April 25, 2011

Adelaide Oval's identity crisis

By 2014 the historic South Australian ground is likely to become a stadium with vast stands and drop-in pitches. Will it retain a sense of its old self at all?

First, a few facts. Pending a South Australian Cricket Association members' vote, Adelaide Oval is to be redeveloped significantly in time for 2014. The new ground will be ringed on three sides by vast stands, raising capacity from about 40,000 to 50,000. Room will be made by bulldozing the Sir Donald Bradman Stand, the south eastern hill and the eastern Chappell Stands, while the northern hill, the Moreton Bay Figs and the old scoreboard will remain. The Victor Richardson Gates will be pushed eastwards into the Creswell Gardens.

On the oval itself, the pitch square will be dug up and removed, replaced by drop-in wickets during the summer and football-friendly turf during the winter. The precinct will be augmented by the addition of a footbridge across the Torrens River, while sharp traffic restrictions will be put in place on match days to limit the expected bottleneck of cars. Total cost of this venture, excluding the footbridge, will be about A$535 million. The vote takes place on May 2.

Whether all this is exciting or horrifying depends very much on one's point of view.

Approached plainly, Adelaide Oval seems destined to end up a cousin of those major Australian cricket grounds to have undergone extensive redevelopments over the past decade. It has already been upgraded significantly, as the new Western Stand, opened in time for the 2010 Ashes Test, can readily attest. In the cases of the forbidding Gabba, the mighty MCG and the in-betweener SCG, each venue has retained some of its character despite losing either its pitch or its traditional views. Adelaide's great challenge will be to retain a sense of self while losing both.

Most accept the current pattern of development would remove the oval from a most exclusive circle of Test match grounds, all in the name of providing a suitable venue for Adelaide's two Australian Rules football clubs. Lost will be the intimacy Gideon Haigh summed up in One Summer, Every Summer, his account of the 1994-95 Ashes: "You could get lost in the catacombs of the MCG and SCG for weeks and not come up for air. Here you can say and mean it: 'I'll see you at the ground tomorrow'." After 2014, only Lord's and Newlands will remain among the most stately of international locales, as Adelaide Oval becomes, but for a few leafy metres at the northern end, Adelaide Stadium.

Ricky Ponting has articulated his sorrow about the end of Adelaide Oval "as we know it". He worked on the groundstaff in the early 1990s while part of the national cricket academy intake, and was nostalgic for nothing so much as the old members' benches he maintained as fastidiously as his batting technique. "I'm basically sad to see all those coloured seats go in the members' stand because when I was at the academy I changed every nut and bolt on those seats," Ponting said in 2009, shortly after the upgrade was first announced. "That was my job for the year, so I'm sad to see those go. It's sad to see the Adelaide Oval go as we know it. But it looks like it's going to turn into a fantastic stadium."

It is this change that has caused the most consternation among some of Adelaide's members, who must vote "yes" in an overwhelming 75% majority in order to amend the South Australia Cricket Association constitution. The constitutional adjustment would allow the new ground to be shared with football under the jurisdiction of the Stadium Management Authority, at a cost of temporary pitches and incalculable ambience. The possibility remains that the state government will still push the development through regardless, though a favourable vote would quicken the process. Sceptics reckon the public money to be funnelled into the oval should instead go towards building an all-purpose stadium elsewhere near the city, arguing it is a more logical way to replace the outmoded Football Park and so leave Adelaide Oval in its current state.

Most accept the current pattern of development would remove the oval from a most exclusive circle of Test match grounds, all in the name of providing a suitable venue for Adelaide's two Australian Rules football clubs. Lost will be the intimacy summed up by Gideon Haigh: "You could get lost in the catacombs of the MCG and SCG for weeks and not come up for air. Here you can say and mean it: 'I'll see you at the ground tomorrow'."

