Fading charm of old-world stadiums

Updated: 12 September 2013 15:52 IST

Great works of architecture have the power to move you deeply. Most sporting venues aren't really comparable to the seven wonders in terms of architectural excellence, but there are aspects to them that can take the breath away. At the Eden Gardens in Kolkata, especially when it's nearly full, it's the Colosseum-like atmosphere that gets you. If you closed your eyes and tapped into your imagination, you could see the visiting batsmen become gladiators surrounding by roaring lions.

Fading charm of old-world stadiums
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For most sports fans, the stadiums in which their teams play are, to borrow shamelessly from Led Zeppelin, houses of the holy. For those not of a religious persuasion, trips to these venues are as close as they'll ever get to a pilgrimage. The songs they sing - whether Fields of Anfield Road or I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles - are their hymns.

Great works of architecture have the power to move you deeply. Most sporting venues aren't really comparable to the seven wonders in terms of architectural excellence, but there are aspects to them that can take the breath away. At the Eden Gardens in Kolkata, especially when it's nearly full, it's the Colosseum-like atmosphere that gets you. If you closed your eyes and tapped into your imagination, you could see the visiting batsmen become gladiators surrounding by roaring lions.

At the Melbourne Cricket Ground, you couldn't but be intimidated by the sheer vastness of the Great Southern Stand. From the top of it, the players are dots in a Seurat landscape. With the Adelaide Oval and the Sophia Gardens in Cardiff, it's the walk to the venue as much as the beauty of the grounds themselves that stays in the memory.

Lord's is neither as pretty nor as intimidating as other venues, but the sense of history around the place grabs you right away. It's the same with Chepauk in Chennai. From some sides, it's downright ugly, but the winds of a tradition deeply cherished by the locals waft around the place.

Cricket Australia's recent decision to deny Perth a Test match against India in 2014-15 is the latest indicator that the days of the old stadiums are drawing to a close. BCCI-baiters will read it differently, but the media release clearly mentioned the "smallest capacity of the five mainland Test venues" and "lower attendances". Both the redeveloped Adelaide Oval and the Gabba in Brisbane accommodate far more spectators than the WACA.

It's only a matter of time before other countries follow the English example and sell naming rights to their stadiums, and use that revenue to expand and improve facilities. It's now Headingley Carnegie, Emirates Old Trafford and the Kia Oval. With several Indian grounds looking to emulate the improvements made in Mumbai and Chennai, it's only a matter of time before the names and facades change further.

Sport in America, with its cavernous stadiums, has shown the way. The New York Giants play at the Metlife Stadium, and the Dallas Cowboys at the AT&T Stadium. As for the San Francisco 49ers, who leave for Levi's Stadium next season, Candlestick Park was briefly known as both 3Com Park and Monster Park. Money doesn't just talk, it screams at you from the giant electronic screens.

When Matthew Hoggard announced his retirement on September 11, it made me think back to a venue that hosted its final game more than seven years ago. Memories of the old Vidarbha Cricket Association Ground in Nagpur are unlikely to move anyone to tears, but Hoggard in particular might look back on it with some fondness.

The match meandered to a draw on the final evening, but Hoggard's bowling on the third day was as good as anything seen on Indian soil in modern times. There was some conventional movement in the air, but mostly it was reverse swing of the highest quality, and it ripped the heart out of India's batting. Innings figures of 6 for 57 from 30.5 overs would suggest a bowler-friendly surface like the one on which Australia had trounced India 18 months earlier. Instead, Hoggard did his best work on a typically placid pitch that offered little encouragement for seamers and spinners alike.

He didn't have Andrew Flintoff's charisma or Simon Jones's pace and venom, but for a spell in the middle of the decade, Hoggard was England's go-to bowler, a workhorse who could consistently take wickets as well. Others have been more celebrated but of those English bowlers with more than 200 Test wickets, only Bob Willis (53.4), Fred Trueman (49.4) and Darren Gough (51.6) have a better strike-rate than Hoggard's 56.

In a two-year period between March 2004 and April 2006, England won in the West Indies and South Africa, and drew in India. Most importantly, they ended Australian dominance of the Ashes. In those four series, Hoggard took 68 wickets, only one less than Flintoff. He really was that good.

In an age when cricketers are centrefold models and suave spokesmen, Hoggard was a throwback to another era. Read Duncan Hamilton's magnificent biography of Harold Larwood, and the portraits of many of his contemporaries, and you can just about imagine Hoggard fitting right in, shaggy mane of hair and terrier-like energy. He will be missed.

Topics : Cricket Matthew Hoggard Andrew Flintoff Sachin Tendulkar Melbourne Cricket Ground
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