A clean country, no doubt

S. DINAKAR

December 2. As we emerge from the Auckland airport, we are greeted by fresh air. The pollution level in New Zealand is among the lowest in the world and the country is remarkably dust free.

The Christmas spirit is really catching on in New Zealand. Here a Christmas tree inside the Auckland domestic airport.

An airport bus transports us to the domestic terminal, where we catch the connecting flight to Christchurch. The tour is underway.

Christchurch, the principal city of the Canterbury province, is a small town which the Europeans feel about it. The city has some old buildings still strikingly beautiful, dotting the sparkling streets.

The city is also the home of one of the greats of the cricketing world, Sir Richard Hadlee. The Sportstar team would have loved a meeting with the legend, but then he is out of town.

We catch up with a much lesser cricketer, but someone who was among the most miserly bowlers in limited overs cricket — Gavin Larsen, the friendly medium pacer, who was not so friendly to the batsmen.

Larsen is associated with the National Bank, the main sponsors of the Test and one-day series. He reveals that the pitch for the Test series would be seaming, so a challenge awaits the Indians. It's around 10 p.m. when we say goodbye to Larsen.

December 3. The Indians are practicing at the Jade Stadium in the evening, so there is time for us to explore the city in the morning. The city square is the heart of Christchurch really.

With the Christmas spirit catching on, the atmosphere is colourful. We find chess being played on the square with huge pieces, there is a light-hearted tennis encounter going on, where the kids, enjoying their holiday, liven up the spirits, and we find small mobile vans selling hot fast food.

Chess is being played with huge pieces at the Cathedral Square in Christchurch.

A tram ride in Christchurch is a must, for it takes you right through the heart of the busy marketplace. We pass through `cafes' and we can actually have a sip of coffee in sunshine, if the weather is good, and hop into the next tram.

As the afternoon draws to an end, we travel to the Jade Stadium where the Indian team has its first training session in New Zealand. The side has a fair share of problems on landing in Auckland with skipper Sourav Ganguly and off-spinner Harbhajan Singh paying a $200 (NZ) fine each for not declaring the right number of shoes they had in their baggages.

``It was a long flight, we were all jet-lagged, and instead of four pairs, I wrote down three,'' says Ganguly. Since the authorities here are extremely concerned on the kind of food and soil entering the country, the rules have been made stringent, and those travelling to New Zealand have to fill up a form, specially meant for the purpose.

It's a rather routine occurrence at the international airports here as coach John Wright reveals, but is played up by the media. Ganguly notes that for sportspersons, who have to bring with them several pairs of footwear, a minor aberration such as this can happen so easily. The players want to put the incident behind them quickly. There is much cricket ahead to be distracted.

Taxi driver Tony Su'a's uncle is former New Zealand Cricketer Murphy Su'a.

A taxi takes us back to the Holiday Inn, the hotel we are staying in, by the side of the river Avon. In New Zealand, you just cannot hire an empty taxi by waving your hand, or shouting at the top of your voice. The cabbies obey rules in this country and they would just not stop. You have to book your taxi over the phone, you can do that from anywhere in the city, and it would be at your doorstep within minutes.

Returning from the Jade Stadium, we have an interesting cabbie driver. It's Tony Su'a, whose uncle Murphy Su'a turned out for New Zealand in the 90s as a paceman. ''Nice guy Murphy. I get to meet him sometimes,'' says Tony, who is a Mauri, the early inhabitants of the islands.

At night we bump into Mohammed Kaif, Ajay Ratra, Parthiv Patel and Tinu Yohannan at an Indian restaurant. There is no dearth of such eating joints in New Zealand, and the food is invariably good.

December 4. It had been bright and warm in Christchurch all along, but there is a dramatic switch in the weather on Wednesday. A day when rain and chill winds rule the roost. This is also the day of India's first game on the New Zealand tour — the match against the Max Blacks, for all-purpose New Zealand's first one-day side, except for the fact that instead of Stephen Fleming, Chris Cairns is leading the side.

