Day three of the Second Ashes Test at the Adelaide Oval in December 2006 lives in the memory for two history-altering events. England’s Ashley Giles rather haplessly dropped Ricky Ponting on 35, a missed chance that probably cost England the match and with it any chance of retaining the Ashes. The Labor party also elected Kevin Rudd as its leader, which was to have more serious consequences for Australia’s most powerful cricket tragic, John Howard.
As the BBC’s man in Australia at the time, I really should have broken off from the cricket to file a dispatch back to London on developments in Canberra. However, the play was far too absorbing and the setting far too alluring. I had a perch in one of the world’s most picturesque grounds, with the red-roofed George Giffen stand to my left, the famous Edwardian scoreboard at the far end and the twin spires of St Peter’s Cathedral providing the signature backdrop.
Alas, the Giffen stand is no more, likewise its two former bookends the Sir Edwin Smith and Mostyn Evan stands. In their place is a new 14,000-seat double-decker stand, the first phase of the South Australian Cricket Authority’s complete redevelopment of the Adelaide Oval. In time, the tent-like Chappell stands will also face demolition, along with the Bradman stand, which houses the press box.
Built in the hi-tech style of airport terminals, the new stand has amenities aplenty and is not without architectural merit.
Similar-looking stands will eventually be erected on two more sides of the oval, while a new walkway over the River Torrens, which looks stunning in its computer-animated rendering, will also link the CBD to the parklands. Respectful of this national heritage site, the architects have kept the original scoreboard, and so, too, the Moreton Bay fig trees. The cathedral end will also retain one of cricket’s great grassy knolls. But the character of the Adelaide Oval has already been irredeemably changed forever. Over the next few years, the oval where Harold Larwood felled Bill Woodfull in the climactic moment of the Bodyline series, and where Bradman scored 299 not out against South Africa in 1932, will become virtually unrecognisable.
The SACA, with the overwhelming backing of its members, will have turned one of the world’s most beautiful cricket grounds into one of its most well-appointed football stadiums. In September, for the first time in its long history, the Oval hosted its inaugural AFL game. More regular fixtures will be played there from 2014 onwards.
Here, of course, Adelaide is merely adhering to a well-established trend, where the sentimental charm of ovals has given way to the cold commercialism of multi-purpose stadia. The Woolloongabba ground in Brisbane started redevelopment in the early 1990s and by 2005 its colosseum-style bleachers encircled the entire playing area. This time the Moreton Bay fig trees or grassy banks did not survive, nor the famous dog-track.
The Gabba is an impressive modern stadium, with uninterrupted sight lines, the feel of being close to the action and some glass-fronted bars with balconies that look over the field of play. But again, much of the romance of the old ground has been sacrificed. During Australian cricket’s unipolar phase, the ground became known as the ‘Gabbatoire’, because it was where visiting touring sides were slaughtered in the first Test of the summer. Now it also describes the heartless, industrial feel.
The WACA in Perth is the latest ground to face the wrecking ball, with plans already in motion for its $250 million transformation. The Inverarity, Prindiville and Lillee-Marsh stands are to be replaced with a 25,000-seat stadium. Like the Adelaide Oval and Gabba, the new WACA will be much more than a cricket ground. It will be ringed by four 20-storey residential and commercial towers, and two other high-rise blocks. The design is bold and futuristic, and few spectators who have visited the WACA would disagree that it badly needs an overhaul. For the cash-strapped WACA, the balance sheet has become as important as the scorecard. But the danger at the WACA is that its primary role as a cricket venue becomes secondary. To the authority’s credit, the sloping grass verges so beloved of Western Australian cricket fans in their singlets and sombreros have been incorporated into the new design. But they might not need to slap on so much zinc cream, given the shade offered by the high-rises behind.
In Sydney, of course, ‘The Hill’ was concreted over in the 1990s, and now the new 12,000-seat Victor Trumper stand occupies that turf. Here, at least, the SCG Trust recognised it was dealing with sacred cricketing real estate, and made sure to erect within the bleachers themselves a bronze statue of its most fiery fan, Yabba. But the design of the new stand, which looks like it should house a particle accelerator rather than bouncing beach balls, does not augur well for the further redevelopment of the stadium. This involves the demolition of the M.A. Noble, the Bradman and Messenger stands, which are scheduled to be replaced in time for the 2015 World Cup.
In the meantime, and presumably well beyond, Cricket Australia and New South Wales have taken the game’s drive towards football-style stadia to its logical conclusion: they have decided to move fixtures to a football stadium. Twenty20 fixtures, the game’s great cash cow, are now being played at the Olympic Stadium, which is akin to England leaving Lords for Wembley.
The MCG, the country’s most splendid sporting cathedral, offers proof that multi-purpose venues can work and prosper. But the key thing to bear in mind with the G is that is has looked like a football stadium for more than half of its existence, and the new was clearly a vast improvement on the old.
Perhaps I am looking at things through a sepia-tinted lens — cricket fans are especially prone to nostalgia, after all. But much-loved grounds are in danger of losing their distinctive personalities, as preservation is trumped by profit, and character is elbowed out by conformity.
Nick Bryant is the author of Adventures in Correspondentland.