Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The pilgrimage to Melbourne (Part 1)

Friday afternoon, 25th December 2009. I had reached the clean and spacious confines of Adelaide airport and made through security with only a small suitcase in hand. The handle of the suitcase that had been pulled out now refused to slide back in after I had reached the waiting lounge well ahead of the departure time. Having plenty of time in hand, I tried various methods of coercion to force it in, till the point that I heard a loud crack. Oh it did go in then, but out came a few hundred small pieces of plastic that sent a clear message that I would now be either carrying the suitcase or bending and pulling it in a manner similar to what hockey players are accustomed to.

Not the best start to my summer of cricket, I thought. But then again, I did remind myself that things should begin to liven up later as I was to be joined by Omar for the life-long dream of witnessing a Boxing Day Test Match featuring Pakistan at the MCG. A few minutes later I received a call from Omar telling me how PIA had screwed up his ticket and he wasn't allowed to board because of a typo in the airline code. Absolutely insane! I was devastated and felt bad that Omar wouldn't be able to join me in watching such a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle. Also, I was to spend 6 days in Melbourne by myself while Omar tried his best to change his ticket to reach Sydney directly in time for the 2nd Test.

Having reached Melbourne, I looked for the bus service that was supposed to drop me off at my backpackers hotel. After calling the service on phone, it seemed that they were not operating on Christmas day. I took another bus service that dropped me off to the bus station in the city, rather than the hotel, for a hefty 16 Australian Dollars. And to my surprise, the city was more or less empty. I asked a few people the way to Franklin Street and they suggested I take a tram and pointed me to one. I hopped on and found it to be deserted save for one guy who seemed to be of Lebanese descent. After a few minutes I asked him where I should get off and he suggested what he thought would be the appropriate stop. Getting off, I wandered around the streets 'carrying' my suitcase with me till I found a guy, roughly my age, who helped me find my way with his GPS enabled phone. He gave me a few good tips on being careful in the city especially at night and avoiding certain areas, if possible. I thanked him and managed to reach the Hotel Discovery which had the entrance crowded with people who seemed to be not from Australia.

Reaching my room, I was greeted by 7 french nationals, who were in their early and mid twenties, and had apparently made the room their own with their laundry all over the place along with other possessions splayed across the room. After some conversation, I tried to recall the french lessons I had taken a couple of years ago and uttered a few words, which to my surprise was not appreciated by my new roommates, as they told me that they preferred we conversed in English only. I guess they considered speaking in French a private affair and didn't want this 'intruder' to try to communicate and, perhaps more importantly, understand what they were talking about with each other.

I dumped my stuff, went to the toilet to freshen up, and then left the hotel to seek sustenance as lunch was way overdue. Free from carrying luggage and the concerns of finding my hotel, I was able to absorb and appreciate the setting that the city presented. Melbourne, as I found out more on a later visit, is a city that can be associated more with its people and events rather than the buildings, scenery or monuments it possesses. On the evening of Christmas day, the city was completely deserted. Unlike the other cities that I have visited in Australia, the tall buildings are clustered together and are separated with narrow roads, often made even narrower with road space allocated to trams.

Speaking of trams, I was more accustomed to the silent modern trams that were used in Adelaide. However, Melbourne presented itself with more angular steely trams that had perhaps been used since the 80s. These trams made far greater noise, which reverberated against the cluttered buildings surrounding the roads to amplify the noise even further. Looking back, after I had reinvigorated my usual sense of appreciating classic and older things, I do think that the older trams did add some culture and history to the city (even if they were not particularly old) even though they did manage to startle me on more than one occasion.

After grabbing a tuna sandwich from Subway, I started to walk down Elizabeth St, with hardly a soul around. Not surprisingly, almost all shops were closed except for eateries and 7-elevens. A few blocks ahead, I saw signs of life as people were gathered around a particular corner. From what I remember, it was Bourke Street; the equivalent of Adelaide's Rundle Mall, but obviously far bigger and with more shops. The people were mostly parents holding their children and looking through big windows of a Myers Shopping Center. On closer inspection, I saw the windows to be occupied by stuffed pigs while a voice narrated a story. It was a very pleasant experience as I stood there listening to each part of the story, while moving on to the next window till the entire story was completed.

