Travel: Winter sports - Tickets for wickets

Follow the sound - and sight - of willow on leather this winter, on an independent cricket tour of Australia. Malcolm Senior advises
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NOTHING SUMS up winter more than the sound of Test Match Special reporting on England's travails Down Under. As you lie under the duvet dreading another damp, cold day, imagine the pleasure of a hot sunny one cheering on Stewie and the boys as we secure the Ashes for the first time since ... well, whenever it was, it's got to happen again some time, hasn't it?

Actually, following cricket as an independent traveller has never been easier. I first went to Australia on the last Ashes tour four years ago. Then, I was something of a novelty: now there are hordes of us. Of course, you can go as part of the many organised cricket tours, but it's far more fun to be the master of your own itinerary. That way you meet more of the locals and, of course, it's a whole lot cheaper.

There are two obvious problems to surmount: how to get there and how to buy tickets for the matches. The answer to the first is that getting to Australia has become ridiculously cheap. The first winter charters from Manchester and Gatwick took off this week, with fares on Airtours and Britannia as low as pounds 399 return. Scheduled fares are barely more expensive, except shortly before Christmas. Be warned that these book up quickly. Otherwise, it's a case of spending a day ringing around to try and find the best flight deal.

Once you've got your flights sorted, the cricket ticket is the next thing. For the Test Matches at Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth that should be easy, even to the extent of being able simply to turn up on the day of the game. If you do want to buy in advance, you need the numbers of the local ticket agency.

To get the number, ring the local state cricket association (i.e. Queensland for Brisbane) and they will tell you the local agent. In Brisbane, four years ago, I bought mine with a credit card over the phone from Ticketworld (00 61 7 223 0444).

Melbourne and Sydney are a bit more difficult. The Melbourne test starts on Boxing Day and is always sold out since it's as traditional a part of the Aussie Christmas as the footie is over here. Again, the best thing is to go through the Victoria or NSW Cricket Associations. My ticket for Sydney for this tour came from Ticketek (00 61 2 9266 4800). Booking for the one-day games is pretty much essential, too. Also, ask if there is a season ticket. My five-day pass for Sydney is, at A$78 (about pounds 30), cheaper than buying individually.

When buying over the phone, it's worth checking a few things. Where will you be in the ground? My preference is to be near as possible to the locals. In Auckland, a couple of years ago, I had five days of good-natured and often funny banter with the pleasant sight of the England Barmy Army safely at a distance at the far end of Eden Park.

Also, shade is vital for the feeble Northern Hemisphere skin and the prospect of being a target for beer-throwing and pie-chucking contests in the somewhat more agricultural sections of some grounds may be less than alluring after an hour or two of sustained abuse. So take local advice and pick your spot wisely.

Once you've done all that, all that remains is to pack the binoculars, the sun hat and the sun block, before relishing the wonderful moment, when before your very eyes, the umpire turns to the bowler and calls "Play". Then simply wash away the rapidly fading memory of the ghastly English winter with the first beer of the day. See you in Sydney.