Big Things, big sixes, and cricket in toilets

2:39 AM ET

  • Sidharth MongaAssistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

Next to a house, and looking like one itself except for the minarets, is this mosque on Little Gilbert Street in Adelaide, the oldest known* in Australia. It was built in 1888 by “Afghan” cameleers, including some from the northern parts of the then-undivided India. These Afghans worked in the South Australian outback. There is one Afghan who works in a South Australian city now, and has the whole cricketing world eating out of his hand. Adelaide Strikers have chosen well. This year’s BBL, though, has been tough for Rashid Khan; he lost his father just before the New Year, but stayed on and played instead of going back home for the funeral.

The Coonalpyn Silos, about 160km south-east of Adelaide, are the sort of thing you find by the side of an Australian highway. Murals were painted on these 30-metre-tall edifices as part of “Creating Coonalpyn”, a rural-revival project for this town with a population of 300 (and a bank called “Bank”). Guido van Helten, a Brisbane-based artist, did his work over six weeks in February 2017. He used a boom lift and 200 cans of spray paint. The kids on the mural are Coonalpyn Primary schoolchildren.

Australia has a thing for placing large artefacts by desolate highways. The Giant Koala, 14 metres tall, with scary red eyes that must glow in the dark, in Dadswells Bridge, Victoria, was made in 1988. There are at least 200 of these Big Things along the long, unfathomable highways of Australia. There is a Big Prawn, a Big Oyster, a Big Banana, a Big Bull (pulled down in 2007; had giant testicles that swung in the wind, according to legend), a Big Marlin, a Big Avocado… you get the idea. Most of these are beside highways, where you see nothing for hundreds of miles, and then, boom, and you stop. They are usually accompanied by a tourist centre, a museum (everything has a museum, even Coonalpyn) and a café.

The Grace Elm in the beautiful Eastern Oval in the Victorian town of Ballarat. This Dutch elm tree next to the lovely grandstand is on the Register of Significant Trees of Victoria. Legend has it that it was planted in 1874 by WG Grace, who loved the ground, “the most English” of Australian grounds. However, some sources say the tree didn’t exist until the year 1900. Another legend has it that the Grace story was a “furphy” – a tall tale – manufactured by a Ballarat resident to prevent the tree from being brought down because it roots might have threatened the grandstand.

At the other end of the ground is a young tree planted by Ricky Ponting. Except that we don’t know which one. I show him some photos of the trees I took there. “No, it can’t be that big.” “Hmm, maybe that one, that looks small enough.” Imagine the furphies about the Ponting tree in a hundred years.

Just like the Big Things, there seems to be a fascination in Australia for trees planted by English cricketers. I am pointed to Buninyong, just south of Ballarat, where Andrew Strauss planted a tree. This one adds up, because Strauss’ wife, Ruth, who tragically lost her fight with lung cancer recently, was raised in Ballarat.

Brunswick East, my home in Melbourne for the Boxing Day Test, is known for its connection with the Italian mafia. As recently as 2016, Joseph Acquaro, the owner of Gelobar, a café on Lygon Street, and also a mafia lawyer, was gunned down in a professional hit.

Lygon Street has been “gentrified” now, and is well known for its restaurants and pubs, many of which, including the jazz bar the Moldy Fig, are on long leave for Christmas and New Year’s. The establishments that are still open are mostly family-run, serve fabulous Italian food, and are among the few places in Melbourne where you can walk in and expect to be accommodated on New Year’s Eve.

Christmas time is family time. The Australian players travel to the pre-Test training at the MCG with their families. This is captain Tim Paine with his family, who sit among the journalists at the press conference. While the rest of Australia will continue the festivities – they will likely wake up hungover and will eat the leftovers from Christmas lunch while they watch the cricket – these two teams will strive to provide them excellence and entertainment.

The beige seat stands out in the sea of blue on the third level of the Great Southern Stand. This is where a six hit by Simon O’Donnell, off the bowling of Greg Matthews in a Shield match in March 1993, landed. It is believed to be the biggest six hit at the MCG. According to estimates, it travelled 122m, making it the fourth-biggest known hit in competitive cricket in modern times, behind ones struck by Albie Morkel (124m in Chennai in 2008), Martin Guptill (127m, Wellington, 2012), Aiden Blizzard (130m, Perth, 2008) and Brett Lee (130-135m, Brisbane, 2005).

The men’s room in the members’ section at the MCG. They don’t want to miss out on cricket even when answering nature’s call.

