The Oval of Dreams

Built it and they came

words Michael McGuire

John Halbert has seen the Adelaide Oval in many guises. He stood in the middle of the Oval in 1965 when a record 62,543 turned up to watch his valiant Sturt team beaten by three points by Port Adelaide in an epic grand final. He played football there for South Australia. He even played two games of state cricket on the hallowed turf. Today, the 79-year-old is a tour guide, telling the sacred stories of the Oval to visitors from near and far, taking them to the places most have never seen before – changerooms, media boxes and even the fabled century-old scoreboard.

Yet, Halbert was initially sceptical about the state government’s plan to spend $535 million to transform the somewhat tired Adelaide Oval into a modern sporting arena and then bring the state’s two AFL teams – Port Adelaide and Adelaide – back into the city in 2014 after three decades perched in the outer western suburb of West Lakes.

Halbert is football royalty in SA and like many others had grown attached to the West Lakes stadium. But his doubts turned to dust as soon as he saw the finished product. “I think they have done a fabulous job with it, it’s a wonderful stadium,’’ Halbert says, particularly grateful the northern end of the Oval has been left intact. If they had closed it in it would have become a coliseum and would have looked like any other stadium in the world, but by leaving the north end open with the wonderful old heritage scoreboard and the Moreton Bay fig trees, they have made it a very beautiful stadium.’’

Up in that scoreboard, Simon Crompton runs the operation which first creaked into life in 1911 when a South Australian batsman called Solly Hill scored the first run to be recorded on that famous board. Crompton has been in the scoreboard since 2006 and reckons around 70,000 visitors have been into the inner sanctum since the ground’s 2014 transformation. They even take visitors through the scoreboard during Sheffield Shield games.

It’s not an easy gig running the board. There are only four staff and during the cricket season there can be plenty of action, especially when one innings is completed and they have only 10 minutes to swap around all the batters and bowlers.

Crompton has been coming to the Oval since he was a little boy and believes the scoreboard – which is now protected by an Act of Parliament – is more valuable than ever. “I really believe it will be here in a hundred years time,’’ he says. “ It is more precious now than ever, it is the last visible standing building from the original development.’’ Looking back now, it’s hard to remember the tumult and loud opposition that led up to the decision in 2011 that the Oval was going to be essentially rebuilt, after the members of the South Australian Cricket Association voted in favour of the project.

For many years before that, Adelaide had grown complacent with the thought that Adelaide Oval was the “most beautiful cricket ground in the world’’. If such hubris had been justified once, demonstrably by the mid-2000s it was no longer the case as a hotpotch of stands and architectural design kept the once grand ground alive only in memory.

Concurrently, as Adelaide Oval was looking jaded, AAMI Stadium at West Lakes was positively antediluvian. Yet, the state Labor government led by former premier Mike Rann was initially predisposed to spending $100 million applying a band-aid to AAMI. That plan only abandoned when the Liberal opposition proposed building a new stadium in the CBD, a plan that proved a hit with voters, causing Labor to capitulate and propose the Adelaide Oval alternative.

Buildings can help define cities – the Empire State Building in New York, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Guggenheim in Bilbao – and something similar happened in Adelaide. It was partially complete when the Adelaide Oval staged an Ashes Test in 2013. When Adelaide and Port Adelaide met in the first post-redevelopment AFL game the following year, the Oval was already being hailed as a success.

Since then there have been concerts – Rolling Stones, AC/DC – AFL finals games, an A-League grand final, Test matches, Big Bash games. The Oval has become the city’s centrepiece and Adelaide’s most recognisable feature. You can even walk on the roofs of those high stands. It has helped drive a new culture focusing on small bars and laneways. It has added a missing life to a city that has often been accused of lacking dynamism. That is a hard argument to maintain when there are 50,000 fans shouting, screaming fans packing the Oval.


