those disposable ones. I even had my first taste of kangaroo meat (which is actually quite common over here, and can be bought in any supermarket). Despite my initial objections, based on the cuteness of kangaroos, it's pretty delicious.

A couple of the BBC guys, Phil and Katie, who have been over here reporting on the women's series, also came along; and even more cider was consumed.

I also slightly fell in love with one of Brad and Matt's two border collies, Coco, who is brown and white and adorable.

All in all, a perfect Australia Day Holiday, one of the best days of my trip so far. Thanks so much, guys.

Tuesday was ridiculously hot – it must have been 40 degrees, and made worse by the fact that a hot wind was blowing, the like of which I have never experienced before. It was like being blown along a London street in the winter, but without the refreshing cool bit: more like a hairdryer constantly in your face. Horrible. The heat definitely seems to be following me around out here (not that I mind, most of the time!)

I escaped the heat by catching the ferry across to MONA (the Museum of New Art), which everyone said was the Thing To Do while in Hobart. It is an incredibly bizarre place. Owned by some multi-millionaire who buys up old art and also commissions new stuff specifically for MONA, it's on an island a 30-minute ferry ride away. This meant I could take some photographs to try and give some indication of just how beautiful Hobart and its surroundings really are:

MONA is unlike any other art gallery I've ever been to, and probably unlike any other art gallery in the world. For one, none of the exhibits are labelled, which means that without your audio guide you would have no idea what they were or what the “meaning” behind them was (but I guess that might be the point). And instead of dividing the art neatly into categories in separate rooms, everything is intermingled: so one minute you'll be looking at a lump of twisted metal, and the next minute there will be some ancient Aboriginal artwork, or an Egyptian mummy.

Some of the exhibits include: a room full of nothing but blinking light bulbs; a room full of old television screens; and a machine which is sort of like a model of the human digestive system, with various clear containers connected by wires, in which you can see “food” going round and round, and if you hang around long enough, watch it do a “poo”. There is also a new “death gallery”, with nothing in it but a hangman's noose in the middle. And most of the time, you are wandering around in near-darkness. Emerging at the top and out again into the heat was like emerging from some sort of nightmare horror movie. I'm glad I went though.

Tuesday night was fun. I was invited out by Mel to join some other local journalists: apparently Jesse Hogan lost a bet relating to the Big Bash, and promised Alex Johnston dinner, and the rest of us were beneficiaries. We went to this AMAZING Chinese dumpling place in Sandy Bay, with, in Alex's words, “better chicken than KFC” (it's true!) Then on into the city, to a bar in Salamanca Place, with the night ending in some questionable dance moves as classic rock tunes were played (hi Jesse!) ;-)

Yesterday was, perhaps, the best day I'm likely to experience as an English cricket journalist. As you'll no doubt be aware, England won the T20 game by 9 wickets, and in some style, with Charlotte Edwards making 92*. With that victory, England have retained the Ashes, for only the third time ever on Australian soil.

It was amazing to see the players running onto the pitch, and the attention lavished on them after the match ended: the guys from Sky and the BBC were all crowded around, at last giving the players some of the credit they deserve for the way they have played these last few weeks. Meanwhile I sat up in the press box frantically typing, as I tried to take it all in.

I still cannot believe that I was lucky enough to be here, 10,000 miles away from home, to see it. Any minute now I'm going to wake up and find out that this whole incredible trip has been a dream.

I left Hobart this morning feeling a bit sad that I spent so little time in Tasmania. I don't even feel like I got to know the city properly, let alone the island itself. Hopefully I will return at some stage. I was there long enough to learn this much, though: Tasmania is indescribably beautiful.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Melbourne to Hobart

These part few days have been the most incredible I have spent here in Australia, and that is saying something.

On Monday I caught the tram to St Kilda, which is a seaside town a few kilometres out of Melbourne. It's lovely, reminiscent of seaside towns back home, with cutesy shops (including some amazing cake shops!) and a funfair. What seemed incredible was being at a beach so close to the big city – you could see the skyline from the beach, and it made me feel both very near and very far from Melbourne.

While in St Kilda, I went to the supermarket and bought some cereal bars, which ensures that I am no longer reduced to eating TimTams (the Aussie version of the Penguin biscuit) for breakfast, as I did before Sunday's ODI. I find it funny that here in Australia, one of the biggest supermarket chains is Woolworths. I'm not sure how it came about that in Britain Mr Woolworth decided he wanted to sell socks, toys and pick 'n' mix, whereas 10,000 miles away it was decided that Woolworths would be a supermarket, but one business strategy has certainly worked better than the other.

