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As I write this, the World Cup opening ceremony is about to kick off in North Hagley Park. On Saturday, the Black Caps will start the tournament against Sri Lanka at Hagley Oval. I’m excited about the World Cup, about it being on New Zealand soil, and about our chances. I love cricket, but I won’t be going to any of the matches. On the eve of the tournament, I thought it was worth recapping why. There are two, related reasons for my stand. I realise it is all in vain, but hey, a moral stand is a moral stand. The first reason is the process that created the oval, and the second is the political significance of the oval itself.

In a recovery littered with shoddy deals, I’d argue that the process that led to the creation of the oval is the shoddiest of them all. The government dropped it into the Blueprint plan, to the surprise of the ratepayers, the council – in fact, to the surprise of everyone but Canterbury Cricket. Canterbury Cricket had been lobbying for years for a new, council-subsidised ground, with little success. After the quakes took out Lancaster Park – a venue that hadn’t been used for test cricket for years, due to the rise of boutique test grounds that are better catered to the smaller crowds the 5-day draws – they saw the opportunity to push for what they had always wanted, but were never going to get: a piece of Hagley Park. The Earthquake Recovery Act and the emergency powers bestowed upon Gerry Brownlee were the perfect opportunity for what was essentially the privatisation of publicly-owned land by a small group of old white men.

The Christchurch City Council – which nominally looks after the land, for the benefit of all citizens of the city – deferred the decision to the Environment Court. Whilst the decision was before the Court, the ICC announced the host venues for the 2015 World Cup. Christchurch was given not only the opening game, but the opening ceremony. However, this was contingent on Hagley Oval being built. So the ICC was prejudging both the Environment Court and the Christchurch City Council, presenting the Oval as a done deal.

Once the go-ahead was given, the cost of the development then became an issue. Budgeted to cost $20 million, Canterbury Cricket only had $500k. It was then revealed that they got $3 million from the Earthquake Recovery Trust, which was funded by donations from New Zealand and around the world in the immediate aftermath of the quakes to help people in need. Canterbury Cricket managed to stretch the meaning of “people in need” to cover building a sports ground. The decision of the Environment Court which gave approval to the project placed conditions on the Oval, which the Cricket World Cup then argued were too strict and tried to have relaxed. My guess is that after the World Cup, they will use the success of the venue during the tournament to argue to further relaxations of the restrictions placed on the development, including more permanent seating.

For the Boxing Day test against Sri Lanka, the ground looked great, and hosted some great cricket. I never doubted that it would. When you put a ground in the middle of Christchurch’s most loved park space, it’s going to look amazing. For most people around the country, they won’t know anything about the political battle over Hagley Oval. The broadcast from Hagley Oval, with a full embankment, BMac taking the bowlers to task, and the commentators full of praise for the ground was just what the government would have wanted. Though they’re sports commentators, not political ones, they were all universal in their praise of the Oval, Canterbury Cricket and Lee Germon. While they might think that they don’t get involved in politics, their normalisation of a locally controversial project was implicitly political. Any mention of the opposition was dismissive, and no-one from the Hands of Hagley group was given a right-of-reply. That’s not the point of cricket commentary – which is exactly why this project is so important to the government. It presents a controversial political development, from a long series of controversial political developments, as an apolitical thing. In a point made more succinctly by Danyl at the Dimpost, this is National’s strategy:

Hooton ascribes part of Key’s popularity to his preeminence as a commentator on light-entertainment shows across New Zealand media. More FM, Breakfast TV, Seven-Sharp, etc. Critically these are (a) news sources for ‘median’ or persuadable voters and (b) they’re formats in which Key can assert his version of any news story unchallenged, and then go on to tell funny stories about the All-Blacks.

While this isn’t an example of Key himself being in the commentary box (John Howard styles), having five days of continual media coverage of a development that was made possible by the government bending the rules is something money simply cannot buy. To have the commentators saying things like “this is the final step in the recovery of Christchurch*” sows that seed in the minds of people who probably haven’t given more than a minute’s thought to Christchurch since 2011. No-one gets to ask the commentators whether they’ve visited New Brighton, or walked through the empty space in the CBD, or talked to a family still dealing with EQC. When the national news media generally only covers one story from Christchurch per bulletin, the World Cup opening has been and will be the good news story coming out of Christchurch for the next week, and will probably overshadow the 4 year anniversary of the February 22nd quake.