The tram in Christchurch takes you right through the heart of the busy marketplace.

Essentially a rugby venue, Jade is one of the bigger sporting arenas in New Zealand. There is a crowd of around seven thousand to watch the game, and the ambience inside the stadium reflects the Christmas spirit, despite the gloomy weather.

Max Cricket has its own rules, with the innings of a side restricted to ten overs — there are four innings in all — during the match, the straight hits in the Max Zone, fetches a batsman double the runs, and the a no-ball results in a free hit; a batsman cannot be dismissed off this delivery.

With Ganguly and vice-captain Rahul Dravid resting from the match, the mantle of captaincy falls on V.V.S. Laxman. It is an entertaining match under the lights, the highlight being Tendulkar's 27-ball 72, but it is the Max Blacks, who clinch the game, thanks to wicket-keeper batsman Brenden McCullum's strokeful 60 and a productive mini spell — no bowler is allowed more than four overs in both the innings put together in Max cricket — by seamer Adams.

There is some worrying news for India, when paceman Zaheer Khan, who has just recovered from an overworked right knee, gets struck only inches above the troublesome area by a speeding ball while fielding. And this comes after he has sent down four sharp overs in the game.

Max cricket, the brainchild of former Kiwi great Martin Crowe, has been a new experience for the Indian team. The game might prove a crowd puller, but the rules are so silly and unreal that it is unlikely to be taken seriously.

From left to right: Tinu Yohannan, Parthiv Patel, Md. Kaif and Ajay Ratra snapped in an Indian restaurant.

December 5. It's time to leave for Napier, the venue of the three-day game against the Central Districts, and we board a small 33-seater aircraft that makes its way through the clouds.

Napier, with its beach and sunshine during the summers, is a popular tourist resort. The population of Napier is just around 52,000, yet the town with spacious evenly spread-out houses with pretty gardens in front, broad roads, and lots of shops and restaurants, appears much bigger and well spread out, and it's difficult to believe that so few people live in this town. You can walk down long stretches in the evening, yet hardly find anyone on the road. However, at a restaurant, you could run into quite a few people. It's quite strange really, and the reason could be that most travel by car.

Napier has around a million visitors every year, and tourism really is the livelihood of Napier. An earthquake had left the town destroyed in '31, and, so severe was nature's wrath that it is believed that the entire landscape of the region underwent a dramatic change.

A little mount on the Napier seashore. Napier, with its beach, and sunshine during summer, is the star-attraction for tourists.

The Indians too had arrived at Napier, but without their cricket kits. Since the light aircraft from Christchurch to Napier can hardly lift nearly three tonnes of baggage, the luggage has to come via road after taking a lengthy detour. And since the bags can only arrive at Napier by 6 p.m., the Indians have to forego nets on the eve of the first class encounter.

December 6. The match gets underway at the lovely McLean Park, that has sea on one side and mountain on the other, and if the sun shines, the backdrop is wonderful. Nature has been kind to New Zealand. This is a country, where a drive from a beach to a hill, may not consume more than ten minutes. Indeed, from the Napier beach you can spot lovely houses up in the mountain.

December 7. Today is Saturday and we spot quite a few fans of Indian origin at the McLean Park. Most of them are from Hastings, a town of equal size to that of Napier, about 10 miles away, and who work in the vineyards over there. We can listen to quite a few words in Gujarati as the Indians cheer their heroes enthusiastically, and some of them even make their way towards the dressing room to have a closer look at the superstars from the sub-continent. It's a glimpse of home away from home.

December 8. Napier is famous for Vineyards, we make a short trip to one near our hotel, called `The Mission' in the morning, and it's indeed a lovely sight out there. On the little hill, close to the vineyard, a concert is arranged every year, where a celebrity singer enthralls the audience. Pop star Cliff Richards will feature in the next edition during January, and the whole of Napier could be at the Mission Vineyard on that night. Tomorrow, we will be flying to Wellington, the venue for the first Test. More about Wet and Windy Wellington, cricket and travel next week.