Belgrade – a mistake worth making

If you ever need to make an erroneous 20 hour stopover somewhere, make it Belgrade.

En route to Kiev, I misunderstood an online ticket system, a mistake which afforded me 20 hours to kill in the Serbian capital.

Arriving at 6am, I checked my bags into a locker at the central bus station and set about exploring. Initial impressions were not encouraging. Blocks of bleak, grey Yugoslav buildings gave the city a depressing mood, and I was starving. I guiltily gave into temptation and bought a Serbian muffin/coffee equivalent from McDonalds. Culture!

With a belly full of food however, things picked up. I found the Kalemagedon, a crumbling 2000 year old fortress which is not difficult to find at all given it’s hulking presence towers over the city like Goliath over David. I regretted joining a city walking tour halfway through, given tour leader Budimir was as engrossing as any I have come across and made me disappointed I did not discover the tour earlier.

As we wound through wildly contrasting streets, where decrepit buildings sit next to markets and art galleries based in old factories, Budimir told us remarkable stories about the 1990s hyper-inflation and war that almost destroyed his childhood.

I joined forces with a Melbourne girl and two Germans in their late 20s. We purchased cheap books at a cool bookstore, and devoured Pljeskavica (a spicy combination of meats served with relish) at a trendy café.

The Germans and I headed to the Rajko Mitić Stadium, where 1992 European Champions Red Star Belgrade happened to be playing. Although we were ripped off in the taxi on the way, we were identified as foreigners by some locals who inexplicably decided to sneak us into the stadium, free of charge. It all evens out, I suppose.

After the match (2-1 to Red Star) we headed back to the Kalemagedon, where our Melbourne friend had alerted us to the fact that the American indie-rock giants Interpol were playing a gig. There are few places in the world where you can watch a quality international act play at a 2000 year old fortress.

With time winding down until my 2am bus, (some serious thought put to forgetting about it altogether) we sampled some bass at several extremely lively DJ bars located on the river front.

A frantic and slightly tipsy dash to the bus station, one typical of international travel, and this exhausted but elated boy was on his way once again.

The Irishman aiming for an English triumph

If Eoin Morgan the Irishman lifts the cricket World Cup for England on Sunday it can no longer be considered an irony. Instead, it will be a refreshing change from the nationalist debate that seems to be giving Europe so much grief at the moment.

Morgan represents an adaptation of the classic Irish sporting tale – growing up one of six in a terrace house in Rush, a small town north of Dublin, honing his prodigious skills on the street outside with his siblings and friends. The fact that cricket is the sport he was perfecting represents the twist.

There were more than a few in the Irish camp who felt rankled when Morgan first publicly declared that it was his ambition to be a professional for England. This was understandable, given he chose the eve of the sides’ first World Cup meeting in 2007 as the time to make this declaration.

Aside from the timing of the announcement, the 32 year old is to be commended for his approach to playing for his adopted country. He has been clear and concise in his ambition, never wavering, even after his home nation secured full-member ICC status in 2017.  He has stated in interviews that he knew as young as 13 that he wanted to play for England, and that he ‘feels English’ inside. Not to be discounted is the fact that he has an English mother, something that has allowed him to have had the career that he has thus far.

As a power hitting middle order batsman Morgan has more ODI centuries than any other English captain, and has pioneered an innovative ‘all-guns blazing’ approach that has led to the number one ranking in the world. But his biggest mark on the game will be if he can lead England to its first World Cup victory on Sunday, no mean feat given they first encounter a tough semi-final with Australia on Thursday.

As Ireland prepare for their first Test Match at Lords, the spiritual home of cricket, one can’t help but imagine the futile thought of how the 32 year old would have been able to assist.

In its best light, the Irish top six is talented, if slightly brittle. Kevin O’Brien averages 56 in Tests (from an admittedly small sample size), skipper Will Porterfield is a determined type who was part of a County Championship winning team. Andy Balbirnie has five international centuries, James McCollum averages over 50 at first-class level and on his day Paul Stirling can massacre any attack, such is the precocious talents of the ‘Fat Irish Bradman’.

All of those players have shown they have the aptitude at different times, but there is a lack of consistency, a proven performer. It also falls away steeply from there, with a slew of bowling all-rounders, part-timers and youngsters queuing up to fill the remaining positions. An experienced, but not ageing batsmen like Morgan would make an extraordinary difference to the side’s fortunes.

It is however a pointless exercise as Morgan is English through and through, in cricketing terms at the very least. Only the most antediluvian and bitter would turn their up nose at Morgan lifting the trophy on Sunday. We want our sportsmen to be dedicated to representing their country. In an era of Brexit chaos and unification/nationalist debate in this country, and right-wing extremism in others not so far away, it is a pleasant change to see a sportsman who is dedicated to his career first and foremost.