Which brings me to the opening match. We will hear worldwide television viewer numbers breathlessly repeated – one billion people around the world! The Oval will look a picture, and the message will be clear: the recovery is over, and Christchurch is ready for business. Which is a great message to put out there – it’s just unfortunately not true. The rebuild is so much more than just one sports ground – but people are already conflating the two:

The government will no doubt be hoping that the launch of the World Cup will convince most people that Christchurch is fine again. The Prime Minister’s message was that “Christchurch is back in business” – business being the highest achievement in the eyes of this government. But “business” doesn’t mean that everyone is adequately housed, or being treated fairly by EQC, insurers or repairers. So by all means enjoy the cricket, and enjoy the Oval. But just don’t think that because 22 men are running around on some nicely coiffured grass that the Recovery is by any means over.

* Sky’s commentators literally have no idea what they are talking about. When the drone camera pointed out east to show the old Lancaster Park, Craig Cumming said “I had no idea that was still there”.

I can’t remember exactly when I first went to Lancaster Park. I was probably 6 or 7. I remember it being a sunny afternoon, and being fascinated by the TVs that were suspended from the roof of the Canterbury Draught stand (as it was then known.) What an amazing place! It had sport and TVs hanging from the roof!

On another occasion, I remember the closing stages of a one day international, trying to work out how many sixes off no-balls New Zealand would need to win the game. My memories aren’t all cricket related; dad took me on the back of the Honda motorbike to see the Warriors in 1997. We stood in the south-east of the old embankment, not far from the giant inflatable Warrior – who had a patch over the badge on his jersey, as this was the middle of the ARL-Super League war. Dad also rode that bike to see U2 play their Zooropa tour in 1993.

When we were in high school, freed from the parental shackles but with nothing to do, we spent a lot of time at the ground. We went to screeds of Crusaders games, back when they were routinely awful. We’d make the most of the “Take a Kid To Footy” deal, by designating the tallest of our mates as “dad”, who paid $10 to get in, and then it was $5 for each additional “child”. Each of the “kids” would also get a pack of chips and a coke, so it was pretty cheap entertainment for a Friday night. In 1997 we were part of the sell-out crowd that watched as Canterbury beat Jonah Lomu’s Counties to take the NPC title for the first time since the early 80’s.

In the mid-late 90’s, there was a Chris Harris / Chris Cairns testimonial match. They were both still active players, but I think it was held as they had both played 10 seasons for Canterbury. I can’t confirm this at the moment, as “Chris Cairns Testimonial” has become difficult to google for some reason. Anyway, it wasn’t a particularly well attended match. Me and my yobbo mates were in the main stand, just square of mid-on. Rod Latham had come out to bat, and had put on a bit of weight. We shouted out the classic “who ate all the pies” at him. He pulled the next ball in our direction for four, turned and gave us all the fingers.

I was in Dunedin for the first half of the 00’s, so missed one of the most amazing achievements at what was then Jade Stadium. I remember being at a mate’s flat for the England-New Zealand test, watching nervously as Nathan Astle approached 100. Once he got the tonne, we went down to the park to kick a ball around. When we came back an hour later, we saw the score and thought something was wrong. 222? It didn’t make much sense.

Through the late half of the 00’s, the stadium seemed to be constantly undergoing some sort of refurbishment. First the embankment went, replaced by the Paul Kelly Stand. I took an American mate to a Crusaders game. It was against the Bulls. There weren’t many people, so we wandered around an found a seat on the top tier of the PK Stand. It turned out we were next to the Bulls fans, who shouted abuse in Afrikaans, to their players, to each other, and to us. They waved pre-Apartheid South African flags and sung the old national anthem. We moved at half time. The Crusaders won.

The Deans stand opened at the start of 2010. Despite it only being open for just over a year pre-quake, I still managed to catch a few good games. Sitting in the stands as Brendon McCullum scooped his way to the second ever T20 hundred. Kevin Locke scoring a hat-trick to beat the Roosters, including the match winner on the buzzer which saw him leave the ground in an ambulance. Local boy Ben Sigmund heading home a Marco Rojas corner for a 94th minute winner.

Of course, Lancaster Park wasn’t just the home of sporting memories. It also holds political ones. It was the venue for the first test of the Springbok tour in 1981, on August the 15th.

