Oz at its bouncing best: England’s cricket team (and Piers Morgan’s ribs) take a pasting Down Under
One day,’ I promised my sons Spencer, Stanley and Bertie, years ago, ‘we will go and watch the Ashes in Australia.’ After England’s rampant 3-0 victory in last summer’s contest, the perfect time appeared to have arrived.
‘We’re going to the 4th and 5th Test matches in Melbourne and Sydney,’ I declared in September.
‘What if it’s already over by then?’ asked Stanley, 16.
‘It won’t be.’ I chuckled. ‘Not even this Aussie team could lose the first three games at home.’
It’s a family affair: Piers with sons Stanley, Bertie and Spencer at the Sydney Opera House
Thus emboldened, I splashed out a sum of money approaching the national debt of Estonia to book us all flights from various parts of the world (me direct on Qantas from Los Angeles, my sons and youngest brother Rupert from London via Singapore Airlines) and well-recommended hotels in both cities.
Today we arrived in Melbourne with the Ashes already lost. Stanley’s ominous comment had come true, though inexplicably, it was England who had capitulated so catastrophically. It was like arriving at a war zone moments after your country has surrendered.
Oh, and just to add to the misery, it was raining!
But we comforted ourselves with an excellent dinner at Squires Loft steakhouse, run by an old South African friend of England batsman Kevin Pietersen. The culinary fare was considerably tastier than KP’s batting so far on this tour. In fact, I’ve been tweeting my disappointment at the lack of courage shown by our batsmen, prompting former Australian fast bowler Brett Lee to throw down a gauntlet: facing him for an over in the nets this week. Bring it on…
Danger zone: Piers is struck by a bouncer from former Australian fast bowler Brett Lee
Monday 23 December
Our hotel in Melbourne is The Olsen, a cool, arty boutique property nestling in the equally cool, arty Chapel Street. It’s filled with works by famed Australian artist John Olsen, and the rooms are spacious and well-appointed, with notably comfortable beds. Add two excellent restaurants, a decent spa and gym, and one of the world’s most helpful chief concierges in Paul Rumpff, and I feel immediately relaxed.
Tonight, former England captain Michael Vaughan invited us to a barbecue (he cooked, and surprisingly well too) and ‘garden cricket’ at the luxury home he’s been renting. A titanic battle ended under floodlights with his eight-year-old son Archie hitting an immaculate, elegant 71 not out as my much older sons peppered him with bouncers, beamers and yorkers. He’s got a wonderful cover drive, pull shot, and ruthless determination to spend all day at the crease. Remember the name.
Tuesday 24 December
Spent the morning shopping in Chapel Street, which is like a long, slim version of London’s Carnaby Street. The weather’s been all over the place – hot and sunny one minute, cold, cloudy and rainy the next. Apparently, it’s often like this. Must be why so many Brits emigrate here – it reminds them of home. Dinner was at Caffe e Cucina, a local Italian restaurant. Cheap, cheerful and excellent value. Have the spaghetti vongole – it’s quite delicious.
Wednesday 25 December
Christmas in a hot country is weird. I tried it in Los Angeles two years ago and hated it. I like my yuletide festivities to be surrounded by snow, lots of decorations and endless carols. Melbourne had none of these, and didn’t feel remotely Christmassy. Most locals go to the beach.
We headed for lunch to No 8 by John Lawson at the Crown Casino and Entertainment complex, where at least they supplied crackers with terrible jokes, silly hats, and an even sillier Santa Claus. They also supplied a quite magnificent traditional Christmas meal, all washed down with fine Puligny Montrachet and Chateau Margaux as the dulcet tones of 1,000 Barmy Army fans, and the Australian team, filled the air from two large suites nearby where they, too, were celebrating the big day.
Chef Lawson is an Essex boy done good. He used to work for Gordon Ramsay, and that pedigree shows in the cooking – this is a top-class restaurant.
At the next table was the widow of legendary Australian tycoon Kerry Packer. Over brandy, I asked Ros if it was true that Kerry once told a Texan cattleman in a casino who was boasting of being worth $100 million: ‘I’ll toss you for it.’ She smiled. ‘Yes. Most crazy stories about Kerry are true! It would have been his birthday tomorrow.’ We raised our glasses to a great, swashbuckling character who changed cricket for ever, and for much the better, in the mid-1970s with his World Series tournament.