Not sure the members like what is happening on this Friday, the 13th day of Test cricket this series. The Australian batsmen fail to learn from the restraint shown by Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli who compiled just 443 over the first two days. Jasprit Bumrah runs through their loose batting to beat Australia in a Test that seemed un-losable: slow pitch with no sideways movement, and weather disturbances forecast for the last two days.

The photo above is from the new Perth Stadium, but the MCG too is said to have a Red Frogs room. Red Frogs are red lollies, and at the MCG, the room that bears the name is one where those who have had too much to drink are brought, partly as punishment and partly to feed them Red Frogs so that the sugar rush revives them. The MCG is vast, with a world in its basement, and nobody working here can point to the Red Frog room. A microcosm of Australia. Too vast to find things. Or maybe the tale is a furphy.

A eucalyptus tree with a white trunk against a brilliant blue sky is what I first see when I close my eyes and think of Australia. This tour, though, has been unusual; this is a eucalyptus grandis in the Royal Botanical Gardens in Sydney on New Year’s Day, against grey, menacing skies. There have been more grey skies than blue this summer. Even Perth was not hot; I did my personal-best times over 5km there. More storms than usual.

The SCG elevators. After the Boxing Day Test without Bill Lawry, these lifts are yet another reminder of the end of the Channel Nine era. The music that used to play inside them, the iconic Channel Nine theme, has died. Word is that in coming years Fox, the new rights holders, might have their own music playing in there.

As a sort of compensation, you can hear all the DRS proceedings – the communication between the third umpire and broadcast director and between the umpires – in the toilets. There is something about Aussies and cricket in toilets.

Kippax Lake outside the SCG can turn the best of them contemplative. Perhaps it just goes with Sydney hosting the last Test of the summer. Perhaps it is just the green all around. Here too there is a record for a big hit. Doug Walters apparently hit a six so big, it cleared the ground and travelled a further 100m or so, into the lake. Another furphy, I am afraid. The ball stopped short of the lake.

Walking back from the lake to the SCG always reminds me of footage of mad crowds and snaking queues for World Series games in the ’70s. Crowds – but not Indian fans – have stayed away from this Test, both because of the weather and because of Australia’s performance. Incidentally those World Series days were arguably the last time Australia were this weak. Those sides did contain Kim Hughes and Jeff Thomson, though. Bob Simpson came out of retirement. Those were different times. Can’t imagine a Michael Clarke coming out of retirement to help this side out, and nor did Simpson have a commentary job back then.

There is no rendition of “Under the Southern Cross”. Just India doing the “Che Che Che”, their dance tribute to Pujara, with hands not moving as they spot-jog. Virat Kohli is graceful in victory, pointing out how difficult it must have been for the Australian fast bowlers to alter their mode of attack to bowling at the stumps, which comes naturally to India, on slow pitches like Melbourne and Sydney. This kind of empathy must be a new feeling for Australian cricketers.

Time to say goodbye to Darlinghurst Road, the storied and colourful street next to Elizabeth Bay, my home in Sydney – a fantasy come true of living in the equivalent of Malabar Hill in Bombay. Darlinghurst Road is “dodgy” according to many, because of the “VIP” clubs, among other things, located there. You hit it when you exit King’s Cross Station. The walkways here, with plaques covered by brown maple leaves, tell stories of the people and times that made King’s Cross. Of Sydney notables who chose artistic and creative lives over money-making.

Of Lennie Lower, journalist and humourist, who was “slung out of so many flats our furniture is now equipped with wheels”. Of the poet Kenneth Slessor, who said of the area: “You find it ugly, I find it lovely.” Of Abe Saffron, “Mr Sin”, who ran nightclubs, hotels, developed property, and was a major figure in organised crime. Of old jazz bands, of Harry Stein, who founded Australia’s first jazz convention. Of the entertainer Carlotta, one of the first persons to have sex-change surgery in Australia. Of Juanita Nielsen, the urban-conservation and anti-development activist, who was last seen here attending a business meeting before she disappeared, believed to have been murdered. Of Dulcie Dreamer, actor and journalist, who claimed she had to stop belly-dancing and doing splits at the age of 73 after she had a heart attack. I might not have been close to destitution, as Peter Finch, the Oscar-winning Australian-English actor, was, but I can see why he said what he said about King’s Cross. You could possibly extend it to Australia.

*needs the rider because Australia is a vast country, and things are still being discovered here

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