Summer Essay: Ecstasy and ashes
Every so often, New Zealand defeats Australia in a cricket test. Every so often, a Dunedin man falls in love with a Wellington woman and thinks about moving up-country.
I've done it twice - fallen in love with a Wellington woman, that is, not defeated Australia. The second time it took, and I have lived between Mt Victoria and the wind for almost 20 years.
The first time didn't. We were two people who had a lot in common, just not the right things. She was beautiful, and I was hoping against hope.
It was March 1990. I'd come up from Dunedin to stay at her flat in a southern suburb just out of sight of the sea: I would be with her at night and go to the cricket test at the Basin Reserve during the day. I could tell from the start that things weren't right - they'd never really been right, because we made great friends but poor lovers. But this time, nothing seemed to gel. My first night up, we went to a gig where the music started very late, the band played with the attitude and volume of The Jesus and Mary Chain but a fraction of the skill, we couldn't hear each other talk, and she wouldn't dance with me. (Neither would you, if you'd ever seen me dance.)
We found out later that there had been some kind of dispute between the band and the promoter. I could have intervened. I could have said, "Hey, you're ruining my visit, and is the removal of brown M&Ms really so important?" But I never had the chance.
Things bumped along, uncomfortably, until the morning of the test, when she told me it was over. I already knew, I think, but I had been trying very hard to pretend I didn't.
I motioned to move out, find - oh, I don't know, a youth hostel - and she said no, I could stay. She left. It had been raining, and raining. Play was delayed. I hung around, drinking coffee, reading the paper, listening for updates on the radio. A start time was announced.
The sun was shining as I walked down Adelaide Rd towards the Basin. As I grew closer, I could see others bent about a similar purpose, individuals and small groups toting baskets, radios, folding chairs, binoculars, cushions.
Not that many, mind. It wasn't at all certain that play would actually start. The Basin outfield was famously slow-draining, and umpires notoriously reluctant to exercise their authority and ensure that the paying spectators paid for more than the privilege of sitting on the bank all day. It was a privilege though, to sit under the shade of pohutukawa as the sun wobbled round the rim of the sky and the ground staff went about their mysterious, unhurried ways.
I wanted play to start to take my mind off things. What should I have done? What could I have done? Why the hell hadn't I stayed in Dunedin? Wouldn't I be better off buying a ticket straight back?
But, no. No, I wouldn't, because here came the umpires, and here came the Australians, having won the toss and decided to bat despite the threat of Richard Hadlee on a low, slow seamer.
Richard Hadlee! It's hard to convey to someone who didn't see him in his pomp what a difference it made to the New Zealand cricket team to have Richard Hadlee in it. Imagine if Lionel Messi, in the interests of furthering his footballing education, decided to spend the rest of his career playing for the Wellington Phoenix - that's the degree of difference Hadlee made both to the team and the players around him.
We may have had a Hadlee, but the Australians had a top order full of names to strike fear into the heart of any New Zealander: a leathery top six of Taylor, Marsh, Boon, Border, Dean Jones and Steve Waugh.
They swaggered out to the crease - and they stumbled back, undone firstly by Danny Morrison's slingy pace and then Hadlee's precision. Unbelievably, Australia was bowled out for 118. Unbelievably, New Zealand had not lost a wicket by stumps. I left the ground happy, my worries only crowding back into my head as I walked up Adelaide Rd.
More rain, more long delays. New Zealand's first innings crawled through the second day and into the third. Martin Snedden, then known as a steady medium-pacer rather than a sports administrator, embarked on a stubborn night-watchman's innings that saw him becalmed on six for an hour-and-a-half.
There was something stubborn, something heroic, in his inability or refusal to score runs, to the point that I recall being disappointed when he finally managed to score another one. For a while there, he had been batting for my emotions. The team as a whole scored at fewer than two runs an over, eschewing anything resembling entertainment with Snedden-inspired zeal, and ended up with a first innings lead of 92.
The climate in the flat remained chilly, but the weather outside improved day by day. The Australians came into bat, and now the sun on their backs would have not have disgraced the MCG. The menace of Hadlee and Morrison was blunted. Surely the Aussies would make a mountain of runs in their second innings. Surely New Zealand was doomed to lose.
Maybe not. John Bracewell, the New Zealand spinner, stepped up to take six wickets. On the final day New Zealand needed 178 to win.
It was my final day too: I said goodbye to the flat and goodbye to the ashes of a relationship. I'd be catching the bus to the airport after play.
These days, you'd fancy your chances of chasing 178 in a T20 match, but in 1990, it represented a formidable fourth-innings run chase of a sort that New Zealand rarely managed.
It was time for a hero, and the hero who stepped up was John Wright. An opener famed for his obduracy, he stepped into the nearest phonebox and transformed himself into a different batsman entirely. Who was this masked man? He smacked the Australian spinner Peter Taylor out of the attack and turned the tense run-chase into a summer stroll.
It was the best weather of the test. I remember being too hot. I remember prowling round the boundary as Wright and his able assistant Andrew Jones made the target melt away. I remember the feeling of disbelief among the spectators: was this New Zealand? And was this Australia we were beating so easily? Surely these impotent bowlers and helpless fielders were imposters hiding beneath the Baggy Green.
Nails were left unbitten, rosaries unfingered. John Wright reached his hundred and the crowd rose, as much to the transformation as to the innings. A communal sense of celebration bound crowd and players. The win was wreathed in smiles.
The ground emptied. The late summer sun highlighted empty cans and discarded chip pottles. Sunburnt, tired, suddenly sad, I retreated from the Basin to the airport and from the airport to Dunedin. I wasn't to know that it would only be a few years before I was living within five minutes of the Basin and able to pop down, when time permitted, for a session or an hour.
The Basin is still beautiful today, but more dishevelled. The Museum Stand stands lifeless. The scoreboard is a little less adequate each year. The threat of a flyover hangs on its northern boundary.
But the memories still gather beneath the pohutukawa trees in late summer, the bowler leaping to deliver, the batsman waiting, a man with an unquiet heart watching from the grassy bank.
The Dominion Post