IT has been a week to remind us exactly how far removed Newcastle is from cricket’s big picture.
We saw a one-day international in Hobart last weekend, at a poorly attended Bellerive Oval.
A Sheffield Shield match between NSW and Queensland started on Friday at Canberra’s Manuka Oval, which will also host its inaugural Test match in February, between Australia and Sri Lanka.
At Carrara’s Metricon Stadium on Sunday, the Aussies will play South Africa in a Twenty20 international.
And at Newcastle’s premier venue, No.1 Sportsground, Newcastle City played Merewether last Saturday … in second grade.
Now these are probably two separate issues, slightly intertwined, so first things first.
How second-grade cricketers get to play at No.1 Sportsground is beyond me.
During my far-from-illustrious playing career, No.1 was always used as a communal ground for the district’s 12 first-grade teams, shared on a reasonably even basis.
A couple of times during the preliminary rounds, each club would be scheduled to play there, and it was also the obvious venue for the end-of-season finals.
It was always a highlight playing on the hallowed turf that had once been graced by the likes of Allan Border, Ian Botham, the Waugh brothers and Curtly Ambrose, even if I marked my last appearance at the grand old ground with a golden duck.
So it was with some surprise that I learned this week the shared-use policy has changed, apparently since the start of last season, and No.1 is now the home base for Newcastle City.
City for many years played at nearby Learmonth Park, and while hardly the most salubrious of grounds, from personal experience it was usually perfectly acceptable.
For reasons that presumably make sense to the respective parties, City were able to move in as No.1’s major tenants.
If whatever exclusivity deal the Sabres struck referred to first grade playing their home games there, I could possibly live with that.
But according to the competition draw, City’s second-graders appeared in five games at No.1 last season, and have three further games there this season, after last week’s clash with Merewether.
I disagree, in principle, with second-grade cricket being played at No.1 Sportsground. And that’s coming from someone who played his fair share of second grade back in the day.
The city’s premier facility should be used for first grade, and rep games.
In saying that, I was speaking to one of Newcastle cricket’s all-time greats during the week, and his attitude was that No.1 is not what it was, and that a spongy outfield made last season’s final series a dour grind, rather than the spectacle it should have been.
All of which is a reminder that it is now four seasons since Newcastle hosted any form of elite-level cricket, the last occasion being a Sheffield Shield match between Western Australia and NSW in February, 2015.
How long before games of that ilk are seen in our town again is anyone’s guess.
I have it on good authority that there has been talk behind the scenes about the possibility of upgrading No.1 so it complies with the requirements of accommodating, at least, interstate matches.
All that, presumably, hinges on the much-vaunted sporting precinct at Broadmeadow’s District Park.
Cricket NSW announced 12 months ago it would lobby the state government to help fund a purpose-built arena and possible centre of excellence at Broadmeadow, allowing Newcastle to stage professional matches and maybe one day even become a base for a Big Bash League franchise.
The concept sounds great, but I’ll believe it when I see it.
In the meantime, cricket-loving Novocastrians can only look at various games being staged around the country with a degree of envy.
Hobart and Canberra, of course, have smaller populations than Newcastle, as do Darwin and Cairns, which have both hosted Test matches.
Likewise Geelong, which held a T20 international last summer, is less than half the size of Newcastle.
Not forgetting the suburban Sydney grounds, like North Sydney, Hurstville and Drummoyne, which hosted interstate one-dayers earlier in the seasons, or Wollongong, which has been used for Sheffield Shield matches two years in a row.
There was a time when international touring teams regularly played at No.1, as did the NSW Shield side.
Shield crowds in Newcastle were invariably bigger than the Blues could attract to the SCG. Those days are long gone, simply because the facilities at No.1 have been unchanged for more than 25 years.
The “new” grandstand, which replaced the originals damaged by the 1989 earthquake, was opened for use in early 1993.
Rival venues, in contrast, have transformed during that time. Manuka Oval, which was once roughly on a par with No.1, is now a legitimate stadium with 16,000 capacity.
Australia’s seventh-largest city has been overtaken and left behind by smaller opponents.
It would be nice to think that one day world-class players will return to No.1 Sportsground, and restore its long-lost prestige.
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