I lay on the beach for a while, reading the Agatha Christie which I had picked up from the hostel bookshelf, but away from the wind it was such nice weather that I fell asleep. This happened to coincide with the hottest part of the day (about 2pm or so) and, while I can't have been asleep for more than about 20 minutes, when I woke up one half of my leg was extremely red. I didn't realise quite how bad it was at the time, but it got more painful as the day went on and I realise that I had made the stereotypical mistake of the Brit abroad in Oz and been rather badly sunburned. Oh dear!

Many layers of after-sun and factor 50 and several days later, it seems to be better. It was certainly a cautionary experience.

I really liked St Kilda and I can't help thinking that there's a trend developing here: I enjoy the cities, but it's the little suburb-y type places (St Kilda, Fremantle) where I really feel at home. I guess growing up in the suburbs of London has made its mark.

On Tuesday I decided to book to do a day-long Phillip Island tour. Phillip Island is about two hours drive away from Melbourne and is fairly small, about 100 square kilometres in total. It is quite a bizarre place, featuring everything from a Vietnam War Veterans Museum to a chocolate factory, but it is also an amazing site of natural beauty, with its main focus nowadays being the conservation of the penguins which have their home there.

The tour I did was not cheap (coming in at $109), but ended up being worth every penny. There were about 20 of us who were taken to the island on a minibus. The first stop of the day, though, was at a place called the Moonlit Sanctuary, only a little way outside of the city. This is a small wildlife reserve which looks after many native species. We were given animal feed and told we could handfeed some of the animals. I started off with the emus, but quickly stopped after feeling like my hand was about to get pecked off!

But then we found some beautiful wallabies and kangaroos, who basically have free rein of the place and are very tame. Kneeling down to feed and stroke them and being so close to them was absolutely incredible. They are sooo cute, especially the wallabies.

Lastly, we got to meet a koala, which may have been my favourite moment of the whole day. Firstly, the handler bribed him up onto a branch with his favourite eucalyptus leaves. Then, one by one, we could go in and stroke and cuddle him. It's forbidden nowadays to pick up koalas in the state of Victoria, because they are so heavy that you can damage them very easily if you do it wrongly, but getting up this close was enough by itself. His fur was so soft!

Back on the bus, we travelled on to Phillip Island, where we made several stops, including at some of the beaches, and to a place where we could see an Aussie sheep-shearer in action. At one point, having been asked by some of the others in the group why I was in Australia, I found myself attempting to explain cricket to a couple of Americans. This is a difficult business at the best of times, but the lady in front of me kept chipping in with “helpful” comments.

American Man: “So how many “outs” are there in an inning?”
Me: “10. 10 batsman are out in an innings.”
Woman: “Except if the captain declares.”
Me: *Unsuccessfully attempts to explain the concept of declaration cricket*

Pretty much the real reason we were all on the tour, though, came right at the end of the day. Every night, as it gets dark, the Phillip Island penguins swim in from the sea and waddle up the beach into their homes around the island, and every night, hundreds of people go to watch. The whole thing has been set up very well: yes, in one way it is very touristy – there are rows and rows of bleachers on the beach for people to gawp at the penguins – but it also pays for the conservationists to keep the penguins' natural environment intact, and for the penguin homes which have been built and stationed around the island for the penguins to sleep in at night.

The penguins are fairy penguins, the smallest type of penguin that exists, and they really are tiny. You therefore really had to strain your eyes to see them as they gradually emerged from the water, but once the first ones were out, hundreds more followed. It was actually very funny, as you could see a few come out first, then swim back in to get their friends, and then whole groups would emerge, waddle along the beach for a few metres, pause, wait for more friends to join them, and carry on going until they were about halfway up – then finally race away until they were safely off the beach and away from the dangerous seagulls.

Walking back towards the minibus, along a wooden walkway, you could see them running beside you. At one point we even got stopped by the rangers, as a group of penguins decided they wanted to cross over in front of us!

I took some photographs, to give an idea of what the experience was like:

Just kidding!! Unfortunately but understandably, photography is officially forbidden while on the beach. There are some great photos if you google “Phillip Island penguins” but I couldn't take any myself.

Anyway, it was a magical experience, and a magical day.

Wednesday couldn't have been more different! It began with another tour: the Neighbours experience. I know that going on this tour was incredibly cheesy / studenty / British of me but I couldn't come all the way here and not see Ramsay Street, could I? (The answer is no.) The studios where much of the soap is now filmed are only about 30 minutes drive from the city centre, so we went there first, and had a bit of a look round the bits which weren't being used for filming. Our guide was clearly a Neighbours fanatic himself, and was hilarious: he spent most of the time pointing out all the inconsistencies to us and explaining that Neighbours is “all lies”, in a way that was reminiscent of a parent telling his kids that Father Christmas isn't real.

