September 10, 2015

How not to run a cricket ground

In contrast to its thrilling on-field narrative, the administrative story of the WACA is one of mismanagement and confused vision

The WACA: not spectator-friendly but offers a spectacle nonetheless © Getty Images

One of the more illuminating books to emerge about the music business chronicled Factory Records and the Hacienda nightclub in Manchester. Written by the New Order bassist and allround rabble-rouser Peter Hook, it told stories of how money was wasted on an industrial scale by musicians and their friends, of cash kept in filing cabinets because safe combinations were forgotten, and of one night where its takings were literally set alight by fireworks. Hook called it How Not To Run A Club.

At the western edge of Australia, generations of government and administration have all been bound up in a saga that might be called How Not To Run A Cricket Ground. The WACA, that Mecca of fast bowling, is to be more or less wiped off the face of international cricket, allowed only state matches and Tests described as "tier three" events by administrators - in other words, the commercial dregs. Fast bowlers around Australia and the world have shed a quiet tear at losing the chance to bowl there, and the WACA president Dennis Lillee was distressed enough to resign.

Undoubtedly, cricketers will be losers as a result: the skills honed by the fast WACA surface helped Western Australia foster a brilliant brand of play and players over many years. Equally, visitors to the west were able to round off their games by learning the virtues of leaving the ball on length, or bowling a fullish length on a bouncy pitch to find out swing and outside edges. In the WACA's place will be a shiny new Perth Stadium, shared with football and host to a drop-in pitch to join those of Melbourne and Adelaide.

Over the years several largely unsuccessful and expensive attempts have been made to redevelop the ground © Getty Images

The clay-based pitch will be composed in as similar a fashion as possible, but there is no way yet devised to replace an integrated wicket block with four separate, shallow pitch trays. As well, the famed WACA breezes will be shut out of play by the overhanging stands, drawing fans closer to the action but robbing bowlers of the atmospherics that often helped the ball to swerve. In the words of the Cricket Australia chief executive James Sutherland, such concerns must be secondary to those of a more "fan-based" nature.

"The big picture I think comes back to the fact that cricket's not played for the cricketers; international cricket's played for the fans," he said. "What we want is the best possible facilities for fans, and the greatest possible access for fans. To have sell-out crowds as we do for Ashes Tests at the WACA is nice, but what is the potential? The potential is far greater than that... we don't actually know what it is. For an Ashes Test at Perth Stadium we might see 200,000 people over the course of a five-day Test match, or more."

If Sutherland's words sound well-intentioned, it should not be forgotten that those involved in WA cricket have been saying these sorts of things for more than 30 years. The litany of redevelopments planned and half-finished or abandoned, the poor commercial deals, the wrongheaded assumptions and failures to cooperate with all relevant parties - it is easy to lose count.

Back in 1986-87, the WACA looked destined to become a premiere venue. At a cost of AUD 4.2 million (USD 2.9 million today) it became the third cricket ground after Sydney and Melbourne to install floodlights. They were impressive too: six monolithic towers stretching 70 metres above the Perth skyline, as if inspired by the set designers for 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Perth Challenge, staged to coincide with the America's Cup regatta, was meant to herald the start of bigger things for the ground, and grand plans for a major stadium sharing cricket and football were mooted.

The slip cordon stands in a different postal code from the batsman © Getty Images

But the 1987 Stock Market crash and the subsequent fall of Brian Burke's state government ministry stalled all manner of projects in the west, leaving the WACA halfway between its former self and plans for the future. Fragments of the original ideal were left behind, such as night AFL matches in the winter, while the Prindiville and Lillee-Marsh stands brought partial improvements to facilities. Tellingly, the hodgepodge left Perth looking more like an English cricket ground than any of its interstate neighbours.

Things remained more or less the same until the late-1990s, when the advent of lights at football's Subiaco Oval left the WACA without a winter tenant. Successive state governments showed little interest in funding the WACA's further upgrade if it was only to be used for cricket, and this led in 2002 to one of the more baffling redevelopments at any ground. At a cost of $12 million, the ground's square boundaries were decreased in size and new seating installed, while the members' enclosure was moved from one side of the ground to the other.

