Sunday, January 19, 2014

Melbourne part 2

I've been in Melbourne a few days now and I'm gradually getting used to the clatter of trams past the window at night, and having to look out for them whenever you cross the street. The best tram is of course the FREE City Circle one, which basically does a loop of the city every 10 minutes or so and makes getting around very easy.

The hostel I'm staying in feels much nicer now that the heatwave has dissipated and we are back down to temperatures in the mid-20s. In fact I was actually COLD yesterday, which seems strange to report. I also like the fact that I am located right next to a road called Nicholson Street.

I spent Friday wandering around Melbourne's laneways. These are apparently a city institution, basically like little alleyways with totally random and quirky shops, cafes and restaurants dotted around.

I ended up at Federation Square, which is sort of like the hub of the city. There are bars, restaurants, art galleries etc surrounding it, and a big space in the middle, which is currently filled with deckchairs and a big screen showing the Melbourne Open tennis. I had a wander, and went to see some Australian art at the NGV Australia.

Possibly the best thing about this was that, after a few hours in 40-degree heat, the art gallery was air-conditioned.

It got to about 5pm and I suddenly realised that I hadn't actually eaten for the entire day, so I went to a restaurant on Fed Square called the Chocolate Buddha (recommended by a friend). You could sit inside with air-con but also keep an eye on the tennis through the window, and look out over the city. Lovely.

I went outside after I'd finished and watched the tennis (and possibly fell asleep for a bit, ahem) in the twilight. Then off to a pub opposite Flinders Street station to meet Mel Jones. We've spoken a bit via twitter, and it was great to finally meet up in person. I absolutely loved hearing stories about what it was like to play women's cricket in the legendary Aussie team of the 1990s/early 2000s featuring Jones, as well as Karen Rolton, Cathryn Fitzpatrick and of course Belinda Clark. The historian in me goes a bit crazy whenever I meet ex-international cricketers!

The worst part of the evening was that the men's ODI was on TV in the pub, and somewhere towards the end of the game (keeping half an eye on it while chatting to Mel), I realised that the Aussies around me were starting to pay more attention to the game. Somehow, England were managing to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, and everyone around me was cheering like mad, while I sat, head in hands. Just a small taste, I suppose, of what it must have been like to be over here during the men's Ashes.

On Saturday, I walked over to the MCG, through Fitzroy Gardens – a beautiful park reminiscent of London parks in summer. It's an odd mixture of English trees, brought over here by Brits and planted a long time ago, and native species – I'm not used to seeing English elms right next to palm trees.

Approaching the MCG, through the trees, was incredibly exciting. Here I was, finally at the home of Australian cricket, and just as there always is when you walk through the Grace Gates at Lord's, there was a certain magic about seeing it in the flesh.

Two things in particular stood out:
  1. It's huge.
  2. Seriously, it's HUGE. (Capacity of 100,000.)

I did one of the official tours, conducted by a Melbourne Cricket Club member, which involved going down onto the edge of the pitch, right up to the top (spectacular views), and into the media centre. Our guide told us that he found it hilarious when he found out recently that each of the desks in the media centre has a label on, which dictates where each journalist sits: the positioning is determined according to seniority. I didn't like to admit to being a member of the press corps, but I did find the desk that, right now, feels like it belongs to me:

At one point we were taken to see the indoor nets, and some of the Southern Stars (the Aussie women's side) were there practising. I couldn't help pointing out who they all were, and I think the tour guide was a bit like “who IS this girl?”

Fun fact I learned on the tour: there are 64 bars at the MCG. That is a LOT of drinking at one cricket ground.

We also got to see the members area: there is a Long Room, named of course after the Long Room at Lord's, and old photographs and memorabilia everywhere, including an amazing photograph of Don Bradman and Sachin Tendulkar, taken not long before the Don passed away. There are only 3 copies of this photograph in existence, and the Don requested that the negatives be destroyed, so it was cool to see one of the prints.

All I kept thinking throughout was that Dad would've absolutely loved being there with me, and wishing he was.

I stayed behind after the tour, to put on my Journalist hat and watch England train for a bit, out in the middle.

Then switched back to Tourist Mode, walking back into the city over the William Barak Bridge, where a plethora of voices talk at you through speakers as you wander over; and into the Immigration Museum for a while. This is housed in the building which used to be the Customs House, where immigrants were processed on arrival into Melbourne. There is an exhibition detailing the history of immigration to Australia, and many of the question posed as to exactly how the immigration process should work in modern-day Oz struck me as also being potent for the UK right now. How do you decide who is part of the nation, and who isn't? And who gets to decide?

Saturday night was lots of fun. Mel had got tickets to the Big Bash match, Melbourne Renegades vs Sydney Sixers, played at the Etihad Stadium across town. I haven't really followed the Big Bash much, being a bit of a cricket purist, but it was really exciting to be there. Cricket aside (Sydney won the match and the home fans left disappointed), the Aussies really know how to make Twenty20 work. The stadium was packed out, probably about 20,000 people there, including many families. Seeing the stumps light up each time the bails are removed is pretty cool, and I nearly had a heart attack at half-time when they covered up some of the pitch and set up a huge jump, with motorbikes zooming round and round. They play rock music loudly between overs and after wickets fall, and have air guitar competitions, and there is always a Z-list celebrity sitting in a box at the side of the pitch, who can win money for viewers at home if he catches a six. Basically, it's incredibly gimmicky, and my dad would probably hate it, but I loved every minute.

Yesterday was, of course, the first one-dayer of the women's Ashes series, at the G. So I turned up bright and early, at 8.30am, at gate 3, where the media had been told they could gain access. I found Gate 3 locked. The whole thing was, in fact, completely shambolic, with most of those who were covering the match wandering around trying to find a way in, and once we managed to gain entry, getting lost in the maze of corridors inside.

Apparently security decided they weren't going to open up the gates until 9.30, for a match that began at 10am. Why on earth they decided that no media could possibly need to get in earlier than start time (for things like, you know, the toss or the team announcements), I cannot for the life of me work out, but it seems very much like it might be a case of thinking “ah well, it's only women's cricket, why would anyone be bothered?” The MCG is a wonderful ground, but whoever made that call needs to seriously reassess things. If this happened to the media before a men's Test or ODI, you can bet there'd be a bollocking somewhere along the line – so I expect someone to get one for this. Here's looking at you, Cricket Australia!

For all that, it was absolutely awesome being up in the media centre. Highlights included: seeing the lovely Eliza again; a bird flying into the press box; meeting former Australian women's cricket captains Margaret Jennings and Raelee Thompson in the innings break; and of course, England winning. My match report is up on cricinfo, if the cricket interests you.

I'll end by saying that as I start to get to know Melbourne a little, I'm finding myself liking it more and more. It's a quirky, interesting city, and I don't think you could ever get bored here.