We touched down in the land of the long white cloud for a tour that is physically and geographically as far away from England as you can get to watch test cricket and yet, physically, felt as close to watching cricket in England as you can get.
The air we greedily breathed in was clean and fresh, after more than 24 hours of flying, and there was also an air of anticipation and excitement within our group as we gathered for our Welcome Drinks at Mac’s Brewbar. I say gathered, but took over the bar would be more accurate as a Howzat Tour is now such a popular event we numbered over 100, more than the other tour groups put together. (not including Barmy Army). Some had explored the beautiful city of Dunedin that day and taken in its Scottish heritage and Otago Harbour but now thoughts were turning to cricket and meeting fellow enthusiasts as well as renewing old friendships.
For the first day of the first test in Dunedin, in the south east of the southern island of New Zealand, it was the land of the low grey clouds as the whole day’s play was washed out. Pity those who had come expecting some Southern Hemisphere sun, it was chilly, damp, windy and quite easy to believe that the next stop to our south was Antarctica; it was more like the opening week of the English county season than an overseas tour. This is all part of being on a test match tour, accept the slow days and enjoy the company you are with. The second day brought a clear sky; but, by the close of play, there were big black clouds hanging ominously over England dressing room, the tourists having been bowled out for 167 and the hosts cruising at 131-0. For those regular Howzat travellers who have been fortunate enough to visit United Arab Emirates, Sri Lanka and India in the last year it was a familiar tale. In fact, on their last 13 overseas tours England have won the first test of the series only once, against Bangladesh. After all the cloud of the daytime, that evening we suddenly glimpsed The Sun; for at our Forum question and answer session we enjoyed the profession insight of John Etheridge, Cricket Correspondent of The Sun, as our guest speaker. It was an excellent evening; some of our people had maybe made a generalisation that a tabloid journalist might revel in sensationalism, but John was eloquent, well-spoken and had a huge depth of knowledge. He did his newspaper a huge favour as some of a number would now probably look out for his articles. Our own David Stewart was a brilliant question master, having spent many hours researching possible topics of discussion; it looks like an easy job but I know it is only because he made it look easy and that he had been up at 5am researching discussion topics.
England did recover from their poor start to the match to bat out the draw, with hundreds from Alastair Cook and Nick Compton and a 200 ball 50 from the night watchman Steve Finn. Our abiding memory of this particular game probably won’t be the cricket itself but the beautiful colloquial setting of the University Ground at Dunedin; it conjured up a quiet but feel-good, relaxing atmosphere and being able to walk on the ground at lunch time made us feel part of the occasion.
In the literature we were given about the country, our local ground operator styled New Zealand as ‘the youngest country in the world’. Let me add also ‘one of the wisest’. It is obviously a beautiful country, sparsely filled, with friendly, trusting, open and kind people. Even though there aren’t many people, one can never really be lonely as everyone talks to everyone anywhere as though they all share this extended family situated so far away from the “civilised” world. I genuinely felt safe and at peace, whereas at home I only get that feeling somewhere in Top Camp on my family farm on the Karoo. People say New Zealand is like England in the 1960s and that is pretty much spot on. Everything works perfectly and fairly for all its inhabitants; they look after the important necessities of their country like paying a fair price to their farmers for milk and crops to keep them happily on the land for the good of all and a plentiful supply of basic substances. A minimum wage ensures all can earn a decent living if they work. Their positive balance of payments ensures a very strong NZ Dollar (like Australia) so makes it a very expensive place to visit. A beer in a hotel or pub is more expensive than Heathrow Airport and the food was similarly costly so I made sure I had a huge breakfasts, including porridge and tomato juice.
Tourism is big in New Zealand, and so it deserves to be. It is an easy country to drive through, there is beauty around every corner, adventure sports abound and for us oldies more than plenty to do and see. Between tests we headed off to explore two particular beauties of the south island – Milford Sound and Queenstown. Milford Sound is one of the most amazing places I have ever seen and that whole valley with glaciers, waterfalls, lakes, mountains, passes and a boat ride from the fjord into the sea are all indelibly imprinted on my mind. Bearing in mind I have seen the Grand Canyon, Victoria Falls and South Africa’s Garden Route and Uluru among many other world beauty spots then I would say it is quite a compliment. I was going to say I still think about it every day but it is more accurate to say that it presents itself to me every day, which is even more powerful. I expect many of you have similar memories that will last a life time.
It was time to think cricket again and the capital city of Wellington awaited us. The Basin Reserve was bigger than the University Oval at Dunedin, but still very traditional; we were able to walk around the ground, allowed onto the field at lunch time and the security personnel were pleasant and helpful. Before the match could reach a conclusion, our semi-omnipresent clouds were back, and this time they were big and black and totally washed out half of day 4 and all of day 5. We really should not have felt sorry for ourselves though, as the locals of North island were in the middle of a drought and desperately needed this from the heavens. Compton had scored another hundred and Trott joined him in making three figures. I noticed that Trott brought up his hundred more quickly and off fewer balls than Compton – and yet it is always commented upon how slowly he bats. With a bad forecast well known, Broad’s best bowling figures for some time (6-51) allowed England to try and push for victory by enforcing the follow on, but the clouds rolled in to prevent them and another draw prevailed.
