Picture yourself in 1867, surrounded by a wide-open park with townsfolk — the men with full beards, ladies in long, pinched-in dresses, sunhats and parasols — gathered around the first match between the provinces of Canterbury and Otago. The park is so huge that the Avon river wiggles through it some distance away, and cattle graze close by. The magnificent trees that will one day stand tall all around are mere sticks, having only just been planted.
This is the birth of Hagley Oval. Ever since, it has been the spiritual heart of cricket in Christchurch — the ‘garden city’ where English settlers started playing the game locally almost as soon as they stepped off the boat in 1851.
But while many generations of club cricketers — more than 50,000 players — have spent their summer Saturdays here, the people’s park was not, until recently, a major international cricket venue.
That changed with the advent of the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake. One month earlier, New Zealand’s BLACKCAPS had played Pakistan across town at AMI Stadium, formerly known as Lancaster Park. Structural damage to the stadium meant it was the last sports match it would ever host. Canterbury cricket needed a new home.
Tranquil public reserve
Eyes turned to tranquil Hagley Park, just minutes from the centre of the city. It was now a mature public reserve of 165 hectares, largely undamaged. Christchurch’s pride and joy, it was etched with cycling and walking paths, stunning blossom trees and oaks, and home to every type of recreation and sports club, from a public golf course to tennis courts. Hagley Oval, the historic cricket ground, is easy to access at the southern end of the Park — and the easy beauty of its leafy setting was second to none.
Although men’s international cricket had always been played across town, Hagley Oval was important in its own right. It had been a venue for several women’s Test and One-Day International matches — and it had a fascinating first-class record.
It was here, in December 1899, that Albert Moss wrote himself into cricket history by taking all 10 wickets for Canterbury against Wellington. Moss was the fastest bowler New Zealand had ever seen and, to this day, his haul of 10-28 remains the only time a bowler has taken 10 wickets on first-class debut anywhere in the world.
Just two years later, he was arrested and found insane after falling into financial difficulty and trying to kill himself and his wife. He was imprisoned, then deported to South America before finding redemption and remarrying his wife 25 years later — quite some tale.
Impressive cricket venue
But Hagley Park’s biggest claim to fame is that it is regarded as the most impressive club cricket venue in New Zealand. In its heyday, no fewer than six club games would unfold at once on the main Oval, while dozens more would be taking place on the adjacent polo ground and Christ’s College fields: a melee of hundreds of cricketers, all playing at once.
Local cricket historian Brian Adams first played here in 1959 for West Christchurch — one of several clubs for which Hagley Oval was the home ground. “There would be three games happening on the west side of Hagley Oval, and three on the east, so you could be fielding at cover point for your own club’s game, and be leg slip for the game next door!”
Remarkably, he says, he can’t remember anyone getting hit on the head by another game’s ball. “Maybe on the ankle, a few times. You had to keep your wits about you. But it was such a picturesque sight to see so many players in their whites scattered across this lovely green canvas.”
After the earthquake, the game’s local guardians built a modest, modern grandstand and, with great vision, raised a grass embankment that now rims and encircles the original playing field. Hagley’s historic little club pavilions are preserved on the outskirts of the new earthen saucer, while a white picket fence around the playing field itself makes it clear that this is a place where traditions will always be cherished.
2015 ICC Cricket World Cup
On 14 February 2015, temporary grandstands will cover the embankment — and they will be full to the brim, for it is here that the 2015 ICC Cricket World Cup will be about to begin.
Hosting the Cricket World Cup’s opening ceremony and first match — between the BLACKCAPS and Sri Lanka, is especially poignant for a city proud of getting back up on its feet so quickly after the quakes. Two more Cricket World Cup games will follow.
It’s a tribute not only to the resilience of the Canterbury spirit, but the spirit of cricket. By then, Hagley Oval will also be the world’s newest Test cricket venue (men’s cricket). The BLACKCAPS will have met Sri Lanka on the lovingly tended rye grass pitch from Boxing Day, 2014. Already it has ODI status, too: Scotland and Canada played a Cricket World Cup Qualifier match here in January 2014.
As Hagley Oval enters a fresh chapter in its 148-year-old life, two things have never changed. It’s still the beating heart of cricket in Christchurch. And people — albeit in slightly less elaborate summer fashion, these days — are still eagerly coming to watch a piece of sporting history.