There’s Nowt Wrong With The ‘Gong…

Part of the countdown to time away is the email from the third party booking company reminding you of your latest adventure. Usually it’s full of stuff to do, the rainy day high brow stuff, the cool cat stuff, the restaurants you can’t afford stuff as well as the nuts and bolts of your itinerary. The Chittagong email came through five days before I set off. Ominously, although the ever present itinerary was faithfully there, the correspondence contained no travel guide, just a generic picture of a bicycle that they’d clearly run out of space for as part of their guide to Indian destinations.Checking in at the hotel, I was informed, on asking for a map of the city that, sorry sir, such a thing didn’t exist. Welcome to Chittagong, probably best you make it up as you go along! Having persuaded the elder statesman on the hotel reception desk to give us at least the nucleus of an itinerary we jumped in the nearest tuk-tuk and headed into the heat and haze of Bangladesh’s third most populated city. 
Magnificently ramshackle, Chittagong is a treasure trove of consumer durables, scrap iron and miscellaneous ol’ toot. Areas of the town are marked out by the stuff they peddle there, with areas for ceramics, wrought iron pipes, hoses and plastic toy three wheeler tricycles all possibly delineated on the map that doesn’t exist. Steptoe and Son and, indeed, Del-Boy would doubtless love it here, so too the two old coves from the greatest Two Ronnies sketch. I’m sure somewhere within this port city there is an area where purveyors of handles for forks vie for punters. As our tuk-tuk driver pluckily battled his way amongst the hierarchy of Bangladesh road users (pedestrians are the plankton, lorries the killer whales, the rest sit somewhere between the two) we drank it all in (noxious exhaust fumes and all). 
Bangladesh is one of the world’s most populous nations and seemingly much of life is spent from getting from A to B at all hours of the day. For people watching, this is absolutely wonderful. Old fellows push wagons laden with fresh spices along the side of the road, they are overtaken by even older fellows who slowly pant and painfully pedal their wrecked bicycle rickshaws past. In an isolated nod to the Health and Safety culture that bestrides our culture, the tuk-tuks here have cages welded on for passenger safety and comfort, which is different from the ones I’ve previously experienced in India and Sri Lanka. The cars carry scrapes and bumps as well as crash bars, Hi-Aces of all vintages take their place in the road race too. People cram on and cling to tops of buses, while lorries, as they do back in Blighty, mess it all up for everyone else.

 

And it’s not what they drive around here, but how they drive that makes for such compelling viewing. Roundabouts are guidelines, one way streets are a challenge and he who dares- and it’s almost always ‘he’ behind the wheel- definitely wins. The curiosity gets the better of me, and during a particularly overcrowded late morning spell around the Jubilee Road at the heart of the city, I go to find the one of the local policeman to get an insight into the world of the Chittaging traffic cop. As with many of his colleagues, the constable is helpfulness personified and shakes my hand and poses for a photo. He then hands me the microphone into which he’d been barking out orders. If the traffic were paying scant attention to him, there’s little chance they’ll listen to me. Undaunted, I bid the city’s drivers a hearty good morning before heading off into the crowds.
Away from the traffic, the richness of the architecture- or lack of it- is also something to behold. Having got lost in the myriad of atmospheric, haphazardly constructed in tunnels and avenues among Chittagong’s backstreets,  we visit the city’s ancient court building, an enchanting, imposing looking building painted vivid pink. Whether it was this hue when it was built by the British- or, more than likely, built by the horse-whipped locals as the British looked on- is debatable. This city has colour of all shades which cheerfully mark out all manner of dwellings and landmarks from Chittagong’s many and varied mosques to its multi-faceted markets. Plus there’s trees, lots of lovely trees. Statues of the famous Bengal tiger crop up around and about, and although there is plenty of lush jungle-like vegetation, the big cats are, sadly, nowhere to be seen.
Chittagong, like life, is what you make of it. My nine days in Bangladesh have been enlightening, and for all kinds of reasons. The locals have been friendly and welcoming. Cricket brought me to see this great city, and, alas it’s unlikely, unless England rework their Test Match schedule in the near future, that I’ll return here soon. If I do come back, I’ll not need a map to help me out. All things considered, there’s nothing much to do in Chittagong, but plenty.

“There’s a club if you’d like to go….”