While it will be impossible to measure the number of naysayers until the vote itself, they have been drowned out in terms of volume by a powerful conglomerate of SACA, SANFL, two AFL clubs, the state government and the Advertiser, Adelaide's only daily newspaper. Missionary zeal does not come close to describing the intensity with which these groups have pushed for change, spruiking their wares in the manner of Benny Hinn, the television evangelist turned used-car salesman. At times, the truth appears to have been lost in the selling.

Greg Howe, ringleader of the "no" voters, built a rudimentary website at saveadelaideoval.com. To his great surprise, he soon discovered that the similar saveadelaideoval.com.au address diverted surfers to the redevelopment's far swankier homepage. Ian McLachlan, the SACA president, has gone as far as saying that Adelaide Oval risked losing its annual Test match if the upgrade does not go ahead, a view not shared by Cricket Australia. He and others have also stated, straight-faced, that drop-in pitches "will be necessary to ensure that cricket is provided with the best possible playing surface for the entire summer". Not even the hefty involvement of Les Burdett, the oval's popular groundsman for 31 years until he retired in 2010, can divert from the fact there remains no comparison between the qualities of a permanent wicket and a drop-in. Local league football has been played on the oval for years, without the need for digging. Footballers are commonly complimentary about the surface.

Debates over the future of the oval extend well beyond matters of concrete and turf. The very essence of Adelaide, and South Australia, is regarded by many to be at stake. A streak of conservatism has run through the state since its founding by an unholy marriage of Masonic English speculators and European religious refugees from 1836. This is epitomised by a lack of major development in Adelaide when placed against the changes seen in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth. Test match visitors to Adelaide are typically seduced by the city's lack of hustle and bustle, yet that is precisely the kind of thing the government wishes to create by holding AFL matches in the city.

Among the more valuable voices, though little heard in this debate, are those of the state cricketers who will be taking part in most matches at the ground. The former batsman Greg Blewett has been used as a pro-spokesman by the SACA, while current South Australia players have largely allowed general sporting altruism to overrule any private misgivings about what may become of the pitch. Interstate combatants have been less enthusiastic, some shocked to discover the oval's wickets would become drop-ins.

One player, making note of the MCG's portable pitch, alluded to the hollow sound made whenever a paceman deigned to deliver a bouncer during a Sheffield Shield match at the ground. Whichever way the SACA members vote on May 2, some will be left feeling decidedly hollow about the result.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • ygkd on April 28, 2011, 8:08 GMT

    I still don't think this will help SA cricket as much as it helps footy. I geniunely don't like seeing the Redbacks languishing towards the bottom of the Shield table (I was rather hoping they'd do much, much better last season). And it is not a matter of who was at the Ad. Oval first - cricket or football. Just that cricket doesn't need to be pushed off by footy. It even happens where I live. Football pre-season training starts before cricket has started finals and for some reason footy suddenly takes priority. I'm not against football and I understand the wider situation. Richmond, the team I support is in debt and shares a dual-purpose stadium too, I just don't see why footy always has to prevail. I was at the Ad. Oval recently and I rather thought that the sharing idea just won't work, mainly because there aren't enough months in the year to do both sports justice. I still think a separate stadium would be better.

  • Meety on April 28, 2011, 7:07 GMT

    I just thnk that IF the redevelopment includes a drop in pitch the standard of cricket in Sth Oz will drop too! Actually not just for Sth Oz, but Interstate teams will not be tested in the way in which they have for over 100yrs. Anyways - judging by the comments of Sth Ozzys - redevelopment will go ahead.

  • Meety on April 28, 2011, 6:59 GMT

    @Woody111/redneck - I'm not from Sth Oz, & only commented because I am passionate about CRICKET. I think the redvelopment would be good for circles outside of cricket. The idea that Adelaide is a road I think is a throwback to the 1980s. The Adelaide Oval I've always thought rewarded good bowling AND Good batting. I've always liked the way the pitch can deteriorate significantly over the last couple of days. For the asking price ($525m), I think your better off having another ground redeveloped. There has been a lot of development at the Oval over the last few years & I think that sum of money could get you an awesome stadium on a green field site! The G/Coast Suns Stadium (correct my earlier comment), costs between $110 & $144m for 25,000 seats (75% covered). My thing is for $500+m - you still just have 1 stadium, (with lost charm). Why not have 2 stadiums? (Genuinely don't know why other sites aren't an option).