By now the ground's lack of sun shade had become a matter of some conjecture, but nothing was done to provide cover for spectators. The idea seemed to be to turn the WACA from a potential AFL venue to a place for football and rugby. But these plans were approved and acted upon without any assurances that these sports would actually move there. So it was that the WACA found itself with a redevelopment that did not address many of its major issues, a playing surface no one outside cricket wanted to use, and a crippling debt unable to be sufficiently serviced by cricket fixtures alone (a government "survival" grant of $5 million arrived in 2004). It was the beginning of the end.

The ground got floodlights in 1986-87 at the cost of AUDD4.2 million © Getty Images

Other problems emanated from the ground's commercial dealings. The 2000 signing of a ten-year catering deal with Delaware North drained more money from the WACA than anyone had anticipated. This was in evidence through one story of the Australian team seeking an extra slab of beer at the end of a Test match, and being floored to be told that it would cost $120. Delaware North remains deeply involved in WA sport, and is part of the consortium bidding to oversee the management of the new Perth Stadium.

Successive chief executives have struggled with the tangle of deals, developments and dead ends. Chris Smith, Tony Dodemaide, Graeme Wood and Christina Matthews have all tried different approaches down the years, never able to totally clear the WACA from the spectre of financial trouble. As Dodemaide put it to Austadiums in 2005: "We're not really looking at that [stadium redevelopment], more so keeping the WACA a viable business."

The last throw for a viable WACA Ground was launched in 2007. By now the Perth Stadium in Burswood was in early stages of development, but cricket's initial response was bullish. Plans called for an increased ground capacity, vastly improved facilities, and the integration of apartments and office spaces around the WACA's western fringes. In all it would cost around $250 million to complete, with Ascot Capital the major builder and backer.

All seemed set to begin, but the onset of the global financial crisis in 2008 left many with cold feet. Oddly for a state that prided itself on helping Australian prosperity through the mining boom, not enough interest could be found in the project to see it through. The concept was put on hold, then resumed, and in 2012 the planned allotment of 137 apartments for "The Gardens" was put on the market.

Fans know what they want when they come to the WACA © Getty Images

Around this time, some on the Ascot Capital side of the deal expressed private frustration with the WACA, who, under Matthews, had turned attention to better on-field performance after years of neglect. Money had been splashed out to hire Tom Moody and then Mickey Arthur as coaches, while the state support staff was bolstered from a time in 2007 when WA remained the only state to only employ a part-time physio, among other roles. Slowly but surely, the state side began to improve, helped further by the return of Justin Langer in late 2012.

But the focus on performance left apparent shortfalls in the WACA's thinking and negotiation about the redevelopment, and a year after The Gardens project was opened for sale, the association announced a humiliating abandonment of this last great hope for the ground. Lillee's former state team-mate and WACA chairman Sam Gannon spoke with resignation of how "we have given this development every opportunity, but the final decision not to proceed is in the best long-term interest of members and stakeholders".

From there it was only a matter of time, though one final tragicomic postscript was created by the unveiling of a new media centre for the ground in order to host matches for the 2015 World Cup. Built at a cost of $2.2 million, it was only partly filled for a meagre selection of Cup fixtures - the WACA was never in serious contention for any marquee or knockout games, rather underlining where it now sits in the eyes of those who run the game back east.

So what is cricket losing with the WACA? Spectators will not lament the queues for food, drinks or toilets, nor will they mind farewelling the harsh glare of direct sunlight square of the wicket that was bizarrely never addressed by the use of sails or shade cloth despite their relative lack of cost. But they will miss the sight of the slips standing another pitch-length back from the stumps, and the ball whizzing through at speeds not seen anywhere else.

It shall remain a source of great shame in the west that one of the world's most iconic grounds was left to become so shabby, its successor to be a place of comfort but also homogenisation. In the words of George Bailey, one of those aforementioned interstate visitors: "One of the things Australian cricket needs is unique characteristics at the different grounds. I like an Adelaide Oval that's good to bat on and turns late, I like Sydney that can turn, Gabba and WACA can be bouncy. That's good fun."

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig

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