Christian Ryan
Writer based in Melbourne. Author of Golden Boy: Kim Hughes and the Bad Old Days of Australian Cricket

A cricket ground's song

What makes a special cricket place special? At Adelaide Oval, part of it is that going to the cricket is about not having to watch the cricket

Christian Ryan

December 9, 2013

Comments: 7 | Text size: A | A

© Getty Images

Rinsed in light, near a river, beside the church, was a beautiful cricket ground. At least, who is to say there was not?

The ground appears in a Patrick Eagar photo - a left-handed batsman in blue cap waiting, a fielder in a red cap posted forward of square. It is a tour match. Rising from the bottom of the photo are the backs and sun-hatted heads of three spectators in fold-out chairs. One (a man) has binoculars trained. Next to him someone (a woman) is not watching, the pages of a book or possibly magazine just visible on her lap. The third spectator, who's taken off a white button-up coat and draped it over the fence pickets, has to cock her head and tilt it 45 degrees to see the play, which she does. Eagar must have been crouched behind them when he pointed and clicked. Except some years ago I sent him a short description of the photo, asking permission to reprint it in a book with other cricket photos in it, and he emailed back.

"Cannot. Before my time. Not my photo."

A day later, a second email.

"Found it."

****

Test cricket came to Adelaide Oval in 1884 and when dust storms stopped play anyone standing on close-by Montefiore Hill was able to see the suffocating players lying on the ground, gulping air.

Moreton Bay fig trees were planted, and slowly grew, and later the view wasn't as good. But still, barely squinting, in the crack between a grandstand and the trees, you could make out the 22 yards of the pitch. For a century and a quarter and more, fathers took their sons there.

Then last Friday, when Australia's and England's cricketers gathered themselves in rows for a minute's silence for Nelson Mandela, the view of the players, the field, the silence, was… blankness. You could still hear it, though.

Not every city gives its people a free view of the cricket ground and pitch while an international match is in progress.

Big change sweeps most cricket places eventually. The logic's nearly beyond argument: if you can fit more people in a ground, that means more money. To be there in the week that change arrives is a tearing feeling.

If the play is good, and the refreshments are fine, and the atmosphere is enthusiastic, and your seat is comfortable, and you are guaranteed a toilet within 40 metres of that seat, is that enough? It's not. A special cricket place has something else.

People are anxious.

You don't want to hate it. You want it to be great.

****

On TV once I swear I saw John Dyson - square-headed under his helmet, stiff-armed as bat tapped ball - hit straight and slow enough down the ground that he and Kepler Wessels ran five. So close-up and strangely particular is my remembering… Am I misremembering? Except, of course, all-run fives driven to the long straight boundary were common on the old, pre-ropes Adelaide Oval - true?

Charles Davis, the statistician, has 40 full scoresheets of Adelaide Tests between 1911 and 1998. Fives in Adelaide, he says, were more frequent than fives in Melbourne or Brisbane, yes, but outnumbered by Sydney fives. Fives constituted only 0.03% of total runs scored in the Adelaide Tests that Davis knows about. "Maybe it's just another of those myths that get repeated?"

Bruce Laird managed three fives in a single Test here. That was sort of cheating, fives-wise, because overthrows were involved. Jack Ryder in 1925, Bill Brown in 1937, Keith Miller in 1948 - all scored fives, all the result of overthrows.

"There are no fives without overthrows in Adelaide in the era of Cricinfo text commentaries, since 1999."

Davis' 40 Adelaide Test scoresheets before then reveal a mere 16 fives.

"Including the one by Dyson that you mentioned."

****

To ancient Graymore by tram, and by foot, and if Adelaide has a second sacred cricket site, it is here: the backyard pitch on which Ian, Greg and Trevor Chappell played 300 days a year.

At 4A Leak Avenue I knock. Garry, who opens, and who has been here ten years, says it's not here. He is "99% sure" that what used to be 4 Leak Avenue - the old Chappell address - is now, thanks to various bulldozings and housing subdivisions, 2 Leak Avenue, where a young bloke moved in a fortnight ago. I go see the young bloke. I tell him the history. He is pretty pleased. But while we are talking, Garry digs out another neighbour, Terry, who isn't young, and Terry says Garry's wrong. Garry's place is the Chappell site. Terry's certain. As a matter of fact, Terry used to chuck the balls back when they landed in his yard.

 
 
Sportswriter John Harms calls it "the Adelaide rhythm" - "that point of an Adelaide match when the wicket is so good that a batsman is unlikely to be dismissed unless he makes a mistake"
 

Out the front, two low-slung, adjoining, modern-looking homes are separated by a two-car garage.

