ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 / Features

The comeback city

It's time to close one long, historical chapter of Christchurch cricket and start writing a new one

Paul Ford

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International cricket in Christchurch has been on the backburner since the devastating earthquakes struck the region on February 22, 2011, killing 185 people and impacting scores of others in the Canterbury region and beyond. The final match was played less than a month before the quake, with Mohammad Hafeez (115) and Shahid Afridi (boom-booming his way to 65 from a measly 25 balls) inspiring Pakistan to an easy 43-run win.

The home of cricket in Canterbury for more than 130 years was Lancaster Park, also known as Jade Stadium (after a software company) and, most recently, AMI Stadium (after an insurance company). It was not named after a butcher or a baker, but a candlestick maker, Benjamin Lancaster, who was also the owner of 50 acres of rural land known as the Lancaster block.

Back in October 1881, its planned initiation as a cricket stadium was beset by terrible weather, allowing its hallowed turf to be first used by athletes in a track and field meet. However, it is recognised historically as a dedicated cricket ground, bent to shape for rugby union and all manner of other nonsense.

Over the years, the park has hosted all manner of events, including Davis Cup tennis, cycling, swimming, horse racing, lawn bowls, league, football, balloon ascents, a mass with Pope John Paul II, and a smorgasbord of epic Ranfurly Shield rugby challenges. It was famously dug up during World War I to be used as a potato field in an attempt to raise money for its owners.

It was an early adopter of night cricket (right behind McLean Park, Napier), with the lights atop the 200-foot steel towers first switched on back in February 1997 against Michael Atherton's England side. My memory of the night is hazy at best, but the 25,000-strong sell-out crowd made the most of this intriguing new night-time cricketing experience from all accounts, as the Press reported at the time:

The crowd was in a party mood for the New Zealand innings, with fans in both camps chanting, singing, and urging on their heroes. The atmosphere intensified when the towering new lights went on at the innings break, a historic first for the park.

Police arrested 10 people for a variety of offences, including streaking, assault, and urinating in public. More than 30 people were evicted for disorder offences.

Embankment spectators ignored the organisers' request not to bring chilly bins and deck chairs, with the cheekiest arriving with car seats and sofas.

I'm reluctant to dwell on scatological matters, but the old terraces at Lancaster Park were notorious for becoming a giant gravitational flow of liquid of all sorts throughout nine hours of cricket and indulgence: a urinal best avoided and that we are better off without.

On its concrete walls and wooden roofs, Lancaster Park also acknowledged two of Canterbury and New Zealand sport's most famous dynasties in its stand names: the Hadlee Stand and the Deans Stand.

It is impossible to speak for long about cricket in Canterbury without mentioning a Hadlee or two. They are woven into the DNA of the sport in this part of the world: The blacksmith's son Walter and his boys: Barry the batsman, Dayle the seamer; and Sir Richard, the prince of rhythm and swing bowling, and New Zealand cricket's first knight.

But all of that international history - 40 Tests, 48 ODIs and a handful of T20s - had to be left behind as the massive earthquake struck in 2011, wreaking enough havoc for the ground to be all but condemned. In some places, the land sank more than 12 inches.

The Hadlee Stand was demolished in June 2012, 17 years after it was opened and 22 years after Sir Richard claimed his 400th wicket at the park.

D-day was a depressing day for Canterbury cricket fans, undoubtedly. These days the rest of the stadium still stands forlorn, a derelict wasteland in Phillipstown. Its future is uncertain. Arguments among bureaucrats, engineers, insurers, planners, officials and politicians look set to rage for years.


The AMI Stadium months before the earthquake of 2011 © Getty Images

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So cricket in Christchurch turns a new page in its impressive scorebook. It must, after all, it is the comeback city. And this chapter will be written in the city's magnificent set of lungs: Hagley Oval.

The post-makeover Hagley Oval looks like a peach, a boutique ground built on the promise (and prayer) of World Cup cricket making it back to the Garden City. It will host the World Cup opener on Valentine's Day 2015 as New Zealand take on Sri Lanka, as well as the 2014 Boxing Day Test.

It sure has come a long way after being lambasted by the nation's first-class cricketers as having the worst on-field and off-field facilities in the country. Many serious cricketing eyes will be watching the lead-up games with interest. As recently as last year, the New Zealand Cricket Players' Association's survey found "40% of players think Hagley Oval has the most inconsistent wicket, followed by the University Oval in Dunedin". One suspects turf manager Rupert Bool will be keeping a lot of batsmen awake at night.

Much debate raged over whether it was right to transform a small pocket of the 164-hectare public park into a cricket oval. "It's just not cricket!" squawked the park purists. "But we're already playing cricket here," retorted the sport's supporters. "And we'll leave the other 97% of Hagley as it is."

I haven't changed my mind since August 2013, when the plans were announced: a glorious, grassy cricket paddock is hardly going to obliterate the serenity. The new development is tasteful and small in scale - and only locked down to ticketholders for three weeks per annum.

One quaint wee Hagley Oval gem to keep an eye out for is the protected building known as the Canterbury Cricket Umpires' Association Pavilion. This old-school wooden pavilion, built in 1864, is purported to be the oldest in the southern hemisphere. It was built on the first Canterbury Cricket Club grounds for a touring English XI, which gave the local Canterbury team a hiding, but apparently liked the hospitality and construction efforts. It was deemed a keeper.

Paul Ford is a co-founder of the Beige Brigade. @beigebrigade

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Paul Ford (aka Paul Holden) is a co-founder of the beloved Beige Brigade, the patriotic and long suffering Kiwi supporters' cult that is a bastion of things brown, tan, tongue-in-cheek and tenuously cricket-related. Paul lives in Wellington, somewhere between the Basin Reserve and Karori Park, and his favourite shot is the front-foot pull. @beigebrigade
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