I’d known the existence of the place prior to booking my digs for the trip. The Chittagong Club. An approving nod to another time, and another world. 

This gentleman’s club is still going strong today with the great and the good from the port city and the locale vying for membership. An oasis of calm over-looking the craziness and intensity of Chittagong, with my love of imperial history I’d have been happy visiting just the once, however, happily this exclusive club has become our chosen venue for post match curry and beers at the close of play. It pays to know the right people around here, you know. Not that I do necessarily know the right people, but, a good chum of mine who arrived here a day or so before me gave me the all-important brief.
“Collared shirt, long trousers and shoes… Tell ’em you’re a guest of Mr Rubel. Pass it on!’ Now throughout my time in this charming city I’ve shaken hands, high-fived and have had selfies with seemingly most of the folk that live here. Mr Rubel, alas, has remained elusive. Which is a shame, as I’d like to shake him warmly by the hand and thank him for his magnanimity. A brief check of the register of the names who’ve passed through these doors recently, match officials, press men, snappers and the like suggests Mr Rubel is extremely popular, which is why, presumably, with all these esteemed people in front of me, I’ve not had chance to have an audience with the great man himself.

Signing in is something of a ceremonious procedure. The clerks on the door inspect your get-up before you pass through and into the lobby. A stately marble staircase dominates and pictures of committee members past stare down on you almost like a final security check. I must confess, I’ve winged it with my posh espadrilles this last week or so, because, rather sadly, in this part of the world some things are overlooked based on who you are.

The club was originally built by a local tea magnate in 1878, it was refurbished in 2012 and builders are still busy at work working on the next extension as the plans for the club and the neighbouring sports complex begin to take shape. Downstairs, there are ballrooms, committee rooms, dining rooms, and, naturally, as befitting gentleman’s clubs, a billiards room. There’s also, La Salle De Roses, which suggests that the Chittagong club are doing their bit for equality here. There is a very long way to go, however.

Upstairs, on the verandah, under the supervision of the brilliant waiting staff, staring across the lawns and the palm trees I’m transported back to that other time, that other world. The Chittagong Club has been one of the tour’s highlights. Here’s to you, Mr Rubel. 

Viewing Record For England Matches (Away) Stands At: Seen 15, Drawn 6, Lost 6, Won 3

Another away Test, another defeat. You do this following England malarkey out of hope, rather than expectation you know. Bracing myself for a leg-locked eight hours aboard the Airbus, I begin dib-dabbing away on my iPad. Glancing around the two-thirds full cabin I see curled up tracksuit-bottomed, replica-topped Aussie and Kiwi rugby fans halfway through their big journey to London and this weekend’s big game. I know through experience that it’s the hope that kills but also, so I’m told, its the hope that sustains. Yesterday, our little group joined other familiar looking little groups of England fans as we shuffled wearily into the Dubai National Cricket Stadium like hen-pecked spouses being dragged into one of this desert state’s life-sapping gaudy shopping malls. We expected the worse, and, belatedly though inevitably, we got it. 

  The winning moment. Rashid c Babar b Shah, 61. Pakistan celebrate, cue dancing on the streets of Lahore, Sialkot and Bur Dubai (among others).

What we also saw was terrific fight from this improving England team. Rewind ten years ago to similar circumstances, and an England team, also recent Ashes winners, rocked up in Pakistan and copped a wake up call as a result. That great team would be broken up just over a year in the most humiliating circumstances in Australia. This England team is different. This team, mostly inexperienced though brimming with youthful endeavour, will get better and grow more resilient together. Mark Wood was England’s man of the match in Dubai. The pick of the bowlers through his work rate and intelligence, Wood’s heroic two hour vigil with the bat almost got England out of this sticky situation in the sand. As it was, his departure effectively put paid to England’s scant hopes of drawing the second Test Match. He’s got nous and spirit has the big daft lad from the North East and will surely be the mainstay of this England team in the years to come. 

Batting wise, well, it was all a bit horrific, wasn’t it? A nightmarish third morning effectively decided things. Yasir Shah and Wahab Riaz were the pick of the Pakistan bowlers as Shah’s ingenuity and guile and Wahab’s searing pace prompted England’s muddle-headedness as their last 6 wickets yielded only 36 runs. 