Out the back is a shed, a patio, a thicket of miniature date palms.

Greg Chappell developed his distinctive hip shot - "There's no name for this shot," wrote old England captain Mike Brearley - by flicking the ball between a citrus tree and an almond tree that have been ripped out, adjacent to a tankstand that's gone, opposite a homemade pitch that isn't anymore there, behind a three-bedroom sandstone house that isn't anymore there, in a suburb that is no longer called Graymore.

****

Top of the fourth-floor escalator in the southern stand, Day 1, nine minutes till start time, his white hair bushy and windswept, making him look more and more as he ages like a koala-tastic Keith Miller, it's Ian Chappell. "The media centre," he says, confused, "it's over where?"

****

When Laurie Mayne was a boy in Westonia his father said: "He's got a bat. You've got a ball. He defends three stumps. Knock them over." Later Laurie made the Western Australian team and discovered he could bowl bumpers. Soon after, next to the Adelaide Oval practice nets and behind the main grandstand in December 1964, for 35 minutes Laurie and Don Bradman walked and talked. It was the break between innings of a Sheffield Shield game. Laurie had just dismissed Lloyd, Shiell and Blundell.

"What sticks in my mind," says Laurie, "is Sir Donald politely asked Locky, the captain, for permission. And the long and the short of his advice, as I recall, was 'You've got energy, you've got enthusiasm, you've got the right sorts of qualities. Now you have to make sure you don't bowl too many short balls. Keep them in your armoury but be astute as to when you bowl them and at whom.' And I said, 'Thank you very much, sir.'"

Ten weeks later the squad for the Caribbean was announced. Laurie was in.

****

In another Patrick Eagar photo, a landscape shot, it is as if his camera had a slow-motion setting: old hand-turned scoreboard, St Peter's Cathedral, Yardley bowls, umpire and fielders crouch, suspension hangs, Gower leaves the ball…

Sportswriter John Harms calls this "the Adelaide rhythm" - "that point of an Adelaide match when the wicket is so good that a batsman is unlikely to be dismissed unless he makes a mistake".

These past five days at new Adelaide tended to unfold, in sync with the surroundings, at stadium speed. Even so, certain passages resembled old Adelaide, such as Clarke gliding and Haddin heaving run after effortless run on the second morning, and Root and Pietersen detaining the Australians on Day 4, captain Clarke ultimately squeezing dry the runs, preparatory to one of his bowlers claiming the breakthrough.

It is good driving cricket: cricket-on-the-car-radio sort of cricket.

"The leave" is an important Adelaide shot.


© Getty Images

Cricket by its nature consists of long patches of seeming inactivity broken by spells or flurries of wickets, runs and drama, and the dramatic intervals are when matches get decided, again and again it happens like this, yet never in the same two ways, and therefore seldom boringly. The slow-cricket passages, when you smell the imminent epic drama like a wave about to break, can be the most delicious and tense.

"A good thing about Adelaide," someone who flies here specially most Test summers reckons, "is you can wander out the back to the bar for 20 minutes and, when you return, nothing's changed."

You usually only ever hear this said in Adelaide. In Adelaide you hear it said a lot. It is a jarring concept, the idea that an up-side, in Adelaide, about going to the cricket is not having to watch the cricket. But it is something that's felt deeply, and it's real.

****

Conversation overheard between churchgoer in tie hurrying towards the steps outside St Peter's and spectator leaving the ground on the first evening -

"What's the score? Any idea?"

"F*** knows. Haven't seen a ball since lunchtime."

****

On the car radio is how Don Walker likes to follow cricket. Forty years ago Walker's band Cold Chisel formed in Adelaide.

A half sentence in his memoir, Shots, goes: "… this prim little city on the edge of Next Stop Antarctica."

About his band's first regular venue, the Largs Pier Hotel, he writes: "… the pigdogs are chained up waiting at home and everyone just wants to bash something."

Performing in Roskilde put another songwriter, the late David McComb of The Triffids, in mind of Adelaide: "… In Denmark they treat you like a pop group, which is how it should be. In London they treat you like a uni lecturer. In Adelaide they treat you like shit."

Not much music is happening at the Largs Pier during Adelaide Test week 2013. A DJ is booked for "Funkin' Up Friday", a female folk singer on Sunday afternoon.

****

Batting or bowling, you cannot see the cathedral.

In two thirds of the seats round the ground, no longer can you see the cathedral.

In seats that do have a cathedral view, often it is just the tips of two spires.

You know what redevelopment plan I want to see? I want to see a cricket ground spend $535 million redeveloping a cathedral until the cathedral is within clear sight of the cricket ground.

