Not just a spectator sport

Don't leave Australia without participating in a club game or two Getty Images

For the cricket tourist, Brisbane is the right place to be. The city is a cricketing destination in its own right as home to the famed National Cricket Centre (formerly the Centre of Excellence), which is the finishing school for so many of Australia's next stars.

If you're here for the cricket, no doubt you'll see the Gabba anyway, scene of the first tied Test in 1960-61. The ground itself has changed beyond recognition, but for all that, it remains one of the best viewing stadiums in the world. The locals tend to get a bit rowdy late in the afternoon during an ODI, when too much beer is mixed with partisan crowds, but you should be able to appreciate the pace and bounce of this quintessentially Australian pitch. In February and March, if not what promises to be a rainy December, you will have the best view possible of magnificent thunderstorms rolling in from the west (Stanley Street end). Hello Duckworth-Lewis.

Look the other way (Vulture Street end) and spare a thought for this hapless writer. Possibly the biggest six hit at the Gabba came off his bowling: it landed in the car park behind the takeaway shops, in a first-grade final in 1989.

To quickly change the subject, why not take a look, instead, at the grassroots of club cricket: the suburban grounds where young cricketers learn to play hard, tough and mean on their journey to an uncompromising baggy green?

A short bus trip from the city to the leafy suburb of Ashgrove will take you to Valley District Cricket Club, which boasts among its alumni Allan Border, Greg Ritchie, Kepler Wessels, Stuart Law, Matthew Hayden, Joe Dawes, and that unlucky bowler of "biggest six at the Gabba" fame. Try going there on a Friday night and watching the little'uns play under lights, and imagine these angels breathing fire and brimstone a decade later in grade cricket. Fight off the mosquitoes with a home-cooked hamburger and a glass of something cold and see where the fire in the belly starts with the Under-6s. Return a few hours later on a Saturday afternoon and watch full-blown grade cricket in action on three fields. No matter the grade, the competition is fierce and sheep stations are up for grabs. This is where men are men and sheep are nervous.

Sydney and Perth claim to be the strongest grade cricket competitions in the country, but, to be honest, it is an academic argument that is impossible to decide. Brisbane has long been recognised as being as tough as anywhere else in the country, and you only need to watch a few overs of grade cricket - even at 4th grade level - to get a sense of the depth of Australian cricket. Unlike in England, where I played as a league pro for many years, the difference between the top grade and lower grades is barely discernible, except for the pace. Technically you might struggle to tell the difference, unless you have an eye for detail.

This is all the more surprising if you take the time to watch the juniors play in the morning. Compared to a maidan in Mumbai, a beach in Barbados or an alleyway in Colombo, junior cricket is structured, sterile and of relatively low skill. I have two sons currently in this system, so I am well placed to marvel at this phenomenon. Something happens to Australian kids between the ages of, say, 16 and 18, that transforms them from junior hackers to technically adept men who clearly perform as well as any other cricketing nation at U-19 World Cup level and beyond. They appear easily distracted at this age, often being called to attention by patient parents and coaches as they do anything but show an interest in the overall proceedings of their game. For the cricket-savvy tourist, it promises to be a fascinating insight into how quickly the worm becomes a butterfly. Take the time to compare it to your own country and draw your own conclusions.

As a personal anecdote, growing up in this system that does not suffer fools lightly, I saw established Test players like Border and Wessels treat club cricket with the same hard-bitten respect that they showed in international cricket. I witnessed the silken genius of a young Law, who progressed through grade cricket as if it were a stepping stone to the next level, in stark contrast to a young Hayden, who treated the club scene as if it were a practice ground for mauling bowlers on his way to proving detractors wrong (Hayden rarely made junior rep teams). And I watched a raw-boned Dawes (India's former bowling coach) go from reserve-grade trundler to one of the most feared bowlers in Shield cricket in less than two seasons, all on the back of a system that was as ruthless as it was inspiring.

It's not all down to talent: Brisbane club cricket even allows modest cricketers like myself to get to first-class cricket through sheer hard work and a lot of luck. It's worth checking out the foundations of this legacy at any grade cricket field.

Suburban grounds across Brisbane will be hosting cricket matches of varying standards (Grades 1-6, Warehouse, Sub-Districts, school cricket) but they'll all have one thing in common: they rarely embrace the notion of "friendlies". Of all the places I've played cricket in the world, Brisbane ranks up there as one of the most competitive. That much is obvious to even the most casual spectator or tourist.

All this watching cricket business is liable to make anyone restless. If only you could roll your arm over or smite a few sixes out of the park, show these Aussies a thing or two! What was that, again? Fancy a game? Why not?

Get organised in time and you too may be able to join a team as the "overseas pro", and play in a new competition called Last Man Stands. It's fast, fun, furious, and finished in about two hours. The concept is simple, a craze sweeping the cricket world, sort of like T20 on speed. Last Man Stands is exactly that - the last batsman can bat out the rest of the innings so long as he hits fours, sixes or twos and gets back on strike. Some hits are worth 12! Superbly organised and unashamedly aimed at anyone for whom cricket is not a spectator sport, LMS is spawning leagues throughout Brisbane (and the world) for cricketers of all shapes and sizes.

If you fancy a game, check out their website, and if you still fancy it (who wouldn't?), drop the match managers a line in advance and see if they have got room for you. Talk yourself up while you're about it - bat like Lara, bowl like Saqlain, field like Jonty, fib like Hansie. By the time they find out that you were exaggerating a tad, you'll be best mates with an Aussie and the best sledges will be those from your own team-mates.