  • KingofRedLions on April 28, 2011, 4:46 GMT

    Blame the SA Government.

  • Woody111 on April 28, 2011, 2:06 GMT

    As a SACA member I voted 'for' yesterday online knowing I will never feel good about it. The thought of drop in pitches makes my skin crawl but at least SACA has been upfront about that. I can only hope Les Burdett is genuine (ie not paid to comment in support) about the prospects of better drop ins relative to the past. I am not convinced as the MCG pitch has consistently been the worst test pitch for several years. BUT, the reason I voted 'for' was more to do with sport in this state; not just cricket. Adelaide just lost the rugby 7s, we have an archaic football stadium in West Lakes and have no option big enough for hosting soccer world cup games. A comment provided about the Adelaide Oval pitch being a road is valid. The problem with a drop in alternative in my view is that they have no pace, bounce or carry. The reason this is a problem is that it does not allow for good cricket for either the batting or bowing side. SACA; please make sure the pitch plays as it should!

  • redneck on April 27, 2011, 23:53 GMT

    @youngkeepersdad, by all means comment. everyones point is valid. what i was meaning is that people outside SA look at this as purely a cricket issue and like the adelaide oval as a specialist cricket ground. i do too, but not if its at the expense of adelaide not being able to host other sports and events. i love cricket but also love port adelaide. the way i see it cricket is going to be here regardless of what form the adelaide oval takes on, if this redevelopment doesnt happen in 10 years time port might not be. personly thats too bigger price to pay here in SA just to keep it as the cricket ground it currently is and to satisfy people interstate that would never come to adelaide anyway! the world may know adelaide oval as a cricket ground but it was hosting footy well before it staged its first test. and regarding the drop in pitch its no difference as adelaide was never a lively wicket anyway, if this were the gabba i would be alot more upset about it!

  • ygkd on April 27, 2011, 7:10 GMT

    Sorry Redneck, but I don't see why I shouldn't be able to comment. There is more to Victoria than Melbourne, and I rather think Adelaide is much more friendly, until you mention you're an easterner. It's that friendly (if-we-think-you're-one-of-us) atmosphere that will be lost. Besides, drop-in pitches really aren't the way forward for what is the best ground in the country. This redevelopment will help your Port Adelaide FC more than cricket. And if you think Adelaide is the forgotten Australia, try a small town a decent drive inland of any capital city. There is a bigger difference between city and country than between states, and you never know, one day I may well move to yours.

  • redneck on April 26, 2011, 23:59 GMT

    you have to love these non south australians commenting on our oval! espechally the other aussies on the eastern sea board which get everything falling into their laps! you guys dont understand we cant afford a new stadium, our footy clubs which are the heart and soul of the city are loosing money and are falling behind the victorian teams in terms of cashflow. our state cricket board is in debt they cant pay off and footy parks out in the sticks and falling apart. the only logical option is to renovate adelaide oval! as a cricket supporter it is sad to see the pitch turn drop in (but then it was a fair dead wicket anyway) and the whole reason its cost 500+ million to redo is so its done right and not on the cheep so it will still look nice! as a south aussie born and bread we miss out on so much (socceroos, wallabies etc) this state needs this to happen, and as a port supporter our club might fold if it doesnt! if that means another cement bowl for a cricket ground so be it!

  • dummy4fb on April 26, 2011, 15:15 GMT

    All for redeveloping the stands, but leave the pitch alone.

  • mightymf2000 on April 26, 2011, 8:13 GMT

    Keep the Oval as it is. It is perfectly fine so why change it? Anyway drop in wickets are terrible. Adelaide is one of THE best cricket grounds so SACA why agree to re delvoping it for Footy. I mean even though Spetember action isn't always there like the MCG AFL could destroy the ground.

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