Ireland’s own team features a number of English born players, such as the fast bowling warhorse Tim Murtagh. It also features a complete disregard for any border on the island as a whole with an equal number of Northern and Republic contributors. This commitment too, to the sport rather than the badge, should not be underestimated.

So while Irish cricket prepares for what is probably the biggest day in its history, so too is England preparing for one of the biggest days in theirs. There’s no doubting which side of the fence Morgan will be on for both of those, but then again, there never has been.

The man from Pripyat

Shortlisted for 2019 World Nomads Travel Writing Scholarship – read more.

It’s disconcertingly quiet. Although not yet winter, the famously cold eastern winds are blowing, and it feels like it is. We walk down the middle of the road; there’s no need to worry about traffic in Pripyat.

It’s an unusual tour group of eight made up of three Australians, two Poles, a middle-aged Ukrainian couple, plus our Ukrainian tour leader Natalia. In the days following April 26, 1986, 120,000 people were evacuated from towns surrounding the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in northern Ukraine, the result of the catastrophic nuclear disaster, and Pripyat was the largest of these. Experts believe the town will be uninhabitable for at least 200 years.

Tours now run through the Chernobyl exclusion zone, an area extending 19mi (30km) in every direction from the site of the nuclear reactor. On the two-hour bus drive from Kiev, I attempt light conversation with the Ukrainian husband and wife, but receive only gruff grunts in response. Each to their own, I suppose.

At the entry to the zone, we are handed Geiger counters used to measure radioactivity, a somewhat ominous gesture that I pretend not to be concerned about. The tour follows the very long, very wide gravel road which was the town’s main artery, but Natalia stops us routinely. She leads us off the bus into what always appears to be total jungle, only for an abandoned kindergarten or town hall to eventually emerge.

Soviet propaganda adorns the walls of the town hall, and a statue of Lenin remains, a reminder of the world’s biggest social experiment. A Ferris wheel sits eerily still at the theme park scheduled to open a week after the disaster, a joy-ride never ridden. In a darkly ironic twist, there are multiple piles of unused gas masks, intended for use in the event of a nuclear disaster, at the primary school.

During the tour, the Ukrainian husband, Oleksiy, is clearly impatient, bickering with Natalia and wanting to keep moving. I wonder why he would pay for a tour if he couldn’t be bothered looking around?

We stand on the terraces of Avanhard Stadium, where the local football team was once cheered on. We walk past abandoned cars, shops and homes. Some houses are in a wild jungle, some are decaying but still distinguishable as places where people once lived. The domed roof of the doomed number four nuclear reactor looms ominously on the horizon. When we eventually reach it, Oleksiy seems even grumpier than before, and decides to stay on the bus.

As the sun sets, we arrive at the final stop, a central former hotel with a rooftop offering views over Pripyat. But this is not what catches my eye. I notice Oleksiy, looking out over the overgrown forest that now strangles the town, has tears streaming down his face. His wife, who is consoling him, looks at me solemnly and suddenly I understand. Oleksiy has been here before.

He is from here.

This is probably the first time he has returned since he was evacuated as a boy. This is confirmed by Natalia. We know no more, nor do we press the issue. A pat on the back is all we can offer.

When we arrive back in Kiev, I thank Natalia for her tour and decide to look for a drink. Just as I am about to head off, I feel a hand on my arm. It’s Oleksiy.

“Thank you, thank you,” he says, shaking hands with everyone. The dramatic transformation from rough, impatient thug to warm-hearted Eastern European is complete.

“You come to Ukraine anytime.”

Ireland vs England: How do you explain it?

The venue was the same, the main cast couldn’t have been more different.

Tim Murtagh, the 37 year old warhorse bowling gentle 115kph wobblers, slips so close to the batsmen they were in shot on TV.

Jason Roy, who took all before him in the World Cup. The man who respects no bowler and hit the Australian captain, part-timer though he is, for three sixes in a World Cup semi-final.

A fraction of movement down that famous slope, an edge just thick enough to reach Paul Stirling at first slip.

This is Test cricket ladies and gentleman. Back with a vengeance.

There were plenty of kids in the crowd at Lords on over the first two days, watching on as England capitulated (twice) to newcomers Ireland.

Their parents would no doubt have found it exceptionally difficult to explain why England’s batsmen were able to obliterate the best teams in the world out of the park over the course of the last six weeks, and yet collapsed so spectacularly against the only nation who are yet to win a Test.

How do you explain how Jonny Bairstow smashing consecutive hundreds in do or die, pressurised environments against India and New Zealand a few weeks earlier, only to produce two of the most inglorious ducks ever seen at the famous old ground against theoretically the worst team in the world?

How do you even begin to explain the unfashionable and bespectacled Jack Leach, number 11 from the first innings and without a score in double figures in the county championship this season, top scoring with 92? Without which, England would be in far deeper strife than they are already in.

