AUSTRALIA has never been short of iconic Test grounds.
From the sheer enormity of the MCG through to the wonderful fusion of traditional and modern that makes a day at the cricket in Sydney such a joy, any Pom heading Down Under has always been able to assuage the pain of even the heaviest defeat by enjoying the surrounds.
Nowhere has this been truer than in Adelaide, where the Oval – which first hosted Test cricket in 1884 – has long been regarded as the most picturesque of Australian cricket grounds.
Whether it be the way St Peter’s Cathedral nudges into view over the iconic scoreboard, the tranquility brought by the Moreton Bay fig trees or even the bowlers running in from either the River or Cathedral Ends, the Oval has always exuded a genteel and enchanting quality that few other venues in the world have been able to match.
However, a bit like Wembley in the old stadium’s final days before demolition in 2000, the jewel in South Australia’s sporting crown had started to fade. Enter a building project that, once fully completed early next year, will have cost £320m.
“The Adelaide Oval has enjoyed a proud history as one of Australia’s premier sporting and entertainment venues for more than 140 years,” explains Andrew Daniels, chief executive of the management body running the Oval, in an exclusive interview with the Yorkshire Post ahead of next month’s second Ashes Test.
“But in late 2009, the State Government embarked on a plan to bring cricket and (Aussie Rules) football together at a newly-developed Adelaide Oval. The plan was to deliver an internationally-renowned, world-class venue for the 21st Century, while also making the Oval a critical part of a broader revitalisation of the riverbank and parklands precinct.
“It will place Adelaide on the global map for a range of international and national entertainment and sporting events, encouraging interstate and international tourism.”
Stage one of the ambitious project, the building of a new 14,000-seat Western Stand, was completed in time for the last Ashes Test in December, 2010.
Since then, the rate of progress has been swift with a new state-of-the-art stand at the River End having been completed along with the refurbishment of the famous northern ‘Hill’, complete with heritage-listed scoreboard.
So industrious have the builders of South Australia been that, in contrast to the saga that became the new Wembley, work is now sufficiently ahead of schedule that part of the new East Stand will be open for the visit of England on December 5.
This could take capacity up to 38,000, a big change for a venue that, as recently as 2006, had to erect temporary stands to cope with the demand for Ashes tickets.
Once the Australia v England roadshow moves on to Perth and beyond, the builders will return for the final stage – the completion of the Eastern Stand ahead of the AFL season getting underway in March next year, which will raise the capacity to 50,083 seats with standing room for a further 3,500 people.
“A tight build schedule to have the new Oval ready for the Ashes has been a critical consideration throughout the project,” said Daniels, who also revealed that for music concerts – and plenty are planned – capacity will rise even further to around 62,000.
“While the redevelopment project won’t be fully complete for the Ashes – the Eastern Stand was always scheduled for completion in March 2014 – the atmosphere inside Adelaide Oval will be very special.”
Having been fortunate to enjoy a private tour of the Oval earlier this year in conjunction with Tourism Australia, I can vouch for Daniels’s belief that the designers and builders have done an admirable job.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect, however, is not the construction of the three gleaming new stands that mean spectators will be able to enjoy their cricket in comfort. Instead, it is the care that has been taken to retain the character of the northern mound while also updating facilities fit for an age when ticket prices rise at a similar rate to fan expectation.
It was in front of this patch of earth, so beautifully framed by the fig trees behind, that one of cricket’s most infamous episodes was played out as the ‘Bodyline’ series of 1932-33 reached its nadir when Bill Woodfull and Bert Oldfield were struck by rising deliveries from Harold Larwood.
On the third day in Adelaide, mounted police were needed to keep the 50,692 crowd – an Oval record that stands today, though this will no doubt be beaten the next time England head Down Under in 2017 – under control as relations soured so badly that, soon, telegrams were being exchanged between the MCC and their fuming Australian counterparts.
Much has changed, of course, since then with those who paid to watch the game in the Thirties neither expecting nor receiving a comfortable vantage point.
Instead, the vast majority stood, invariably crammed in shoulder-to-shoulder, throughout the day’s play. It is a tradition the Barmy Army have revived and come December 5 their legions will be housed at the revamped northern end, which as well as now boasting 2,100 square metres of grass also has a viewing platform made of timber decking alongside the iconic scoreboard that was first used in 1911. There is also one of three giant TV screens to ensure no one need miss so much as a delivery, while at the front almost 3,000 seats complete the only area of the Oval totally open to the Australian sunshine.
Chief executive Daniels said: “Protecting the heritage and beauty of Adelaide Oval has remained paramount throughout the redevelopment project.
“The northern mound – with the iconic heritage scoreboard, Moreton Bay Fig trees and famous grassed area – has been maintained and enhanced as a key feature of the new Adelaide Oval. The redevelopment is also considerate of the views that have long been a part of coming to the Adelaide Oval.
“Several carefully-designed gaps in the architecture in the north and east will ensure the Oval remains carefully integrated into the surrounding parklands.”
One consequence of the new Oval hosting both cricket and AFL on a regular basis from next year is that the old turf had to be dug up and replaced by a series of eight drop-in pitches.
Head curator Damian Hough oversaw the delicate operation in September and the authorities have already declared how pleased they are with how things went. The proof, though, will come once the second Test is underway as Adelaide’s reputation for being a batsman’s paradise is put on the line.
On the changes, Daniels added: “Port Adelaide Football Club hosted Melbourne in their final minor round match of the 2011 AFL season. But, other than that game, it has been 40 years since Adelaide Oval hosted both football and cricket at the highest level. One of the biggest changes necessary to accommodate AFL at the redeveloped Oval was to install a new playing surface capable of withstanding the different use – particularly as AFL is played throughout Australia’s winter months.
“This new surface will allow a number of sports to be played, as well as enabling Adelaide Oval to host concerts – all without impacting on the playing surface.
“We also have new changing room facilities for the two home AFL teams – the Adelaide Crows and Port Adelaide – beneath the Southern Stand, while coaches’ boxes have been installed in the Western Stand. The Oval will provide world-class facilities for both teams.”
The Oval now complies with FIFA regulations, meaning association football and rugby can also be staged.
But it is cricket that English sports fans will always associate with Adelaide. “The atmosphere will be something to savour,” promises Daniels.
Richard Sutcliffe’s visit to Adelaide was organised by Tourism Australia. To find out more about visiting the country, see www.australia.com Fans travelling Down Under for the Ashes should download the ‘Go Ashes App!’ – a free guide to both the Ashes and the host cities.