Hurting now, England will be back, and led by Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow and James Taylor, this middle order will surely come back from this latest debacle and complement the continued excellence of England’s captain at the top of the order. All Alastair Cook needs to do is learn the art of winning the toss and his latest team could be among his greatest….

The real tragedy here wasn’t the setback of England’s defeat but the fact that their opposition, this passionate people still aren’t allowed to play cricket in their own backyard. For five days the local Pakistani community came in their droves to give their team their uniquely passionate support. Pakistan also have a team that is capable of doing great things. Witness and treasure Younus and Misbah (who both enjoyed magnificent matches here) while you still can. Hopefully, within the next five years, international cricket will be back in one of its spiritual homes. 

  Batting for the other team? Nah, just sharing the love with ‘Uncle T20’ and his equally marvellously moustachioed mate on the left. Top lads.



Next for England? A trip down the road to Sharjah. They will put defeat in Dubai behind them and they will put in a good performance. Whether it will be enough to tie the series, we shall see, but they do have the steel and the skill to do this. Then it’s off to South Africa for another huge series in December.

Next for me? After a busy couple of months at the grapeface, I’ll be there to support Cooky and the boys in Cape Town. It’s the hope that sustains, you see….

Souk You Sir!

In an area renowned for its ultra-conservative values, to see this on my walkabout in Dubai earlier was a great surprise. I was led to believe they didn’t go in for ‘that sort of thing’ around here….

  

Phnar, phnar. 

Any road, here’s some more pictures of Dubai. I’m hoping the cricket doesn’t finish early, as there doesn’t look like there’s too much else on offer (that doesn’t involve shopping).

   
   

Tooth Serum

It’s a damp, chilly morning in early October and I’m on a long overdue visit to see Pete, our affably accommodating and rather wonderful family dentist. After the chummy preliminaries have been dispensed with, I resignedly take my place in the chair. As much as the next ten minutes are going really bally well hurt, time in Pete’s company is always well spent, as the matters of the day, particularly cricket, are covered in great detail (well, as much detail as they can before the next patron starts kicking off about missing their bus to Lower Shelton, anyway).
The dentist’s assistant rolls her eyes as the pre-scrape n’ suck chat inevitably turns to Pete and I’s favourite topic, with England’s imminent, and similarly long overdue, visit to the United Arab Emirates and an encounter with Pakistan second on the agenda behind mine host’s revelation that he had a walk on part in last August’s Twenty20 Final’s Day awards ceremony. It’s a credit to Pete that in addition to all the wealth of dentistry based knowledge this young lady will gain from her well-spent time in his employ, she’ll be a font of all knowledge on great Northamptonshire cricketers from the 1980s onwards, as well as a world expert in explaining the lbw law too.
‘Dubai?’

‘Pah! Oh no, you couldn’t pay me to go there.’ ‘What? Milton Keynes On Sand? Ha! Perish the thought. No way.’
Fast forward to two weeks later, inexplicably here I am billeted up in my hotel room in Bur Dubai overlooking the neon-lit midnight cityscape (the less glamorous part) pondering what I’m doing here. A combination of keenly felt push and pull factors have jettisoned me to a destination, much coveted by some, but undisputedly nowhere near the top of my holiday list. Indeed, in complete frankness, I would place this bloated burghal of bling one or two places off the bottom of said list. However, listed in terms of the places to visit with England, the UAE is comfortably the least appealing. Even less appealing than Australia in fact. 
I couldn’t help myself though. Last week sat on the sofa watching the first Test Match from Abu Dhabi and the thought occurred. Farmer John’s text gave me a hurry up. Then a glimpse, on telly, of Eric, minus the inflatable swans and instead with his lovely companion on his arm, then Andy trying among a good field of contenders to be English cricket’s foremost beard, singing away amidst bemused locals in an under populated, over heated concrete bowl furthered my urgency. Cooky’s magnificent innings did the rest. 
Yes it’s hot, yes it’s apparently charmless, and apparently cheerless too. But England are here. England and every win, lose, draw or tie that following them around the world entails. I had to get out to Dubai. (Who knows, I might even enjoy it.) And thanks to some very understanding and accommodating colleagues here I am (Cheers fellas!).
To the regiment.