Our Prime Minister was a student at the University of Canterbury in 1981, but doesn’t seem to remember having a view on the tour. Brownlee would have been in Christchurch at the time too. One wonders whether their desire wipe the slate clean and build a new stadium is part of a wider plan of scrubbing out the inconvenient parts of Christchurch’s history. But the history of sport is about the actions on the field, and only incidentally about the built structures. It’s not about the Deans Stand, the Paul Kelly Stand, the Tui Stand or the Hadlee Stand: it’s about Lancaster Park. When clubs move grounds, they struggle to take the years of history with them – like Arsenal leaving Highbury for the Emirates, or Carisbrook being super-ceded by ForsythBarr. Better facilities, sure. But they’ve discarded multiple sporting life-times worth of built-up legend. To give up on all of that history, when something could easily, and probably more economically, salvaged from the site seems a particularly short-sighted move.

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The thing is, this place is still standing. It’s not fallen down, it’s not in anyone’s way. The turf is stuffed. The stands have sunk. We don’t really know what the deal is with the insurance. I’m not convinced that the options for the ground have been exhausted yet. Late last year, Brownlee declared that he wanted Christchurch to be the sporting capital of New Zealand; if he’s true to that, then he should be doing everything he can to preserve the site of our city’s proud sporting heritage.

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As the title says, just a few quick thoughts on this. I’ve scribbled some stuff down on paper, and ruminated over the whole thing while I couldn’t sleep last night, but don’t have the time to do a full blog on this right now. However …

I asked the Press reporter Rachel Young, who was first with the story yesterday, about the meaning of “major fixture”. This is the most serious of the limitations which the environment court placed on the project. Canterbury Cricket asked for 20 major fixture days, but we’re only given 13. Rachel responded to my tweet to say that a “major fixture” is any match with more than 2,000 spectators. That means that they are only allowed to have more than 2,000 people on 13 days per year, and only more than 12,000 for two days in every 3 years.

I’m going to make some assumptions here, and they could be wrong, but just go with it for a bit. Let’s assume New Zealand gets two international tours. For augments sake, Sri Lanka and Australia. The first is 3 test / 5 ODI / 2 T20, and the second is 3 test / 3 ODI / 3 T20. Christchurch gets Sri Lanka for a test and an ODI, and Australia for an ODI and a T20 later in the summer. That’s 8 days of the 13 “major fixture” days taken up right there.

That leaves 5 “major fixture” days for the Canterbury Wizards* domestic season, which if it stays in the same format as last year, consists of 10 first-class (4 day), 10 one-dayers, 10 T20 (assuming that Canterbury remain awful at cricket and don’t make any finals). Half of those games are at home, which means probably around 10 home one-dayer and T20 games. 5 of them could be at Hagley, where as the other 5 could be at Rangiora or Lincoln (which Canterbury Cricket argued we’re not good enough – one of the reasons why they “need” Hagley Oval).

In the last paragraph, I didn’t include the four-day games, as I think it is safe to assume that they are unlikely to attract more than 2,000 people. However, they would end up in a somewhat farcical situation where they would have to limit entry to the ground for these games, lest they go over the 2,000 person limit. It’s not inconceivable that they might get more than a few thousand people on a sunny Saturday afternoon who’d want to wander down to the park and see what’s going on – would they turn them away, or would they let them in and risk being found in breech of their resource consent? Bringing cricket back into the city was meant to turn around falling crowds, so getting 2,000 people, when we have ~500,000 people within an hour of town (0.4%) isn’t out of the question. 

Part of the reason for this development was to grow or rebuild cricket in Canterbury. Seems somewhat ironic that if they succeeded in doing that with Hagley Oval, they would be unable to enjoy that success.

 

* I don’t mean to ignore the Canterbury Magicians, but it seems that everyone else has, but with only precious few days up for use, it’s unlikely that women’s cricket would get a look in

I have a blog about the Hagley Oval saga over at DailyBlog today. I end up on a tangent about strip clubs…

Asked who would fund the strip club, Brownlee shrugged his shoulders, before pointing in the direction of Mayor Bob Parker and saying “him, I guess”. Further pressed to provide an economic plan for the construction of the club, or modeling which would support the numbers of tourists claimed by the CCDU, a clearly tired Brownlee blurted out “look, there will be strippers, ok? Don’t you like strippers? Everyone likes strippers.”