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Cricket a welcome reprieve in a still crumbled Christchurch

Brendon McCullum. (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)
Expert
25th February, 2016
17
1695 Reads

It’s always a bit emotive when a cricket series ends. The carnival is over, the circus leaves town, the ground is quiet, and a poignancy plucks at a string in your chest when you’re the one who stays behind.

In Christchurch, that feeling is even stronger. Partly because this really is the end of the summer: Australia’s last Test in a sequence dating back to November, and the last Test anywhere for months, as we prepare to delve deep into Indian T20s.

But in large part it’s because coming to Christchurch has been a stirring experience in itself. The third day of New Zealand’s Test against Australia was also the fifth anniversary of the earthquakes that changed this city, and it is only on visiting this place that you truly start to appreciate how profound a change it was.

For a disaster so complete, in a city so close, it seems like we in Australia didn’t fully grasp its significance. Perhaps that’s just me. I do know that when The Roar’s long-distance Kiwi, Spiro Zavos, wrote recently of on the disaster in his essay on the 2011 Rugby World Cup, even his detailed descriptions didn’t make me fully grasp their import.

Perhaps these words will have the same effect, or lack of it, on others. But arriving in Christchurch for the first time, even five years after the event, has been an experience that has left me walking around all week struggling for words.

The city centre is not there. It is defined not by presence but absence. Every corner, every block, has elisions where once there was substance.

Missing buildings have become broad car parks that offer their expanse on every corner. Derelict facades are propped upright with scaffolding with no buildings behind them. Or buildings with the face torn off are splayed, gap-toothed, to the street.

Some plots are still piles of rubble, all chunks of concrete shot through with reo bars, bulldozers perched atop them like carrion birds beaking through the shreds. Some are cleared and empty and fenced off, awaiting a new life in however many years it takes.

Apparently people arriving here always ask how it has taken so long, how they can still be rebuilding. It’s because the destruction was so thorough. Most disasters cause destruction but leave the foundations intact. The Christchurch quake took out seventy per cent of the CBD.

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That’s three out of four buildings that either collapsed, or had to come down in the aftermath. Gone. Imagine the centres of Melbourne or Sydney with that filter applied. It took a year and a half to even stabilise the wreckage enough to start going in to appraise it.

Now, in between all that wreckage are new buildings, shiny and glowing, or the few old ones that survived, or the skeletons of what will be next to come. There are the temporary structures, shipping containers configured like plus-size Duplo. And everywhere, this absence alongside a spirit of renewal.

Walking down to the ground on the fifth day of the Test match, the city was a construction site. Seemingly every plot of land swarmed with fluorescent vests, and rang with drills and bangs and shouts.

The shipping-container mall is a triumph of temporary engineering, windows and lights and shelves and desks all built in, exteriors painted immaculately in what is actually a highly appealing place to shop or sit down for a coffee.

There is wonder among the rubble: great bars hiding around corners, fine dining, ordinary pubs, the works. It remains a tourist-friendly town, I’d recommend it to anyone. And it’s fascinating. It’s just not a place where the scars are visible. It’s a place made of scars, with life peeking in between.

Walk ten minutes from what was once the centre of town and you come to Hagley Park, an expanse of green grass, creeks and trees. Tiny oak seedlings carpet the forest floor beneath a canopy. The thrum of cars is audible, but that’s all. In the city, the earthquake is ever present. A short walk and you wouldn’t know it existed.

This is Canterbury cricket’s new home after Lancaster Park was destroyed by structural damage and liquefaction – essentially an uprising flood of mud – during the quakes. What was once a quiet and low-key ground is now a Test venue.

It would struggle to be designated one anywhere else, with its tiny pavilion and its largely temporary facilities for sightscreens, corporates, broadcasters and press. Security is a temporary fence that would be easily hopped over.

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But you can see how much it matters to New Zealand to play here, not just staging a Test, but one of the marquee contests versus Australia, and the final match of the season. With that also being the farewell match of Brendon McCullum, a Christchurch local, it couldn’t have been more perfect.

The thing is, Hagley Oval may be a world away from the over-muscular approach to staging the game in Australia, but it is a blessed relief for being so. The ground is a saucer-shaped indent in a large grass bank stretching all the way around it. All weekend, it was packed from fence to rim with New Zealanders reclining in the gentle summer sunshine.

It was a beautiful thing, in the best spirits, even the few interactions between security and over-soused patrons involving more low-key jibes than aggression. Even the hostility towards the visiting side was performed in jest.

The village feel of the place could be summed up by the ground announcer at one innings break, wishing “A happy birthday to the painter, out in the middle there, Gerald. Happy birthday Gerald. 68 today.” Gerald gestured briefly with his brush.

Or after the match, out in the middle, when 11 staff played a scratch match on the Test pitch with 10 in the field and one at bat. Groundsmen, a couple of caterers and at least one administrator, her skirt still pressed but her flats abandoned at long stop.

Fair enough, the turf was lush underfoot. There were no stumps, but beer bottles lined the wicket and interspersed the slips. Loud cheers arose every time a ball was missed or a slog connected, which was basically every delivery.

No one blinked. This would be a park again tomorrow.

All through the match, this was the sense: that just having the match was what mattered. New Zealanders got what they wanted on day one, a memorable way to see off McCullum with his record-breaking fastest century. Other than that, it was all theatre and spectacle, a chance to soak up the warmth with a drink in hand and company beside.

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Even on the final day, the numbers were down but the cheer remained. When India lost the World Cup semi-final last year, the SCG felt empty for the last half hour, all life sucked out of it as one set of fans fled the result.

In Christchurch, the result didn’t matter. It was about cricket, and life, and feeling at home in a place that does its best to trouble you. There are gaps all through this city, but there are increasingly ways to see them filled.