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Remember the good times

Why must wowsers take the fun out of cricket?

1 January 2011

12:00 AM

1 January 2011

12:00 AM

A five-test Ashes series is a cricket spectator’s delight, an opportunity to travel the country watching the great game at the various Test venues. Of all the venues, my favourite is undoubtedly the Adelaide Oval. With its flash new Members’ Stand, the ‘village green’ out the back with the Pimm’s marquee and its grassy hill, Adelaide has easily the most enjoyable atmosphere of any of the Test grounds. Unfortunately, the fate of other grounds now mirrors that of the Aussie team itself, having been stripped of so much of their appeal.

Sport mirrors life, and the evolution of cricket spectating has reflected broader social trends. For example, the 1970s was an era of social libertarianism, before the onset of political correctness and public health campaigns. It was no different at the cricket. In the 1974/75 Ashes series, a single Test match at the SCG produced 460,000 empty beer cans over five days. Since then, society has become more regulated and risk-averse, as have our cricket grounds. In the 1970s, patrons were subject to a limit of one slab per person that could be brought in. Then followed the ‘two-can limit’ in the early Eighties. By the late Eighties it was illegal to bring in any beer, and by the early Nineties only light beer was being sold, usually lukewarm, in plastic cups.

The same trends are reflected in the grounds themselves. Where diversity once ruled, conformity now prevails. Since the 1980s the SCG hill has been replaced with seats, the Gabba has been completely redeveloped, and at the MCG the original Bay 13 was replaced with a new one. Only in Adelaide does the old hill remain, and with it the old easygoing cricket culture: men can be men, women can be whistled at and no one objects to some colourful behaviour or a few beer showers during the course of the day’s play. It’s all good clean fun and no one gets hurt.

The contrast with Melbourne and Sydney is enormous, rather like that between East and West Berlin. In the Eastern states a culture of punitive wowserism is now enforced by humourless fun police. At the MCG you can be evicted for as little as laughing out of turn or spilling a drop of beer. Bay 13 is now permanently encircled by dozens of security goons, ready to forcibly remove anyone for the slightest indiscretion. The most common reaction from victims as they get frogmarched out by security is not a protestation of innocence, but to simply ask: ‘Why? Just tell me why?’ With each eviction the pubs surrounding the MCG come to resemble detention centres under Julia Gillard, as they overflow with asylum-seekers from the wowserist regime.

Victoria is the state that considers itself the ‘human rights oasis’, the only state to have enacted a bill of rights. But if anyone is in any doubt about the abysmal failure of the Victorian Charter of Rights, look no further than the systematic persecution that occurs at every cricket match at the G.

It wasn’t always that way. When it comes to fun at the cricket, the MCG holds some special memories. One of the first cricket matches I attended was in 1988, when Richard Hadlee was regularly humiliating Australia. Hadlee appealed for an lbw that was instantly turned down. Despite the umpire’s decision, he still kept appealing, prompting loud jeers from the stands. Completely spontaneously, Bay 13 began chanting ‘Hadlee’s a wanker’, which quickly spread throughout the ground. When an oh-so-serious Hadlee appeared on TV a few days later arguing that the ‘wanker’ chant must be the fault of the Aussie school system not instilling appropriate values, his fate was sealed. The chant would follow Hadlee around every Aussie ground for the rest of his otherwise illustrious career.

The ‘Hadlee’s a Wanker’ match became instantly notorious as the ‘worst-behaved’ crowd yet seen at the MCG. But in the seasons that followed, this record was routinely broken every year. It would invariably fall at the first one-day match of the season, usually held in early December. This game became known as the ‘Schoolies One- Dayer’ which, like Schoolies Week on the Gold Coast, was characterised by an influx of thousands of rowdy teenagers just learning how to drink and behave boorishly. The absence of full-strength beer was no impediment, as the light stuff was more than sufficient for impressionable 18-year-olds.

As a young cricket fan, the Schoolies One-Dayer was the most anticipated day of the year. Each year the game would feature multiple drunken pitch invasions, constant chanting and singing, a downpour of projectiles during the Mexican wave, plus plenty of harmless fun. The most famous incident at a Schoolies One-Dayer occurred in 1998/99 when the England team stopped play in protest at the crowd’s behaviour. The English captain in his wisdom then summoned Shane Warne from the dressing room, wearing a helmet, to ‘talk’ to the crowd in an attempt to calm them down, which, of course, only created even more mayhem.

As the regime of punitive wowserism became more extreme, great feats of innovation were attempted to subvert the paradigm. One colleague developed an ingenious plan for smuggling full-strength beer into the ground. Back in the 1990s, extremely wide ‘homey’ pants were in fashion. He owned a pair of pants that were big enough to enable him to strap a six-pack’s worth of stubbies to the inside of his legs. The true identity of the contraband could be disguised by buying a plastic cup of light beer, draining its contents and then filling the cup with the real stuff. The only people who ever cottoned on were a couple of kids sitting in front. ‘It’s the Magic Beer Cup,’ he told them. ‘It refills itself without going back to the bar.’

In Sydney, innovation took on a different form. The SCG crowd pioneered the concept of the ‘beer wench’ — a young lady who would be paid by a bunch of male fans to go back and forth to the bar buying them drinks, thus enabling the blokes not to miss a single ball. As the concept caught on, certain ‘entertainment’ venues got in on the act, offering the services of their ‘entertainers’ for the role. Not surprisingly, beer wenches were soon banned by the powers that be, but at what cost? I’ve always thought that the gentlemen who employed a beer wench were actually acting chivalrously, kind of like Salvation Army volunteers in Victorian times who used to save ‘fallen women’ from prostitution. In this case, the men at the SCG were enabling the poor girl to live a more virtuous life as a beer wench and thus be saved from greater degradation as a pole dancer.

These days cricket authorities are trying so hard to promote the game in new ways, mostly through Twenty20 games and their associated gimmicks. They think pre-match fireworks and loud music are the key to its appeal. They should forget about the razzle-dazzle and just loosen up, Adelaide-style. If they hadn’t done so much to enforce punitive wowserism and stifle the creative spirit of cricket crowds, they wouldn’t need the gimmicks they are now so desperately embracing.

Ben Davies is a Melbourne sports fan.

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