Easy to get around: Trams make their way through a sunny Melbourne
Thursday 26 December
Boxing Day at the Melbourne Test match is one of the most famous sporting occasions in the country, and it didn’t disappoint. Our day started with breakfast inside the ground to support the Shane Warne Foundation, which has raised more than £5 million for sick children. A host of stars were there, including Sky Sports commentator David ‘Bumble’ Lloyd, who told the story of how Jeff Thomson – the fastest-ever bowler – once hit him square in the box during a Test match. As he retold the tale in fabulously gruesome detail, you could actually see tears start to well up in his eyes at the memory.
The MCG is the biggest stadium in cricket, and today we became part of history when the crowd was confirmed at a new world record of 91,092. It’s hard to overstate how intense the atmosphere was by about 4pm, when a throbbing mass of drunken Aussies howled on their bowlers to dismember our batsmen. It was how I imagine Rome’s Colosseum must have looked and felt back in ancient times.
Tonight, we dined at a superb Italian restaurant called Becco with Sir Viv Richards, the most exciting batsman I ever saw, and an utterly charming man. ‘Have the seafood pasta,’ he advised. I did, and it was superb. Henry Blofield, commentator extraordinaire, walked past, spied our table, and came over to say hello. Or rather to say: ‘My dear old things, how simply delightful to see you!’ He really does speak like that off-air, too. A national treasure.
Friends reunited: Piers and Brett Lee make up over a couple of bottles of wine
Friday 27 December
AsI outlined in my Event magazine column earlier this month, a baying mob of 5,000 people amassed around the MCG nets as I faced Brett Lee, who hurtled in like a man possessed. After I’d survived the first two deliveries, the third ball – a ferocious 90mph bouncer – crashed into my back as I ducked, resulting in a loud crack, while the fourth whacked my hip. The fifth hit the stumps, while I managed to dodge the final ball. ‘I’m still alive!’ I gasped when it was all over. Yes, I was battered and bruised but it also was one of the most thrilling moments of my life.
Sunday 29 December
Been here for a week now, and loved it – even though I’m nursing a broken rib thanks to Brett’s 90mph bouncer on Friday. The city is very British in many ways, with the same kind of houses and shopping areas, weather, and sarcastic but warm humour. Everyone we’ve met has been amazingly friendly and welcoming. Australia is a delightful country.
The Olsen’s proven to be a perfect location. It’s a well-run but at the same time pleasingly laid-back hotel. To my sons’ joy it also backs on to school football pitches which the public can use. Thus, most afternoons a titanic battle of wit, skill and stamina ensues between creaking age (my brother and me) and volatile youth.
The regular verbal ‘sledging’ jousts almost rival the actual football for quality. Or as my youngest boy Bertie put it tonight: ‘Dad, there’s been a lot of high-class bantering on the Banter-Bus today.’
Monday 30 December
Flew to Sydney for the second leg of our holiday. It’s a very different city to Melbourne, much busier, and more vibrant. And with more consistently good weather.
Our hotel is the QT, part of the same group as the Olsen. It’s a designer boutique place, where you’re greeted by a striking, beaming redhead in full basque-leather uniform, one of several such women dubbed ‘Directors of Chaos’. She epito-mises the sense of sexy, quirky fun about the whole hotel.
Our rooms are great, stocked with enough DIY martini kits and other fancy party-related treats to keep James Bond happy for days.
And the lifts are pure comedy, with the music tailored precisely to how many people are standing in it. If there’s only one person then Lonely by Akon plays; two people and it’s Just The Two Of Us; eight and you get 50 Cent’s In Da Club.
Flying the flag: The Australian cricket team celebrate a 5-0 whitewash over England in Sydney
But the real star for me is the Gowings bar and restaurant. The food, service and drinks are some of the best I’ve enjoyed in any hotel anywhere in the world.
Tonight, the boys stayed in to watch movies (they’re all free for guests at the QT, a nice touch) while Rupert and I joined my rib-breaking tormentor Brett Lee and his elder brother Shane (who also played for Australia) for dinner at Bathers’ Pavilion in Balmoral, reputed to be Sydney’s best restaurant. It’s in an idyllic setting, nestled on a gorgeous quiet beach.
