March 26, 2012

The lake that became a people's ground

The Basin Reserve may not be the most picturesque venue but it is full of history and character

Meet the Basin Reserve. It's the cricket-ground version of your friend's father - one who is familiar without being exclusive, comforting without being overbearing, and old enough to talk of days gone by, yet young enough to want to live new ones.

The Basin is not the prettiest cricket ground, it does not have the smoothest, greenest outfield, its grandstand is not of the best colonial architecture, and its stands are not the most comfortable, but it does have character. One hundred and forty-six years of it.

More if you count the time it spent as a lake in the mid-1800s, before the 1855 Wairarapa earthquake lifted the land more than two metres, to form a swamp, which was cleaned out to create a cricket ground. Yes, it is that obvious. The Basin got its name because it was, well, a basin, and the earth moved to remove the plug.

As Don Neely, the cricket historian who has dedicated a significant part of his research to cricket in Wellington, puts it: "The good lord said, 'You've got to have a place to play cricket,' and so we have this ground."

However, it was not merely divine intervention. It took the locals to turn the marsh into a meadow. Luckily, they had free labour. "There were people who wanted to play cricket so they went to see the provisional council and said, 'If we get free labour, can we turn that swamp into something worthwhile?' One of them was the head man of the jail on the other side of the city. He had the free labour," Neely says.

And so cricket began. The first matches were played on a rectangular field. More than a century later, the Basin is one of only 11 grounds around the world (five in England, four in Australia and one in Trinidad) to have hosted over 50 Test matches. Much has changed, but more has stayed the same.

Neely put together a book to commemorate the 50th Test match, against Pakistan in December 2009. Titled The Basin, it is an illustrated history of the ground, which places it in context to the city of Wellington. The pictures are of places around the Basin - the schools, streets and other elements that make up the neighbourhood. Going through it provides you with a sense of the area's vitality, but you get a better picture talking to Neely.

"The most important part of this ground is that path there," he says, pointing to perimeter of the walkway that wraps around the field. "You can walk right around the ground and you don't encounter any fence or wall. No matter what time of day cricket is being played, people are always walking there, whether it's to go to the toilets or to go for a cup of coffee. It's always alive." When the sun came out on the third day of the current Test against South Africa, the walkway was also used to play cricket by children who had come to watch the game.

Even under heavy cloud and in lashing winds, like on the first two days, there are always some fans at the game, but when the sun comes out so do many more spectators. The ground has a capacity of around 10,000, which Neely said is "as big as you'd want a ground to be" because it allows for a fairly intimate experience without giving way to the cavernous chaos that can sometimes come with a stadium.

People can be a part of the Basin in more ways than one. The white picket fence around the ground is public property of sorts. In 2007, there was a drive to have each picket sponsored by a fan. For NZ$110, you could buy a plaque to be attached to a picket, inscribed with your name and the date. Not all the pickets have been bought but there's a sense of ownership for those who did. "I remember walking around here with [ICC chief executive] Haroon Lorgat and he said this is the ideal Test venue because of the feel of it," Neely says.

The best place to take in the atmosphere is on the grass banks, under the Pohutakawa trees - especially in December. For five years in the 1990s and early 2000s, New Zealand hosted a Boxing Day Test match, which allowed people to sit under the trees known as New Zealand Christmas trees. "They flower and you get this gorgeous cardinal red colour," Neely says.

Also in the middle of the grass banks is a domed monument built in honour of William Wakefield, the first leader of the Wellington settlement. "Where else in world cricket can you go and have a seat on the steps near a monument that has actually been part of the ground since a few years after it was built?"

The eight-pillared structure had been part of the ground since 1882 but was moved outside in 1917, and there were plans to move it even further, to Parliament, in 2003, when it was restored. When Neely was told about the relocation plans, he dug out photographs of when the monument was inside the ground and showed them to the city council. On the basis of that evidence, they agreed to move the memorial back into the ground, and now it's "about ten metres west from where it originally was", Neely confirmed proudly.

History is what makes the Basin so special to Neely, and the ground is decorated with heritage. Plaques on the pathway commemorate major moments of the ground's history: the first win against England in February 1978, John Reid's then world record 15 sixes in an innings for Wellington against Northern Districts (1962-63), and Martin Crowe and Andrew Jones' record partnership of 467.

The New Zealand Cricket Museum is housed in one of the stands. Although the stand has been closed because it is an earthquake hazard, the museum can still be visited. It contains an exceptional collection of memorabilia, including Clarrie Grimmett's blazer, Dennis Lillee's aluminium bat, a ball made of twine used by cricketers during World War Two, an LP of Jack Hobbs talking about "How to improve your cricket", and a large photo collection, of which one of my favourites was of the 1935 New Zealand women's team that played against England, complete with skirts long enough to meet their pads.

For Neely, the museum acts as a bridge between the ages. "You can be standing in there, looking at things from the past and look out of the window and see play in the present." With so many memories to choose from, he finds it difficult to pick one that sticks out. Instead, he has one in mind that is yet to take place. "Next year, at one of the tea breaks, I am going to make sure a conga is played over the loudspeaker and the Barmy Army will circle the ground and dance in a conga line. If it comes off, remember you heard it here first."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

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