A CONVERSATION that took place half a lifetime ago flashed back to mind as I watched the historic cricket Test match at Canberra’s Manuka Oval last week .
A colleague, the Newcastle Herald’s then civic reporter, approached me seeking some clarification for a story she was planning to write.
She explained that a Newcastle city councillor was spruiking a radical proposal – converting No.1 Sportsground into botanical gardens or parkland.
“Right,” I replied, raising an eyebrow. “But what about cricket? Where would they play?”
“She is suggesting they could play cricket at the International Sports Centre [now known as McDonald Jones Stadium], where the Knights play.”
When I inquired if the councillor was aware the football stadium was rectangular, as opposed to the oval on which cricket is usually played, the response was a blank look. Perhaps not surprisingly, the visionary councillor’s masterstroke never progressed past the conceptual stage.
Back in those days, of course, No.1 Sportsground was still being used on a regular basis for elite-level cricket – be it international-tour matches or Sheffield Shield – and over the years I have been fortunate enough to witness champions like Ian Botham, David Gower, Allan Border, Curtly Ambrose, the Waughs and Michael Clarke grace its hallowed turf.
With the benefit of hindsight, however, I find myself wondering if the aforementioned councillor had a valid point.
Given the current relevance of No.1 Sportsground in the big picture, there would seem little to lose in digging it up and planting beds of agapanthus, bougainvilleas and other exotic flora. All surrounding a giant duck pond, where the wicket square is currently situated.
From what I can make out, that would serve more purpose than No.1 Sportsground has in recent seasons.
At a time when more big-time cricket is being played than ever before, it seems Newcastle has never been further away from the action.
The days when superstars appeared in our own backyard are a fading memory.
It is now almost four years since Newcastle hosted a Sheffield Shield game. This season, No.1 has been the home ground for district club Newcastle City, whose second-grade team have played several games on the city’s premier cricket venue.
Meanwhile, Canberra, which has already hosted World Cup and other international white-ball fixtures, has ascended to Test status.
Geelong and Carrara on the Gold Coast have been used as Big Bash League venues … as has Moe, Victoria, population 17,000.
Sydney suburban grounds such as North Sydney, Drummoyne and Hurstville Oval were used during the interstate one-day series.
Wagga was chosen for a Sheffield Shield match until Cricket NSW officials baulked at the state of the pitch.
Newcastle, Australia’s seventh-largest city, has been given a wide berth, not even required for Women’s Big Bash League games.
The main reason, of course, is that No.1 has remained basically unchanged for more than 25 years, since the original grandstands, written off by the 1989 earthquake, were demolished and replaced.
My understanding is that over the past 12 months Newcastle City Council have considered upgrading No.1 so that it complies with the standard required for professional, televised matches.
New floodlights and a scoreboard were apparently high priorities.
But council faces a vexing dilemma.
Cricket NSW has asked to be considered in the long-awaited, almost-mythical District Park sports precinct, which appears certain to become a state election issue.
Investing in No.1 might be counterproductive to any hopes, however slim they may be, of getting a brand-new cricket/AFL stadium built at Broadmeadow.
Yet the longer we wait to learn if the sports precinct will ever transform from dream to reality, the further Newcastle falls behind in cricket’s pecking order.
Already Cricket Australia has confirmed plans to expand the BBL from eight to 10 teams, although the time frame is indefinite.
To accommodate a franchise, the first step, naturally enough, is a suitable facility.
On that basis, Canberra and the Gold Coast appear the most logical candidates. Newcastle, at this point, doesn’t even warrant discussion.
It’s a sad state of affairs, because there is no doubt that Novocastrians, per capita, are the best sports fans in Australia. If we had a cricket stadium capable of seating 15,000, and a BBL team (featuring our own Jason Sangha) I have no doubt it would attract a full house to every game.
All of which is wishful thinking on behalf of this columnist.
Looking on the bright side, Canberra might have a cricket stadium capable of hosting Tests and World Cup matches ... but they don’t have a V8 Supercar race.
Which would you prefer?
Each to their own, but I reckon the Fords and Holdens would look brilliant doing laps of the Parliament House roundabout.
Now if the Canberrans can kindly start packing their grandstands, floodlights and the Jack Fingleton scoreboard onto a few semi-trailers, we should be able to complete a fair swap.