Viewing Record For England Matches (Away) Stands At: Seen 14, Drawn 6, Lost 5, Won 3

Then, a cesspit of smugness, over priced rubbish beer, anguish and despair. Now, a sea of happiness, under priced rubbish beer, amiability and pride. Bursting pride. January 2014 to April 2015 has been something of a roller coaster ride for England cricket fans. Then, another right good hiding from the Aussies in the culmination of an Ashes series too far, now a first away victory in nearly two and a half years. Ask anyone who was present at the Grenada National Stadium on Day 5 or swilling rum and Carib in the full-to-bursting bars afterwards if it was worth the wait, and they will probably concur. Everyone connected with English cricket has had the pain, now it’s time, hopefully, to enjoy the gain.


Gary Ballance made an unspectacular entrance into the cauldron of Test cricket at the SCG fifteen months ago, but since his inconspicuous debut, this Zimbabwean Yorkshireman has been one of the catalysts for England’s recovery. In fact, everything Gary Ballance has ever done has been unspectacular, which is possibly his finest attribute. Two solid half centuries helped set up victory here, two more solid half centuries added to the vast amount of runs he already has to his name in England colours. His swept four to bring up victory yesterday, as well as starting the party for the thousands of England fans, helped put to bed the misery of the last away trip. Those who picked this Test as the venue for their Caribbean adventure will enjoy this moment now but are aware of the tough months ahead. 


And there’s much to enjoy, so let’s deal with the present. Watching cricket in Grenada has been an absolute joy (although there were one or two slower moments earlier in the match that tried the patience somewhat). Getting tickets has been simple. Getting to the ground has been easy. Getting in the ground has been child’s play. Getting your choice of seat has been pipsqueak. In short, from a customer’s perspective, my experience watching cricket here has been little short of outstanding. As the locals will tell you, the West Indies Cricket Board get a lot wrong, but they must be praised for their involvement here, as must the Grenadian authorities. Great views of the hills littered with precariously placed shacks, the sea and the pitch mean the ground itself gets into my top six cricket venues too.

  

Day 5 was incredible. Jimmy Anderson in the morning session was sensational. His wickets, catches and a sharp run out effectively won the match for England and put some much needed life into a game that looked to be loafing off into dozy obscurity. Joe Root enjoyed another terrific Test match, and is simply a pleasure to watch. Alastair Cook had a good game with the bat and tried everything to get the result. That England prevailed is down to their skipper as well as the stellar performances of Anderson, Ballance and Root. 

So, that’s the present. An excellent, unexpected win in beautiful surroundings among beautiful people. The future? We’ll deal with that another day. There’s still some celebrating to be done on this beautiful island. To the beach…

Breakfast at Doltrice’s

The Grand Anse Craft & Spice Market. Another Grenadan day lopes leisurely into life. The excitable chatter of stall holders discussing nothing in particular brings to mind the gathering storm of the Election back home. A pair of brazen blackbirds mimic this scene as they flit in and out of the multi-coloured picnic benches on the search for scraps. On the beach, senior citizens stroll purposefully up and down for their early morning work out, fishermen wrestle with the tide, American students pound the sand at pace, brimming full of determination as locals, looking on in bewilderment, loll gently in the surf. A kindly looking gentleman, known to all as Doctor, does his rounds. Patrols of English cricket fans wobble up and down waiting for the bars to open and the Test Match to start.

I settle in at my favourite breakfast haunt, Doltrice’s. Doltrice does the best coffee on the Island. Instant coffee and condensed milk.

And that’s it. None of your Frappo-Maccha-Chocco-Cino-like nonsense so beloved of the big coffee corporations. Instant coffee and condensed milk. It’s the Blitz spirit here on the Spice Island, and despite its humble ingredients, the coffee is simply magnificent. A formidable woman, who by her deportment could only ever have been a cook, Doltrice has been running her roti shop in this prime spot for some time. As the lady herself tells us, no one does coffee like Doltrice.  

The problem, as I’ve discovered since Wednesday, is that it’s a job to know when our host is actually doing coffee like Doltrice. For, once again, Doltrice has taken the day off.

So, once again, Big Ralph in the hut next door comes to the rescue with the heartiest of welcomes but a lesser cup of coffee. A glutton for punishment, and a over-subscriber to the Hope That Kills You theory, I guess I’ll traipse loyally back to Doltrice’s tomorrow in search of this most mercurial of hosts and that most elusive of cups of coffee.

After all, the view’s not too bad….