The Ashes: Why the charming Oval had to became big and brash

 

Only one thing can be said with certainty of an Adelaide ground where England will seek this week to claw a way back into the Ashes. Aussie Rules rules OK.

The Second Test, at what was once the most splendid cricket arena in Australia, is to be played on a drop-in pitch. The reason is that the Adelaide Oval has been refurbished at a cost of Aus$535 million (£297.7m), almost entirely for the benefit of Australian Rules Football, or "footy" as it is known hereabouts.

From next season the Adelaide Crows and Port Adelaide will take up residence. In some quarters there is as much anticipation about the opening Australian Football League match at the Oval, between the joint home sides, as there is surrounding the Test.

Cricket is now a guest in its own home. It is a necessary arrangement and it is one that pervades big-time sport throughout this country – in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, even Perth. Adelaide is the port of last resort. The AFL are as big, as bruising and as domineering as the Premier League are in England. They sweep all before them, demanding and receiving attention on front and back pages.

For the Oval to survive it had to become a multi-purpose venue, and only footy will fill the stands and coffers. Both codes shared the Oval until 40 years ago, but cricket was king then and big-time footy left, dissatisfied with the ground and determined to have its own stadium. It returns as the dominant partner, though the bulk of the money for the redevelopment has been provided by the state government. Hence the drop-in pitches for cricket.

There are eight in all, and they were originally laid 20 months ago at the No 2 Oval next door. In September the delicate operation of inserting them into the main ground proceeded.

Traditionally, drop-in pitches have proved fairly lifeless, and the first two Sheffield Shield matches played on the new Oval in the past month ended in draws. Only 55 of a possible 80 wickets fell. But they have used the Athelstone clay spoil which was a key component of the old square. Supplies of it were stockpiled by the celebrated former groundsman, Les Burdett, who retired in 2010. In addition, the turf on the outfield has been relaid, and will be replaced again before the footy season. Nothing has been left to chance, but until the first ball is bowled on Thursday and perhaps until the last is bowled next Monday, no one knows how it will really play.

Keith Bradshaw, the chief executive of the South Australia Cricket Association, who formerly held the same post at MCC, has been reassuring visitors flooding into the city that all will be well. He seems convinced that the careful planning will ensure the pitch plays like Adelaide tracks of old – offering something early on, flattening out and then breaking up as the match goes on. If it does not break up, however, it could be a torpid five days.

Turf apart, the rest of the ground has been transformed almost into a bowl. The famous view of St Peter's Cathedral across the road has been preserved, as has the 102-year-old scoreboard, still the most informative in the world, and the array of fig trees.

That apart, it is now a big-city stadium, not a charming small-town arena. It is altered forever. All in the name of progress in the 21st century. Footy rules.

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