Josh Baker is one of the new breed of entrepreneurs who have capitalised on the changing nature of Adelaide’s city centre. Baker started the Coffee Branch in Leigh St in 2010, a time when the laneway between Currie St and Hindley St was treated as an unlovely thoroughfare and not much else. There were a couple of restaurants and one bar. Since then he has opened a small bar called Clever Little Tailor, on the parallel, and even more barren, Peel St, and Pink Moon Saloon back on Leigh St.

It’s not only the Adelaide Oval that has revitalised the city, according to Baker, although that has been a large factor, but the introduction by the state government of a new class of small venue licence, which has seen more than 50 new bars open,  and support from local government. “It’s a completely different ball game, 100 per cent,’’ he says. “It (the Oval) has done amazing things for the city, not just from a business point of view, but from a safety aspect as well. There are a lot more people around. It really has activated some underutilised spots because of the influx of people.’’

Baker expects the success will continue, with plans underway to link the Adelaide Oval, the walk over the Torrens bridge, to the laneways and to the city’s cherished Central Market, destined to attract even more people. “It has been an incredible transformation and we are enjoying riding this wave,’’ he says.

Memory lane

Ashley Mallett

Former Test cricketer,
Born July 13, 1945, in Chatswood, NSW


It was November 1967 when Ashley Mallett took his maiden wicket in Adelaide against India. Nearly 50 years have passed but the former spin bowler who went on to play 38 Tests still remembers the moment as if it was yesterday. “Tiny Titan Ramakant Desai walked the lush green of Adelaide Oval on his way to the wicket,” he says. “Imagine a ball spun so hard it hummed, dipping away with the trajectory of an archer’s arrow. Desai flung his bat and managed to pick out my old spin mate Terry Jenner at mid on. Elation: the first of my 693 wickets in first class cricket. Keeper Barry Jarman strode towards me and said deadpan: ‘Do you realise Rowdy that’s the furthest Desai has ever hit a cricket ball. If I could do well in those ferocious ‘battles’ with Ian and Greg Chappell in the nets before a big game, life in the middle was a breeze.”

Now working as a commentator and spin bowling coach, Mallett still calls Adelaide his “cricket haven” filled with highlights. “Perhaps the best was demolishing England in 1974-75,” he says. “Thommo and Lillee reduced some of the Poms, especially ‘the Gnome’ Keith Fletcher, to a veritable ‘mumbling mess.’ Walking the Adelaide Oval in the footsteps of Victor Trumper, Don Bradman, Keith Miller, Neil Harvey and myriad others was pretty much Heaven on Earth.”

Shaun Tait

twenty20 cricketer,
born February 22, 1983 in Nairne, SA


Shaun Tait didn’t take a wicket in his farewell limited overs international at Adelaide Oval but it didn’t matter for the Wild Thing. “I just loved playing at Adelaide Oval. The home crowd really gets behind the locals,” says Tait, who made his penultimate T20 appearance against India on Australia Day this year. “When you take the new rock and get a nice cheer, especially playing
for Australia, you feel like you have made it. It’s a childhood thing coming to life playing for Australia. That’s as simple as it is for me.”

Tait figured in four limited overs matches for Australia in Adelaide – starting with 3/59 against New Zealand in a one-day clash in 2007 following a World Cup triumph under Ricky Ponting in the Caribbean.

However, Tait owned Adelaide Oval fronting for South Australia and the Adelaide Strikers, terrorising domestic batsmen who struggled against his 160km/h rockets. “Playing for SA when the Big Bash first started, there were big crowds coming in. There was the one-day final which we almost won against New South Wales,” says Tait, who made his Ashes Test debut against England at Nottingham in 2005.

Tait’s T20 spells for the Strikers would always be preceded by the Wild Thing anthem which the slinger concedes was a tad “corny”. “Yeah that was something else. It was a bit embarrassing at times, it wasn’t like I chose the song to be played every time I came on to bowl,” says Tait.

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February 1, 2017

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February 10, 2017

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