From there on, I could see the end of the main city area and also the presence of more people. I took my time walking around as the light faded. Upon reaching the end, I saw the Flinders St Station on the right side of the road while on the left side there was an open area that had a small tourist information center (a clear mismatch to the actual size of the city!). This area was known as Federation Square and had a few levels of stairs present that were used for sitting. There was a large screen on the side of a cafe/restaurant present on the corner of the square. Upon moving forward, the Yarra river could be seen. It was a pleasant sight but not breathtaking. Following the river up I could see the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) and also my destination for tomorrow morning.

As I looked at the MCG from afar, I had a tingling sensation all over my body for a number of reasons. It was indeed one of the most, if not THE finest cricket stadium in the world with a capacity nearing 100,000 people. But more importantly, it was where we won our first World Cup way back in 1992. The fact that I would be going there for a boxing day test match made it even more special. I just couldn't wait for the morning to come. On the other hand, I felt very bad that Omar couldn't make it. Being cricket fanatics of the highest order, this would-be experience was considered by us as perhaps the most desired and cherished after, of course, visiting the Lords cricket ground in London. However, I tried my best to enjoy myself as much as I can, as there was not much that could be done regarding Omar making it in time. I came back home, found the room to be deserted and went to bed rather early.

The next morning I woke up early enough to shower and get ready to make it in time for the complementary breakfast. I met a Korean guy at one of the tables. He was a funny person, who had been in Melbourne for a couple of months and was working in a Japanese restaurant. He surprised me with a few Urdu phrases he had learnt from some of his Pakistani friends in Korea, which included "Pakistan Zindabad" and "Allah hu Akbar". Communication wasn't always very easy with him but we had a good chat during our breakfast.

I continued with my pilgrimage towards the MCG and soon enough was joined by hundreds making their way to the stadium. A small bridge that went over numerous railway lines, and was also a perfect view for the Rod Laver Arena, contained small speakers on each of its sides. There were foreign phrases being uttered from these speakers, perhaps signifying the multicultural society that Australia, especially Melbourne, presents. Upon reaching the stadium grounds, the outdoor nets caught my eyes instantly. I think Michael Clarke and Brad Haddin were practicing some batting; a sure sign that Australia would be batting first, which was a slight disappointment. I made my way through the many many ticket counters and joined a queue. I bought a ticket for all 5 days that had cost me roughly $80. I don't think many would be coming for all 5 days, except for the players and the Channel 9 crew and commentary team. Upon making my way round the stadium I was looking for a way in when I saw Steve Waugh standing right there, just a few meters away from me, talking to someone. I didn't know what to do. I really wanted to go and ask if I could have a picture with him. But I didn't want to act like an over-eager cricket fan bugging him on his personal time. I didn't see other people making a fuss around so I just let it go. Perhaps I should have made more of an effort for the picture.

I went inside and made my way upstairs on the escalators. The stadium was very modern and clean and there were practically a hundred sections. I asked a security person where the general stands were and he told me that they started from section 36 (or was it 56?) or I could go to the 3rd floor. The 2nd floor, it seemed, was for members only. I seated myself in the middle of a row that was more towards mid-wicket / extra cover. This row was underneath a stand so it had plenty of shade. Also, it faced directly towards one of the 2 absolutely HUGE and brilliant TV screens. I don't remember seeing bigger and yet such high quality TV screens in my life. The sections closer to the ground were almost full with people creating most of the drama and the noise inside. I wasn't sure if I wanted to be under the sun or in the shade. Usually this dilemma is the cause of brilliant weather, and that was the case here too. It couldn't have been a perfect day for cricket. It was indeed a fascinating sight, although, overall the stadium appeared to be half empty. Later I would find out that this "half-empty" stadium had around 60,000 spectators watching the 1st day. The amazing thing about the MCG is the noise that can be generated inside. With 60,000 people stacked up, the cheers and sound of spectators resonating within the coliseum can be a breathtaking experience. The Australians are very great sports (not counting the players of course!). They seem to appreciate cricket, be that from the opposing team. And they also love a bit of a fight, especially if it comes from the underdog.

Two people had come and occupied the seats to my left. They were brothers; one in his thirties and the other one perhaps a teenager. I really had some great conversations with the elder one. We started to talk about the game first, and then Australian cricket in general. We discussed the politics and team selection surrounding the Australian team. He gave me some insight regarding Steve Waugh and Shane Warne. We discussed the future of players such as Andrew Symonds and Shoaib Akhtar. He explained to me that Symonds was of the 'older breed' of Australian cricketers, such as Doug Walters and David Boon. He told me that Doug Walters was rumoured to have played several Test matches while being drunk and even then scored heavily. The new Australian cricket culture was in complete contrast to the old days when late night curfews were not as strict as they are now. I remember telling him and his brother how this moment, watching a Boxing day Test Match, had been a life-long dream for me, and I got a bit emotional in the process. Hah! He was indeed a bit surprised when I told him about it though, since he was aware that cricket fans from our part of the world tend to not give much importance to Test cricket and are more obsessed with the limited overs version of the game.