Our next few days were spent wending our way northwards to Rotorua to witness the awesome spectacle of the natural mineral spring geysers bursting forth every twenty minutes or so and the mud holes displaying what looked like little jumping frogs as the gas forced its way through the surface from deep down below. This was followed by a visit to the Sheep Show Farm where we were followed our leader like sheep into a massive hall where the sheep then followed their leader onto the stage. A very good show was presented including information about the different species of sheep, a deft shearing of one and action with sheepdogs herding ducks and the milking of a cow with crowd participation. Once outside again a demonstration of the dogs herding sheep into a pen controlled only by whistling was interesting.
Another highlight was our visit to a Maori village in a nearby forest. Their rituals and living styles were ably explained followed by some magnificent traditional singing ending with a stirring rendition of The Haka. It gave me goosebumps. Our meal, with the mutton prepared in an underground oven, was delicious and we returned home in the bus with our lady driver leading the singing all the way home. It was a different and lovely experience.
We arrived in Auckland, our final destination and one that is very different from the rest of New Zealand. It is a cosmopolitan city housing a third of the country’s population. The ground was also very different; gone was the small quaint county ground feel and instead we found ourselves in a cavernous rugby stadium that could hold 65,000. The attendance reached 8,000 people on a couple of days, quite a reasonable crowd, but the vastness of our surroundings made it feel that there were merely a few there. It crossed my mind that it may have been nicer to play on the pretty, small ground that was situated next to the stadium at the back, however an advantage of our large home was that we were able to sit anywhere we wished – in the sun, out of the sun, in the wind, out of the wind, next to others or enjoying your own company. Sometimes it can be a pleasure to spread out, particularly as the bars were so user-friendly, and there was a coffee station and plenty of eating facilities.
From a cricketing perspective many of the supporters hoped that surely England had regained the ascendancy and put behind them the bad start in Dunedin? They had been denied a probable victory by the rain in Wellington and now would play to their potential of the second best test team in the world. The fans had dropped in to witness a 1-0 series win to England; the problem was that the pitch had also dropped in and it was not a very lively visitor. This being a rugby stadium the cricket playing surface had to be manufactured elsewhere and then dropped in. The England team decided that the only life in it would be at the start of the match, so when Alastair Cook won the toss he chose to field first. Statistically it goes down as one of the worst insertions in test history as New Zealand made 443 and then bowled England out for 204. It was slow attritional cricket with only 250-1 scored on the first day and not particularly interesting viewing for the supporters. By the end of day 4, New Zealand had ground England into the ground having declared their second innings on 241-6 and reduced England to 90-4. Fulton had faced nearly 700 balls for his two hundreds. However, the thing about test cricket is that there is no such thing as a dull test match. Something always happens; and sometimes the duller the build up the greater the excitement in the end and this test culminated in one of the most exciting days cricket we had ever seen. Every time England seemed to be able to bat out the day, they lost another wicket and the Kiwis sensed victory. We watched intently as Bell and Root batted steadily, Broad doggedly faced 77 balls for 6 runs and then Panesar appeared at the end to defend the final overs for a magnificent 2 not out. The fact that Panesar was nearly run out and only saved himself with a wonderful moment of comedy belly flopping short of his crease added to the drama. Our group immediately drew comparisons with other tight finishes they had witnessed with many having been in Cape Town in 2010 when the last man Onions blocked out for a draw, some at been in Cardiff in 2009 when Panesar and Anderson had prevented Australia from claiming victory and others mentioned Jack Russell and Mike Atherton in Johannesburg in 1995.
There is one name I haven’t mentioned yet; the player whose innings really saw England to safety. Prior made a patient 110 not out. He had been the cog in the England wheel all series, as is so important for a wicket keeper. He was absolutely brilliant, not just here, but for the whole tour. His batting is a pleasure to watch; I always wanted to watch KP bat but Prior is just as rewarding. Quite rightly he held his bat aloft in triumph at the end and our group (and the rest of the crowd) applauded his efforts.
Our farewell dinner in the hotel was the culmination of a wonderful month. Our cricketing guest was David ‘Bumble’ Lloyd and we were fortunate to be able to enjoy other forms of entertainment for this was a farewell dinner with a difference. A few days previously we had been eating in the Playhouse Bar when a group of young people sat at a long table behind us. It didn’t take them long to work out that we were English and they started, very quietly, to sing God Save the Queen. It didn’t take us long to work out that they were not any old group of youngsters singing; the pitch, the tune were all perfect and the result was awesome. They turned out to be members of The New Zealand Youth Choir. We so enjoyed our sing-song with them that Tony very kindly decided to agree terms with them to come and sign at our Farwell Dinner. Their singing of Land of Our Fathers was followed by some Maori songs and the reciting of a brilliant poem from Howzat Traveller Jim Gordon summing up the series (Read here >). When it was eventually Bumble’s turn he started with “Is it my turn now? There are only two things I can’t stand at a dinner; music and poetry.” We all roared with laughter. I guess this must have been a first for him too. He was brilliant thereafter and so was the entire farewell including Annette’s reading of “Never trust a cricketer.”
We could reflect on another Howzat tour that had provided us with one of the memorable cricketing moments, alongside the beautiful countryside, historic tours and, most importantly, wonderful company. What a wonderful country it was to visit. So glad you came along with Howzat Travel.