We had oysters, steaks and two magnums of Penfolds and talked cricket for four hours. My idea of a perfect night!
Tuesday 31 December
The QT is a five-minute walk from Darling Harbour, a buzzy area of restaurants, shops and tourist attractions. We had a couple of good seafood meals at the Blue Fish Cafe during the week, and a very palatable takeaway Indian curry from Zaaffran.
Tonight, thanks to the ingenuity of QT promotions chief Stephen Howard, we got on to the 35th-floor roof of the Shangri-La hotel on Sydney Harbour, overlooking the iconic Sydney Bridge and Opera House for the New Year’s Eve fireworks. It was a stunning vantage point for what is an absolutely stunning display. Though I was amused to see that at precisely midnight, almost every single guest on the roof pulled out their phone and began taking ‘selfies’. We’re truly heading to an age where every second of one’s life must be instantly recorded and imparted on to friends via Facebook, or complete strangers via Twitter, as a matter of urgency.
Quirky fun: Guests at the QT hotel in Sydney are greeted by a redhead in full basque-leather uniform – one of several such women dubbed ‘Directors of Chaos’
Wednesday 1 January
Did a few touristy things. The aquarium at Darling Harbour houses some impressively massive sharks, and the amazing view from the top of the Sydney Tower Eye, the city’s tallest building, is definitely worth seeing.
There’s also a military submarine in Darling Harbour, which is an incredible experience, if only to see at first hand the ridiculously cramped conditions in which 70 grown men have to exist on these things. I found it claustrophobic after just a few minutes down there. I can’t imagine what six months must feel like.
Later I took the boys to a Big Bash game, part of the 20/20 tournament that’s hugely popular in Australia. We sat with West Indies batting legend Chris Gayle, who was hilarious, and chatted to Aussie star David Warner in the next box to us (‘Who’s this, One Direction?’ he laughed as I introduced the boys). The only sour note came when former Australian captain Ian Chappell walked past and I held a hand out with the words: ‘Hi, Mr Chappell, I’m Piers Morgan. . .’ to which he replied: ‘Nah, mate, you’re a d***head.’ As Spencer said: ‘It’s good when people live down to every expectation.’
Thursday 2 January
Lunch at Doyles on Watson’s Bay, Sir Ian Botham’s favourite place in Sydney. Had absurdly fresh-tasting crab and their signature fish and chips while taking in the wonderful view. It’s worth the half-hour taxi ride, but get the water cab back to town – just because it’s great fun.
Iconic: Piers got to watch the New Year’s Eve fireworks from the Shangri-La hotel on Sydney Harbour
Saturday 4 January
We’ve spent the first two days at the Sydney Test, and England’s cricket has continued its disastrous path on this tour. But the weather’s been wonderful, the people genuinely lovely, and we’ve enjoyed every minute of the holiday. My highlight today was seeing 84-year-old former Aussie Prime Minister Bob Hawke sink a pint of beer in one go, howled on by 100 drunken men dressed as legendary commentator Richie Benaud. If ever a moment made me fall in love with Australia, it was this.
Sunday 5 January
Got up at 4am to watch Arsenal, the fourth time we’ve had to rise in the middle of the night to watch our team since we’ve been out here. But we won, and are top of the Premier League, so at least there’s some small solace on the sporting front.
Monday 6 January
Flew back to Los Angeles on Qantas. The First Class service is outstanding, making the 13-hour flight a breeze. On landing, the chief steward approached me. ‘Mr Morgan, I’m afraid I have some bad news. . .’ My heart raced. ‘What is it?’ ‘England were bowled out for 166 in 31 overs! It was a 5-0 whitewash!’ So an indescribable horror on the field, and yet a very easily describable joy off it. I loved Australia. And so did my boys. Oddly, we never once went to the beach. We’ll do it next time.
Qantas (qantas.com) offers fares from Heathrow to Melbourne, domestic flights to Sydney and back to Heathrow from £867pp if booked by the end of January for travel up to March 15. Singapore Airlines (singaporeair.com) offers a return fare from Heathrow to Melbourne and back from Sydney from £850pp if booked by the end of February. A studio suite at The Olsen (artserieshotels.com.au/olsen) costs from £155 a night. Rooms at QT Sydney (qtsydney.com.au) start from £300 a night. For further information visit australia.com.
Source: Mail Online