Meanwhile, Australia was batting very steadily. I remember the first few overs were rather difficult for them to score. But once the openers had survived the initial spell from Amir and Asif, they were able to capitalize well. We did drop a few catches on the way, though.

After the Tea break, the two brothers had left. I started a conversation with an older man to my right. He would have been in his 70s, I imagine. He seemed to be a very nice, quiet person. He asked me where I had come from and what I was doing. He told me that he and his son come to watch the boxing day test match every year, for the last 15 years or so. They take their car for a 2 hour drive down to Melbourne. It was very nice interacting with the local people; something I wasn't able to do much since I planted foot in this great country.

It was indeed a great satisfying day of cricket, even though we were definitely behind the eight ball, with Australia 300 something for the loss of only 3 wickets or so.

Heading back, I really didn't have much of an agenda for the night. I decided to stroll alongside the Yarra river, taking photographs of anything that caught my eye as interesting. After a while, I decided to watch a movie in what seemed like an old theater in the heart of the city. 'Sherlock Holmes' appeared to be the most interesting amongst all the movies that were being played at the time. And it was indeed a terrific choice. I enjoyed every bit of the movie. The direction by Guy Ritchie was exciting and adventurous, as one would perhaps expect.

The day was almost over and I was quite tired. It was also the day my elder brother had got married. Upon reaching the hotel, I called Bhai and his wife, Cathleen, to congratulate them. It was a bit surreal to imagine Bhai now married. Meanwhile, Omar was able to convert his ticket from Melbourne to Sydney. He told me that PIA made the same mistake again, and he had to call up one of our relatives, who happens to be a General Manager in PIA, to fix the issue.

All in all, it was one of the most memorable moments of my life. I guess, I'm not the only Farooki who would say the same about this day.


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading that Boxy Brother! You are clearly weak in the knees for cricket, the MCG and Australia. Some random thoughts:

- I can't believe you didn't speak to Steve Waugh?!!
- Do any Aussies actually live in Melbourne?
- What makes for better viewing: TV coverage or being at the ground?
- $80 for 5 days in so damn cheap!
- When should we plan for Lords?


Abdullah Farooki said...

Thanks Sully!

You won't believe it... Me and Omar got another chance to talk to Steve Waugh in Sydney when he was walking alone in tunnels of the SCG holding a commemorative trophy... It just happened so suddenly and we were paralyzed not knowing what to do!

Melbourne is the busiest city I've been in Australia. It just so happened that on Christmas day it was completely deserted.

Well, I'll always go with watching live cricket on the ground, if its in Australia or England. However, with Channel 9's excellent coverage, watching on TV isn't a very bad substitute. Will still want to watch it in the stadium though.

We should have 2013 marked for Lords, I think. Or would you rather fancy an Ashes Test in 2012?

Anonymous said...

As bad as they are, and as much as I dislike them right now, I want to see Pakistan play at Lords so lets aim for 2013.

I reckon Melbourne is a lot like Toronto. Not the most naturally beautiful place but skyscrapers abound and plenty of tourists and immigrants.

As I have nothing to do at work, I read one your posts yesterday about beauty pagents. You refer to a Miss Pakistan contest in Toronto. Man have I got strong opinions about that! It happens ever year and somehow manages to attract the most unintelligent and graceless girls. During the floods, CBC (widely watched TV channel here) interviewed a 2010 contestant about the dire situation in Pakistan (I don't know why CBC thought she was qualified?). Not only was she unattractive, she sounded illiterate and said something like, "the Miss Pakistan contest will bring happiness to the victims of the floods"

Anonymous said...

The subplot of untidy Frenchmen; the clattery old trams as the backdrop; the tragedy of the brother missing the boxing day test match; a random Korean guy thrown-in, just for comic relief; and the Steve Waugh cameo as the big finish… Whoa. Minus a sultry trollop who kills her husband to win your love and now is on the lam; your adventure has all the ingredients of an erotic thriller!

To paraphrase Richie Benaud, “marvelous post” Bb!

Yours insincerely,
Mr. Fabulous