March 3, 2014

The best Test ground in Australasia

The honour belongs to the iconic and charming Basin Reserve in Wellington

The Basin: darling of the postcard industry Hamish Blair / © Getty Images

The cricket gods have their favourite players. Among them must be Victor Trumper, Don Bradman, Sachin Tendulkar and Shane Warne. But they must also have their favourite Test match grounds. And Wellington's iconic Basin Reserve is unquestionably a favourite among the cricket gods. Why else would they have conspired to cut the ever-biting Wellington wind to a zephyr and flood the Basin with sunshine for the whole of the recent New Zealand-India Test match? The public were treated to a match of high drama and a sense of inevitable doom for the home side, who, at 94 for 5, were down and out. Then came Brendon McCullum. His record 302, along with the innings of BJ Watling (124) and new chum Jimmy Neesham (137 not out) saved New Zealand's bacon. But the match ended tamely.

We'll recall the heroics of McCullum and Watling and Neesham, but those among us who love the history and tradition of the game of cricket will remember the ground itself best. In 1840 when the first settlers arrived, the ground we know today was covered by water. It was a shallow lagoon, and not until the 1855 earthquake did the ground rise sufficiently for it to become a swamp. In 1863 prisoners were put to good use helping drain the swamp. By 1866, the Basin Reserve became the home of Cricket Wellington.

Situated 2km from the heart of the city, the Basin lies at the foot of Mount Victoria. Government House and Wellington College Boys' School are south of the Basin, across the street mostly hidden behind a stand of majestic old trees. The Basin has the feel of a quaint English ground. There is ample seating under cover, but also a lovely stretch of undulating hill, so the spectators have the best of both worlds.

Before the 1855 Wairarapa earthquake, which uplifted the area by 1.8 metres, the city fathers had plans to connect the lagoon (known as the Basin Lake) to the sea, creating an alternative inner city harbour. The plans included architect's drawings for warehouses and factories running along its edge. My first visit to the ground was with Ian Chappell's side in 1974. In those days the old grandstand doubled as the teams' dressing rooms and luncheon pavilion. It has since been successfully transformed into a museum and is always worth a visit if you're going to the Basin for a day's play. The glorious sunshine and lack of wind at last month's Test was in stark contrast to our game in 1974.

That match, we could have sworn, the wind that blew incessantly all day every day came straight to Wellington from the South Pole. The wicket was a "road" and many runs were scored, including a truckload by the Chappell brothers: Greg Chappell (247 not out and 133) and Ian Chappell (145 and 121). New Zealand did just as well in their only innings of this drawn-out encounter, with Bevan Congdon (132) and Brian Hastings (101) leading the way to 484. Short of an earthquake, we bowlers could have done with a less harsh piece of divine intervention to get something out of that lifeless lump of turf.

Wellington is a thriving little harbour town. Curiously and thankfully there is precious little graffiti to be seen in the downtown area itself, and in and about the docks the people embrace the opportunity to stroll, power-walk, jog and cycle the impressively wide walkways by the water. The Basin reflects the soul of the city. There has long been a spirit of purpose there. Cricket Wellington CEO Peter Clinton says the Basin has retained its history and its charm, and this is true.

There was a time when Adelaide Oval reigned supreme as the best old colonial Test match ground in Australasia. While it has become a better facility for fans, more comfortable, and able to accommodate up to 50,000 spectators, it is now realistically a mini version of the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Some say it is better by far; others say it has lost its soul. What it has done is open the flood gates for the Basin Reserve to claim the No. 1 spot as the best boutique, traditional cricket ground in our region.

I found myself at the Basin once again, rubbing shoulders with three of my heroes, Neil Harvey, Alan Davidson and Ian Craig. The Test against India also coincided with a reunion of Martin Crowe's 1992 New Zealand World Cup squad. Crowe has just recovered from serious illness and he was there to see McCullum become the first New Zealander to hit a Test triple-century. A champion batsman who made 17 centuries in 77 Tests, Crowe's highest Test score was his 299 against Sri Lanka at the Basin in 1991.

The Basin was host to a "Fill the Basin" charity event on March 13, 2011. A match was played between a team of legends from Wellington and Canterbury to raise money for the 2011 Christchurch earthquake victims. Shane Warne, Crowe, Richard Hadlee and Stephen Fleming were among the celebrated Test cricketers invited to play. All Blacks stars Richie McCaw and Conrad Smith appeared, along with actors Russell Crowe (Martin's cousin) and Ian McKellen. More than $500,000 was raised towards relief efforts and the 10,000 people who attended represented the biggest crowd at the Basin Reserve in the modern era.

Thanks to financier Sir Ron Brierley; Doug Catley, chairman of the Basin Reserve Trust; Peter Clinton; the board; John Morrison, the former New Zealand batsman and life member at the Basin; and historian Don Neely, this wonderful, unique Test match venue is in safe hands.

Gallery: The Basin in pictures

Ashley Mallett took 132 wickets in 38 Tests for Australia. He has written biographies of Clarrie Grimmett, Doug Walters, Jeff Thomson, Ian Chappell, and most recently of Dr Donald Beard, The Diggers' Doctor