Overwhelmed by the Christmas spirit

S. DINAKAR

A panoramic view of Wellington city.-N. BALAJI

DECEMBER 9: Even as the aircraft swirls around the airport, the first sights of Wellington are startling. This surely is one of the extraordinary capitals of the world. The ferocity of the winds in this city makes it one of the most demanding runways for the pilots to land their flying machines. We make a safe landing. Then a taxi takes us through a long tunnel that cuts through Mount Victoria, and into the city. By now it is evening in Wellington. We take a walk down to the city market place and find the Christmas Spirit catching on. There are `ball jugglers' on the streets showing their skills, children sport festive balloons, and there are musicians playing by the road-side. Despite the weather, this is a city throbbing with life.

December 10: Wellington is surrounded by hills on either side. At the turn of the century, the areas around Wellington were mostly scrubland and farms. Now elegant houses look down at us from the mountains. The terrain is such that the roads are seldom flat, but distinguishes the city from the rest is the wind. We have our first encounter with the wind as we make our way to the Basin Reserve ground in the morning. The gale force almost knocks us off our feet. Wonder how the Indian cricketers are going to cope with it.

December 11: The Basin Reserve is arguably one of the beautiful venues in the cricketing world. The ground has a hill on one side, and those living on the lovely buildings down the slope, must have the best possible view of the `action.' Meanwhile, it is the eve of the first Test and there is a buzz around the ground as the teams practise. Even as the session is on, a `chucked delivery' from Mark Richardson soars over the nets, and strikes the Reuters reporter on the forehead. Luckily, the injury is not serious.

Wellington is where Sir Richard Hadlee destroyed the Indians in '76 to take his first significant step in Test cricket. The Kiwis have learnt to recognise past performances, we find metal casings on the ground, highlighting the eventful displays of the past, such as the record 467-run stand between Martin Crowe and Andrew Jones. The details of the partnership are inscribed on the metal. In the evening, Mr. N.R. Chowdhary, manager of the Indian cricket team, hosts a dinner for the media. A former basketballer himself, he comes across as a charming man, who understands the needs of sportspersons.

Atop the Botanic Gardens in the Cable Car.-N. BALAJI

December 12: The Test gets underway and soon the Indians realise that they are in the midst of a very different `ball game' on the green, bowler-friendly wickets. Meanwhile, we are treated to some light-hearted moments on the field, thanks to the wind sweeping across the grounds, like players chasing their caps, knocked off their heads. Basin Reserve and Wellington are indeed different.

December 13: We come to know that a couple of anti-war activists had barged into the ground during the early hours of Friday and attempted to burn the grass on the outfield with petrol to inscribe the words `No War'. They are caught in the act. The duo's intentions might have been good but the methods are out of place in this law abiding country. We catch up with Martin Crowe, former Kiwi great on the ground. Martin is in a different role, as a commentator this time around, but ask him about his 299 at this very venue and he winces. Interestingly, Martin has played a small part in the Hollywood blockbuster Gladiator, a movie where his celebrity cousin Russell Crowe stars in. The Indians fight back on the second day, and we can spot a smile on the Indian supporters with the tricolour. They may be living far away from home, but they are quick to cheer the team.

December 14: It proves a false dawn, at least as far as the Indians are concerned. The mood is down in the Indian camp, and even as Sourav Ganguly and his men depart in quick succession to the pavilion, there are a couple of angry remarks from the stands. Predictably, they are from a bunch of Indians. It is Saturday afternoon, and the National Bank, the sponsor of the series, has organised a family fun day on the ground. The kids run on to the ground, the square is protected though, during the lunch-break, and there are contests aplenty for them.

A helicopter used to dry up the soggy parts of the outfield.-N. BALAJI

In the evening we meet Naginbhai Patel, a local businessman, who has been playing host to the Indian teams from '76. He arrived in New Zealand from Gujarat in the early 70s. He has made a fortune for himself and his family in this country of opportunities. He regales the audience with tales from the days of Bishan Singh Bedi and Sunil Gavaskar, during the '76 tour, when the Indians were caught out on a wet and windy Wellington. He tells us how he was once requested by the former Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) president Raj Singh Dungarpur to look after two little boys, who were visiting New Zealand in '88. They were Sachin Tendulkar and Vinod Kambli! He is a touch sad that the present Indian cricketers do not socialise as much. But then, the game and the players, have changed.

