The Sydney Cricket Ground craps all over Australia's other Ashes venues. No apologies are necessary for the c-word: cricket. But the SCG will hold its premier position only while it remains a cricket rather than an off-season football ground.
Last week's Melbourne Cricket Ground pitch was a warning that is being routinely ignored across Australia. The MCG wicket, rated poor by the International Cricket Council, has provided a drab cricketing spectacle for several seasons now. This cannot be fully blamed on when the Australian Football League attained its aim of relegating cricket to a secondary sport in Melbourne, but in recent years the MCG pitch has been in a death spiral that successive curators have been unable to arrest. Drop-in wickets tend towards a lifeless uniformity because the characteristics of good cricket pitches are organic: the turf lives in the soil, rather than renting it for the summer months.
Melbourne's embarrassment should give Sydney no grounds for gloating. This week's Test match is the first red-ball game at the SCG this summer, and current and future events are placing increasing pressure on cricket here. Rehabilitation from the football season restricts cricket in the spring, which will only worsen if the New South Wales government persists with its plan to knock down its 18-year-old, 85,000-seat stadium at Homebush, bringing major finals matches in the AFL and NRL to the SCG. Heavy football traffic in September and October will make cricket impossible on the ground before the start of the Big Bash League in December.
Already, NSW cricketers have been made homeless in the spring. The domestic one-day competition and the first half of the Sheffield Shield season follow a gypsy trail of suburban and country grounds while the SCG is off-limits. This week's homecoming is hardly a sentimental one. John Warn, the chairman of Cricket NSW, speaks not just for cricketers in this state but for the game more broadly when he urges the SCG Trust to heed the lessons from other capitals and resist football's hegemonic ambitions.
The SCG Trust, which stewards the ground, is sandwiched between cricket and the powerful football codes. If Homebush is bulldozed, the SCG will host not only the entire Sydney Swans season and any of their home finals and training, but also major crowd-pulling matches for the Greater Western Sydney Giants. Once the Olympic Stadium is rectangular, the only option for the Giants to attain crowds of more than 25,000 in Sydney will be at the SCG. The AFL has been successful in its push for drop-in cricket wickets elsewhere in the country, and it will have a supporting voice from the NRL when more of its major matches are shifted to the SCG. The SCG Trust chairman, Tony Shepherd, who is also chairman of the Giants, said this week that the trust has "no immediate plans" for a drop-in wicket. Cricket would prefer to hear "never ever".
Through a process of interstate elimination, the SCG has more reasons than ever to be proud. The Gabba has been concreted and plasticked into a soulless bowl. The Adelaide Oval has been modernised from a unique cricket ground with intimate side-on viewing into a football oval with a drop-in wicket, hosting a Test match with half-empty stands as the audience empties into bars and homes as the sun sets. Adelaide's cricket attendance figures - capacity crowds of invisible people in empty seats - verge on self-parody. The WACA is a superb cricket venue for those lucky enough to be in the stands at each end, with excellent close viewing, but an inferno in the outer. And it is to be replaced by a bowl with a drop-in pitch anyway. The MCG, leaving aside the reduced state of the wicket, is a mighty amphitheatre when filled but most days is lost in its own vastness. Sydney combines charm and proportion, preserved history alongside well-planned upgrades. Its drawbacks are that it is the worst Ashes venue to travel to, and the weather at this time of year very often stinks. But its richness resides in its individuality: it is, foremost, a cricket ground. The importance of cricket at the SCG is not measured by the lateness and scarcity of fixtures over the summer months. Cricket, and a real cricket pitch, are the centre of the SCG's identity.