If you had just tuned into cricket over the last few weeks, as perhaps many have on the emerald isle, you could be forgiven for wondering how Ireland are beating the best team in the world given that they failed to even qualify for cricket’s showpiece tournament. Will Porterfield’s men were paying $28 with the bookies prior to the match – within an hour of the first ball they had been slashed to $5.

It is curious that this should all happen on the occasion the ICC has chosen to trial a four-day Test. The last day certainly won’t be necessary. The only other time the four day Test has been trialled was when a rampant Morne Morkel led South Africa to victory before tea on day two against Zimbabwe in 2017.

Many of the Irish team playing in this match aren’t considered of enough quality to warrant a county contract. Yet here they are, with an extraordinary opportunity to defeat the World Champions at their home ground. In many ways, the pressure is now on them to win. They need to, in a way.

In two attempts in Tests they are yet to taste victory, and it’s unlikely they’ll get a more glorious chance than this to beat England. This is their last test this year, and according to the ICC Future Tours programme they don’t play England again until at least 2023. A win would give both cricket in Ireland and Test cricket the injection they (ever more frequently) need.

It will be big news in world cricket if they do, not least to a group of around 25 Australians who are in the country at the moment.

When surprises cease to surprise

A 14 year old boy pointed his gun at me, as I crouched nervously on my haunches. We were squatting with about 20 others in a circle while the leader, a smartly dressed man with a beard, was conducting things from the centre of the ring. There must have been 200 other men in the large room with us.

They had all warned us not to go to Iran. Mum certainly wasn’t pleased.

“What would you want to go there for?” was the most common reaction, followed by “Isn’t it dangerous?”

I thought of this as we waited to see how the situation would unfold. Throughout our time in Iran it was a common theme to have no clue what was about to happen next, and this was certainly no exception. I looked at Henri, who was doing well to conceal his terror. We were petrified at being called into the middle. There was just no way we could possibly match the dancing, all fluid and sinuous and with genuine affection.

The circle was filled with guests at the wedding we’d been invited to, the smartly dressed man the groom, a cousin of Hamid, the friend we’d made in Isfahan. The 14 year old boy’s gun was his fingers twisted into the shape of a gun, which he would occasionally point at me in fits of laughter until I returned fire in a game that lasted all night, although I have no idea of it’s meaning. Right now the groom was bringing individuals up one by one to dance with him in front of everyone.

It is worth mentioning that we had only met Hamid two days earlier, almost too predictably over a cup of chai in a carpet shop. His willingness to acquire extra invitations for two white westerners, with no commercial gain on his end, was our first introduction to the famed level of Iranian hospitality.

Based on the family’s level of conservatism, weddings in the Islamic Republic are either all together as in the western world, or (after a brief but extravagant ceremony) split into two parties based on gender. We’d watched at the start of the night as the bride and groom walked down a makeshift aisle to sparks and flares, releasing two white doves into the night sky, before saying goodbye to the girls and going into a separate hall.

What followed was six hours of food, dancing and selfies as we came to terms with our celebrity status at the event. Happy and gregarious Iranian men came from everywhere to introduce themselves, hugging and kissing and welcoming us to Isfahan. It seemed everyone wanted to dance with us, to know what we did for a living and to tell us about their relative in Sydney.

After our turn in the middle we were beckoned over to the table of Imam, a tall, mischievous looking character who was probably the least conservative of Hamid’s endless line of cousins. With a dangerous look in his eye he reached into his jacket and pulled out no less than 20 small cucumbers, placing them on the table. This seemed extraordinarily random on face-value, but we didn’t question it given Iran’s aforementioned penchant for producing surprises. The cucumbers turned out to be chasers for arak, a lethal home-brew spirit which I found almost undrinkable, but ended up drinking quite a lot of. While alcohol is illegal nationwide, a blind eye is turned to occasions such as this.

When the DJ’s eclectic mix of Arab-disco and Pitbull concluded we filed out of the building, waving goodbye to the happy couple as they got into their car and drove off. This however, proved to be a false conclusion. With Hamid at the wheel, and eight of us in the car, we sped off after the newlyweds in a convoy totaling 30 cars all swerving and maneuvering at high speed and waving white towels out of the window on the Dazgerdi Highway. The game seemed to be to get as close to the bride and groom’s chariot as possible, without touching it. Every 10 minutes or so we would all pull over to the side of the road, or down a sandy back alley, for some more dancing and fireworks before piling back into Hamid’s car for another game of cat and mouse.

The race ended at the bride’s mother’s house, where (after more fireworks and you guessed it, dancing) an unlucky sheep was slaughtered in the name of love. While seemingly in the middle of nowhere, we turned around to find our taxi driver from the start of the night ready to take us home – having waited for six hours and kept up with us in the speedy procession.

We might have been surprised by this level of kindness but by now, we were getting used to it.