But of course, when we got to “Ramsay Street”, which is a real street only a few minutes away from the studios where they film all the outside shots, it was quickly apparent that the whole thing is edited very cleverly. The street is a tiny cul-de-sac, whereas in the show they make it look huge! Anyway, Susan and Karl's house is actually a real house, with real people living there (as are all th others). I can't help thinking that, although in one way it must be totally awesome to live in Ramsay Street, it must also be flipping annoying to have coachloads of tourists crowd into your cul-de-sac every day (hiya!) and take photos of you / your house.

Part of the experience was getting to meet one of the Neighbours actors, and today we got James Mason, who plays Chris. He was really lovely, very funny and willing to have loads of photos taken. I asked him what was going to happen this year in the show but he refused to tell me. The ironic thing is that since I've been in Australia, I haven't seen a single episode of Neighbours, and have no idea what's happened since Christmas.

So, in the last few days I've seen kangaroos, wallabies, penguins, koalas, and Ramsay Street. I can now go home happy ;-)

I spent Wednesday afternoon exploring Melbourne's South Bank, next to the Yarra River, which is similar to London's South Bank in that there are a ton of cool restaurants and bars, some interesting artwork and architecture, and many street artists at work. Then I walked to the Botanic Gardens, which are really beautiful. Sort of like Bushy Park back home I guess, only with amazing different types of wildlife, and a gorgeous lake in the middle.

In the evening, I went over to the Queen Victoria Market on the north side of the city. Normally this is open in the day, like a normal market, but in summertime they open it up every Wednesday evening from 5 to 10pm and it has a totally different vibe. It felt sort of like a music festival, with delicious street food being sold all the way along (I limited myself to a white chocolate gelato cone, as I'd already had dinner at the hostel), the most beautiful hand-crafted goods on sale (including miniature wooden animals which I did my utmost to resist buying), and live music playing everywhere, the highlight being a guy doing beat box didgeridoo. Everyone says Melbourne is cool and individual, and I suddenly understood why. I'm pretty sure that if I lived here, this is where I'd spend every single Wednesday evening come summer.

Thursday was the second ODI, so I was back up in the press box at the G. But, as it was a day-nighter, I decided to visit the National Sports Museum beforehand. I'm glad I did. They have some great stuff there, including some of Betty Wilson's old cricket gear, a list of all the members of the Australia Cricket Hall of Fame (featuring Belinda Clark), a lot of baggy greens, and a little section entirely dedicated to women's cricket. The Melbourne Cricket Club Museum also has some great stuff, including lots of artefacts relating to the centenary Test match at Melbourne in 1977. I hadn't realised before that they flew out every single player who had ever played in England-Australia Tests to be there; the mind boggles. Once again, Dad would LOVE all this.

Australia won the second ODI, and you can read my account of the match here. The star of the day was clearly debutant centurion Nicole Bolton and it was great to be there to see her innings.

I ended up spending most of Friday at the Melbourne Cricket Club Library, which was certainly time well spent. I've been to a fair few libraries in my time, but these guys were the most incredibly welcoming people ever, especially David Studham. I was treated to free lunch, tea and cake. And I was taken down into the depths of the MCG to the archives, which are huge, and shown the collections they have relating to women's cricket: including all the minutes of the Australian Women's Cricket Council and the Victoria Women's Cricket Association. I was practically drooling. It will take months, but I very much hope I can spend some time at some point going through the AWCC and VWCA collections with a fine toothcomb. Watch this space...

I had decided a while ago to travel from Melbourne to Tasmania by ferry, instead of flying, and had got mixed reactions when I told people what I had planned. Given that the journey is about an hour by plane, and a 9 hour ferry ride plus 3 hour coach journey, most people obviously choose to fly across. But I thought getting the ferry would be fun and exciting, and so it proved. The boat was huge, with 10 decks, and I have never slept on board a ship before, so that was exciting in itself. I had a really cute cabin:

I had gone for the cheap option of a 4-bed shared cabin, but lucked out and ended up with the cabin all to myself. This was absolute luxury after sleeping in a hostel room with 11 other people for the last week!

The ship sailed from Port Melbourne at 7.30pm, and I stood at the stern and watched it depart:

For the rest of the evening, there was cricket and tennis on TV, live music, and a bar. I felt a bit queasy by 11pm, as we sailed further towards Tasmania and the waters got rougher, but when I went back to my cabin and got into my bunk, and lay there with the rolling and pitching of the ship, I got to sleep quite easily.

Unfortunately the wake-up call this morning came at 6am (zzzzz) as the boat docked at 6.30. I left the ship (after being sniffed by a sniffer-dog!) and boarded the bus which would take me to Hobart. Sadly, I slept for most of the journey, but what I did see of Tasmania – glorious countryside, rolling hills, mountains and farms – looked beautiful.

And now here I am at my hostel, having just arrived in Hobart. I'm looking forward to spending some time getting to know the city.