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Opinion

Poor crowds means the Gabba wicket is under a cloud

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Roar Guru
26th November, 2019
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1116 Reads

Why don’t more people go to watch cricket at the Gabba? There are two major issues, neither of which is the venue itself.

Gratned, it’s a bit old and hasn’t had an upgrade in about 20 years. But that’s mainly because it hasn’t needed it – and probably still doesn’t, beyond maybe replacing all the plastic flip-seats with something less tortuous for the lower back.

Right now, the concrete bathrooms aren’t what’s putting people off.

The two big factors are access to the ground and cost.

The Gabba suffers from poor access to rail transport, making getting to the ground a lengthy prospect involving a long walk or bus ride.

There’s a railway link commencing construction that will run virtually underneath the ground, but I don’t expect it to be in operation before 2024.

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That may have an impact on Test crowds, but it may not be all that is hoped for.

Value for money must be considered as well. We may well find out exactly how big an issue it is when the rail line is finished. When cricket can no longer point the finger at the State Government for more why people don’t come to the Tests, as they did in 2018 when they gave the India Test to Perth.

Perth's new Optus Stadium will light up 2019's State of Origin decider.

Optus Stadium – so shiny (Grant Trouville NRL Photos).

Tim Paine would rather Australia play India at the Gabba than in Perth next time they’re out though. He said so.

There’s a very good reason too: Australia wins at the Gabba, a lot. And when they don’t win, they don’t lose either. Some 31 years and counting now.

This undefeated streak in Test matches has a few factors at play, including that Queensland hosts the first Test of a summer series – before the tourists are properly acclimatised.

The ground itself is intimidating, a hot, sultry cauldron that has a window only to the sky, with no view of the wider world to remind you where you are. It’s as much a psychological test for visiting players as it is physical, and certainly the most unwelcoming venue in Australia in terms of facilities.

The final reason is the pace and bounce from the wicket itself over the first few days, making the initial acclimatisation a much more difficult task.

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The reason for this pace and bounce is that the wicket itself is a permanent fixture – not a drop-in like other grounds. Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth all have drop-ins, which are traditional AFL cities – the football code has a lot more clout there, and they don’t like what the hard surface of a pitch square does to their employees’ bodies.

Not so much in Brisbane. The Lions asked in 2005, and Queensland Cricket knocked them back, stating that the performance of a drop-in wicket didn’t compare to that of a permanent one.

As far as I am aware, that is still the current state of affairs.

Gabba

Photo by Jason O’Brien/AFL Media/Getty Images

However, a permanent wicket requires uninterrupted use of the ground while it is in operation. At a suburban cricket venue, this would go unremarked. In a large, government-owned facility where everyone’s taxes go to the upkeep, low crowds and low earnings begin to be remarked upon.

Does anyone else see a situation where a future government of Queensland looks at the Gabba, the billions spent constructing rail infrastructure, and thinks the way to beef up numbers is to make more use of this large stadium?

They have a ready-made example, when the Gabba was used to host Adele concerts over successive nights in January 2017. 60,000 people came two nights in a row – the biggest patronage it’s had in decades – but the wicket was covered for approximately ten days to allow for this, resulting in damage to the grass in the centre square.

Groundsman Kevin Mitchell Jr made a show of flexing cricket’s muscle by opting to immediately re-lay and re-sow the turf – in February – in preparation for the next cricket match in November.

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An AFLW grand final was scheduled for March, which had to be shifted to Metricon Stadium due to the surface being unfit for play.

Some argued that Mitchell might have waited another four weeks, then attended to the pitch in the remaining eight months. But Mitchell had the grass seeds and mower, and once he’d done what he’d done there wasn’t any opportunity to reverse or appeal the decision.

An ominous statement of intent perhaps, or a last shriek on the retreat? I am not sure at this stage. But with Mitchell now retired, and cricket’s influence waning, I am not sure chest-beating about the wicket is going to have the same cut-through.

Plenty of historic institutions have mistaken past influence for present power and come a cropper.

If Test cricket can’t draw crowds once that rail link is finished, when people still aren’t coming despite trains providing easy access, cricket will have nowhere to hide. The spotlight is going to shift to that wicket and the question will be asked why a minority of cricketing tragics are having their pace and bounce fetish indulged at the expense of the taxpayer.

Maintaining a permanent wicket is a big economic inhibitor, so a throwing the Gabba open to a lot more events – a la Adele – over the summer is not far-fetched.

It would provide a boost to the economy, jobs and growth, as well as add wages for all those train drivers, bus drivers, police officers and a host of other government employees.

Waiting for grass to grow in an empty stadium doesn’t quite have the same economic impact.

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The train line is going to show that the majority in Brisbane have no interest in cricket. As for those who do have an interest, most would rather stay at home and watch on TV, or if they do come and watch, it’ll be a Big Bash game.

Some will feel compelled to attend, but their numbers are dwindling, and the numbers who actually care about the bounce in the wicket and whether it’s there all the time or gets taken away at the end of summer are downright miniscule.

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It may well be the case that the only thing standing between the backhoe and that wicket in the future will be the emotion around Australia’s winning record, assuming it continues.

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But against the economics, the preference of 11 professional sportspeople and their administrators will not be enough to sway the decision in this most contrarian of states.

Time moves slowly in Queensland, I’d say we’ve got another decade at least before the pitch comes under any serious sort of threat.

However, Test cricket crowds are not going to increase to the point where the future of that pitch is beyond question.