December 15: A ride in the Cable Car is a must in Wellington. The red and white vehicle takes you to the top of the Botanic gardens, from where you can have a stunning view of this city of mountains and backwaters. The ride up the Kelburn hill is not very long, but even as we travel, we have a fantastic view of the University ground, where a cricket match is on in bright sunshine, and of the fresh Kelburn Park. There is a cable car museum at the top, and outside the building are benches on which we find some people relaxing under the sun.There is Skyline Cafe nearby, a popular spot. This is a special year for the Wellington Cable Car. It has completed a century of service.

December 16: Rugby rules in New Zealand, but as the most popular summer sport, cricket has its place too.

And there are a number of Kiwis whom we meet, who are familiar with the Indian side. Tom is one of them. We meet him in a cafe and he is quick to recognise us. ''Are you with the cricket team?,'' he asks. We tell him it is a good guess. "Well, you get in right once in a while,'' he says and then speaks words of wisdom. ''Your batsmen are fine shotmakers, but they are playing too many strokes in these pitches. Dravid looks all right but...'' Well, said Mark, but are the Indians listening. During night time, a ride up Mount Victoria, which is the highest viewing point in Wellington, provides us with a sight of the city at night, the faraway lights appearing more like diamonds around the city's neck.

A boy playing the flute on the pavement to earn his bread.-N. BALAJI

December 17: The flight from Wellington to Hamilton is a pleasant one. And we have some unexpected company in the flight. The New Zealand cricket team is travelling with us. The Kiwis are a friendly lot and they have an affable cricket manager too in Jeff Crowe. The drive from the Hamilton airport to the city provides us with glimpses of the real New Zealand, the country famous for dairy products. We see vast areas of greenery, cows, sheeps. Indeed, Hamilton is a big town with the feel and the soul of a big village.

December 18: It can be sultry down here in summer, but this happens to be a cold Wednesday. There is a dense cloud cover, and then it rains. The rain here is different from what we experience at home. In Hamilton, it is more in the form of a steady drizzle that continues for nearly eight hours. The Westpac ground takes a heavy beating though and both the sides are forced to practise indoors. Hamilton is a town of flowers and lovely parks, but for the Indians, already down in the series, the signs are ominous.

December19: A washed out day can be the most frustrating experience for everyone, journalists included. And after endless inspections by the umpires the word is out - there would be no play on the first day of the second Test. On a gloomy day, when the sun hides behind the clouds, groundstaff work hard, but without rewards.

Some of the Indian cricketers take their turns at the cute club car, a small two-seater that is the best means of commuting on the ground.

Ajit Agarkar and Ajay Ratra enjoy their drive to the middle in a motor driven club car.-N. BALAJI

December 20: In the morning a helicopter lands at Westpac Park. It has a different assignment this time - to dry up soggy parts of the outfield. The chopper does its job, to the delight of the kids, who have not quite seen such a sight before. Bright sunshine also plays its part and the Test finally gets underway in the afternoon. Soon, the Indian batsmen are in big trouble.

December 21: This turns out to be a funny Test as the wickets keep tumbling.

Up in the press box, there is a scramble for the record books. Having a more pleasant time are Ajit Agarkar and Ajay Ratra, who may not have been figuring in the Test, but get to journey to the middle in the motor-driven club car during the drinks breaks. There are times when it pays to be away from it all! Old mates Martin Crowe and Ian Smith, are involved in a rugby duel during the lunch break, while the crowd in that lovely hill, basks under sunshine. The concept of watching cricket is very different in New Zealand - it's a little picnic with the family.

December 22: The Test series comes to an end, New Zealand sweeping it 2-0. For the Kiwis these are happy times, what with the Christmas fervour on. Predictably, we run into Father Christmas at a restaurant. And like most in New Zealand he has interesting questions too for us in cricket. Kids too are saving up money for Christmas. Like the boy playing the Flute on the pavement. It's Christmas time in New Zealand