October 11, 2013

What's happening to Australia's cricket grounds?

Local venues taught kids to love cricket, but they're vanishing fast, victims of development and commerce

The small Australian cricket ground: an endangered species © Getty Images

In the past few weeks I've been making the first tentative steps to assess the feasibility of a cricket comeback. Having played in only one of the past eight Australian summers, this presents challenges on a number of levels, not least the unwillingness of my body to cope with the jolt away from sedentary habits. The pain has been more than physical, though.

Walking around my new neighborhood, I embarked on a search for cricket nets in which to conduct a solo bowling session under the cloak of anonymity and solitude, away from prying eyes and flailing bats. It proved a fruitless mission. Within a five-kilometre radius of my home (20 minutes north of the Melbourne CBD) there were only two ovals.

The first was more heavily fortified with barbed wire than nearby HM Pentridge Prison in its heyday and featured no nets anyway. The other was a tiny speck of a thing that I imagined to have once been created for the use of the primary school it abutted. I say imagine because it was in a derelict state; the pitch long separated from its astroturf matting and now just a cracked concrete strip. It certainly wasn't the most accommodating prospect for the shiny Kookaburra four-piece I'd brought along.

The single practice net at this oval was so long abandoned that I barely noticed it at first; overgrown with weeds and with the actual net itself long gone, it was a sad sight. To even attempt to bowl on it with only a waist-high fence to catch my deliveries would have immediately marked me out as the neighbourhood oddball. Maybe I am. But this was no longer a cricket ground as I know it. It might never be. I gave up and walked home.

I've been thinking a lot over the last year about the regularity of this sight around Melbourne, and what the disappearance and decay of cricket facilities says about the strength of the game at a community level, particularly for kids. My observations are merely anecdotal, but my aborted net session came back to me later in the week when I stopped by a building site 60km south in Frankston.

There amid the sounds of cranes and tradesmen busy constructing a flash new aquatic centre, I tried to imagine the site as it had been only months prior and for my entire childhood before that. Back then it was the Samuel Sherlock Reserve, an odd-shaped cricket ground with a 30-foot-high cyclone fence that served both to protect motorists on the busy adjacent road and satisfy the requirements of the delightfully-named Frankston Tomatoes baseball team for whom it was also home.

Being a short walk away from my great-grandmother's house and a frequent host of my junior cricket games, it was a place I got to know with the exacting detail only a child can. On baking hot summer days the outfield grass turned yellow and coarse. It was an unforgiving surface on which to dive for a catch or roam the boundary. Though dotted at its edges with mammoth pines, there never seemed to be a slither of shade in which to hide. But for all that, I loved it and spent entire summer days there, my parents doubtlessly glad that my brother and I would rather wait around and field for the seniors than come home and get in their hair. I was just happy if I got a chance to take a catch.

My love of this ground certainly wouldn't be unique; it was frequented by almost every cricketer from the surrounding Mornington Peninsula and many more beyond. During the 1940-41 season, if it could be called that, it was also commandeered as a physical training base for the Australian armed forces. Among them was Lieutenant Donald George Bradman, who had been called upon to supervise physical training at the ground. Though his own exertions during the period were to result in his medical discharge by June of 1941, tales of Bradman's batting in scratch matches during his time stationed in Frankston are lore in the area. As with many so many bush cricket yarns the exact details are less solidly established.

More grounds will disappear in the name of development and commerce but we have to stop and think about what this means for the game in Australia

Writer and Bradman fetishist Roland Perry claims the Don notched up scores of 63, 35 and 112 against Frankston, the RAAF and the Fire Brigade respectively, though local legend has it that he also scored a 35-minute 86 against Frankston High School at the Sherlock Reserve.

In the advancing years of the oval the local council decreed that the northern outskirts of the ground would be the natural location for a skateboard park. A mash of concrete ramps and steel rails, it proved expensive and ugly in equal measure, though it did at least give rise to my own time-travel fantasies of Bradman depositing a loose one straight onto the half-pipe.

More than anything, grounds like this are the remaining connection to the people I played those games with and the town itself. This was a meeting place for old stagers and a breeding ground for a succession of younger generations who learned to love the game of cricket. Now it'll be just another giant box of a building in a nondescript bayside suburb whose fields and open spaces seem to shrink by the year.

There's probably a solid economic argument to prioritise seniors' aqua aerobics and children's swimming lessons over the needs of some park cricketers, even if it is a gut-punch to people like me. More grounds will disappear in the name of development and commerce but we have to stop and think about what this means for the game in Australia.

Our physical resources and the availability of playing facilities have traditionally been the bedrock of the game, perhaps even to the extent of complacency. But slow down for a minute and take a look around your own neighbourhood, because you might be surprised by what you actually see.

That time-poor parents would prefer to send their children to a half-hour swimming lesson rather than let them fry all day in the summer sun might not necessarily be a shock. The leisure options available to children in 2013 far outstrip those of my own childhood and often err on the side of brevity, both in time expended and commitment required. Yet if all of these micro-hobbies and pseudo-sports have become the new normal, it does make me wonder what else might become of Australian cricket in my lifetime.

Russell Jackson is a cricket lover who blogs about sports in the present and nostalgic tense for the Guardian and the Wasted Afternoons. He tweets here