Right of the hand-turned 1911 scoreboard, right of the bucketheaded KFC eaters, is a rectangle of grass sectioned off by steel barricades. It is quiet. People are sitting on rugs. But not many people, though the day is a sellout. This is the view: a sliver of tree between two grandstands, a Toyota ad sightscreen, plastic seats. Mostly plastic seats. And - in front of the seats - cricket. Nothing interesting to look at but the cricket. It is hard to not watch the cricket. The cricket score and replay screen are comfortably visible without craning your neck. It is all about cricket. And reverie.

****

John Mosey's mother wrote down his scores the first time he played, a habit she couldn't shake, until John took over, and through their combined devotion we know that from 1954 to 2003, in all forms of South Australian country cricket, JL Mosey of Eudunda-Robertstown amassed 37,283 runs, hit 93 centuries, and took 2750-odd wickets.

Three times he batted on Adelaide Oval. Never dismissed.

"A batsman's paradise," he remembers. "And the thing that impressed me most was the sightscreens. They were big and wide. They were so good you could see which way the ball was spinning in the air."

Square of the action, in the unopened and still-being-built eastern stand, between the floor and the lip of the bottom concrete tier, you can experience a jolting optical sensation. The players bounce. The field glows. It seems to radiate from underneath, like they are playing on an upturned catwalk.

It is the light. The light's the same.

Christian Ryan is a writer based in Melbourne. He is the author of Golden Boy: Kim Hughes and the Bad Old Days of Australian Cricket and, most recently Australia: Story of a Cricket Country

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Posted by   on (December 10, 2013, 0:53 GMT)

Thank you for a wonderfully nostalgic article.

Posted by wouldlovetoplayagain on (December 10, 2013, 0:33 GMT)

A beautiful setting for cricket - I have seen several days play on trips to Adelaide over the years. Regarding "fives" - I remember the late David Bairstow as non-striker running a five in a one-dayer at the MCG in 1978-79 I think. He followed through a long way, then was called back to run a sixth by his batting partner when the throw from the fielder missed. So he then got run out going for the SIXTH run.

It may have been this game on Feb 4th 1979 http://www.espncricinfo.com/ci/engine/match/64170.html

Posted by nologoboy on (December 9, 2013, 20:00 GMT)

Beautiful piece you have offered up here, Christian. I have lived in the UK for 10 years now and knew nothing of the 're-development' of the Adelaide Oval until it blinked in to view just before day one of the second test. I always looked forward to the Adelaide test, not least to hear a new, invigorated round of superlatives describing the ageless beauty of one of the world's prettiest grounds. Ageless, despite the national appetite for brisk change, improvement and shiny re-modelings. Then my heart sank. A beauty lost. A gorgeousness that once breathed romance in to our most cherished game, lost forever. Why? Again, I ask...why? Who does this benefit? Got half a billion dollars? Good, take it to the brown fields of Nowheresville, create a new history and build yourself a place of sporting worship to satisfy the gods of here and now. Australia is vast. Plenty of room for shiny new offerings. The decision was made. Kill that fabulous old thing. We don't care. This is Australia.

Posted by   on (December 9, 2013, 12:32 GMT)

Dean Jones and Allan Border ran an all-run five in either the late 80's or early 90's at Adelaide.

Posted by u_guys_are_history on (December 9, 2013, 12:17 GMT)

Christian, you are the Quentin Tarantino of cricket writing...lovely article..

Posted by Rowayton on (December 9, 2013, 9:32 GMT)

Lovely piece - lived in Adelaide in the 80s and loved sitting on the grass at the Cathedral end, around the other side from the scoreboard. One thing Christian doesn't mention is how frigging hot it can be. The day Border scored 200 against NZ is the hottest day at the cricket I can ever remember. And in all my first class cricket watching career I can only remember seeing one all run 5, and that was 50 years ago, by a Queensland batsman in Sydney called Ray Reynolds , a push down through mid on off Davidson when the only fielder in front of the wicket was at short leg.

Posted by A_D_K on (December 9, 2013, 7:29 GMT)

Wonderfully written Christian. At least the light's still the same...

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Christian Ryan Christian Ryan lives in Melbourne, writes and edits, was once the editor of The Monthly magazine and Wisden Australia, and now bowls low-grade, high-bouncing legbreaks with renewed zeal in recognition of Stuart MacGill's retirement and the selection opportunities this presents. He is the author of Golden Boy: Kim Hughes and the Bad Old Days of Australian Cricket and Australia: Story of a Cricket Country
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