Adelaide Oval's identity crisis
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.
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