Adelaide, its cricket ground, and The South Australian nation

Thursday morning, December 2010. I am at the table in my Melbourne terrace house, reading a very Melbourne newspaper, The Age. Despite the urbanity it assumes, the pages remain parochial in that black T-shirt, black polo-neck, macciato sort of way. Already there are football stories – in December. There are always football stories: trivial and important.


In the same sports section, reporters preview the second Test match of this Ashes series. The first has ended in a draw. The second, to be played at the Adelaide Oval, starts tomorrow. I am going. By car. Driving across Victoria and into South Australia.


I head west from Melbourne in the summer sunshine. Through Ballarat, with its history of gold; a place where men of democratic heart stood up for themselves. The Eureka Stockade has its place in Victorian mythology. Still today. A progressive lot, the Victorians believe they are. Through Stawell which has its famous foot race at Central Park, and towards the grain-rich Wimmera.


The crops are thick. And uncommonly green. Usually, by this time, the early summer sun has found its intensity, the moisture has gone from the air, and the countryside has begun its annual bake. In most seasons these vast paddocks of wheat would be ripe and the harvest would have just begun. Big Massey-Ferguson headers mowing the Streeton-dry wheat would spit tails of dust and chaff. Old red Bedfords waiting their fill.


But this year the tropical air is in from the north and it looks like it’s staying, as it has done, just occasionally, before. These have been the flood years, the ones farmers still use as measures:  `56 and ’74 when the whole of Australia was wet, and the creeks and rivers flowed.


I drive through little towns with their cricket grounds where the locals battle each Saturday. Towns of pubs and ten-family churches with European roofs, and cafes run by Greeks, and huge still-empty siloes.


The railway lines are quiet.


Farmers, happy a few weeks ago, are now nervous. Too much rain means the grain may not dry out. Is it too late already? Is the wheat germinating in the head, and turning a bumper year into a crook one?


For ten years too dry; now, too wet.


To the north-west the clouds look menacing. Not low-pressure and cold-front wet from the south. Cumulo-nimbus wet from the north. Tropical wet. Not London grey. More Brisbane grey.


Through Nhill and Kaniva, towards the border.




The Australian writer David Malouf says the idea that Australia is a single nation is an invention. He says we are six distinct nations. And as you leave Victoria and enter South Australia the change is obvious.


A new sensibility grabs you. Things looks different. They feel different. It’s not just the fruit bin on the border. It is the different tone of the bitumen, and the different-coloured number plates. It’s signs for The Advertiser outside shops rather than The Age or the Herald Sun. It’s West End beer. Farmer’s Union iced coffee. It’s stobie poles: concrete (rather than timber) electricity and light poles. It’s the Chappells and Les Favell. It’s Fitzy Freeman and Greg Blewett. Barry Robran and Knuckles Kerley, not Ted Whitten and Barass.


But there are still paddocks of wheat, and siloes. Although the locomotives and the railway trucks are different.


At Bordertown, where Bob Hawke was born, they talk differently, and by Keith, 50 kilometres up the road you can hear the South Australian accent kick in. They make South Australian vowels, and use South Australian words. Farmers don’t harvest, they reap. Very Biblical. That’s what they say here.


I keep driving. Across the (usually) dry country. Stunted eucalypts – Mallee scrub –  line the highway. They have fought the dry to grow to the fifteen feet they are; their bulbous root-bases perfect for winter fires. These struggling trees create a different atmosphere – nothing like the atmosphere of their distant cousins which tower in the south-west of Western Australia, or in the rainforest of the east’s mountain hinterland, or on Fraser Island. A South Australian atmosphere.


But beyond them the paddocks are still green and the sheep graze happily.


Through tiny towns – Tintinara and Coonalpyn – each with their ovals, in most summers the only patch of green in the area, which tells you how important footy and cricket are to the folk here. That they would waste such a precious (and often rare) commodity like water on a frivolous pursuit like cricket. Grown men in too-tight, crumpled whites, strapping on the pads, and inserting dinted boxes, to go out and face the music.


As they’ve done for generations.


I get to Tailem Bend, where I first sight the Murray River. The highway takes you high on the northern cliff, over-looking the willows below, as the turquoise-brown water flows ever-so slowly. The Murray is South Australia’s Mississippi. The provider. It is in everyone. Upstream is The Riverland: Waikerie and Renmark and Berri, South Australia’s Garden of Eden.


As I drive along the Murray the northern clouds have developed into anvil-topped storm-heads: silver-blue, like a Port Lincoln fish, with the western sun shining on them. And growing darker. By the time I get to Murray Bridge they are grey and black in the distance.


The radio tells me the storm has hit Adelaide.


Dry Adelaide! Getting a soaking, on the eve of the Test match. By the time I drive through the Hills the rain has passed.


Down the escarpment. Into Adelaide.


So Adelaide. With its distinctive stone villas in the leafy suburbs. Its Hans Heysen gum trees.


The clouds are all gone, and the western sun is shining brightly. Through the city centre which has hardly changed since the `70s. Past the Festival Centre.


Driving along King William Street I get my first glimpse of the Adelaide Oval, a sacred site for South Australians. The home of great footy matches for generations until the money men built Footy Park in comfortable pastel suburbia.


Always the home of cricket.


And always at the heart of the city.


I have been here many times.




Like a line from one of the the Gospels it’s often repeated. Because it is true: the first morning of a Test match has a wonderful buzz: people finding friends, getting to their seats, settling in for the day, the weekend, the whole Test match. Expectant. Hopeful.


This first morning is no different. Australia v England: second Test.


I wander down through the parklands. Among the trees and the canna lilies. In the shadow of St Peters Cathedral. Near the Victor Richardson Gates a choir of six voices bashes out ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’. Very Adelaide.


Inside, I stand and take in the sight for a while. It invites you to. The sky is spectacularly blue, as if purged of all dust and haze by yesterday’s late-afternoon downpour.


The crowd is white. T-shirted. Be-hatted.


The playing surface is green, perfect.


The wicket is dry-straw: the colour of mid-morning sun on the stubble. It looks like a batting wicket. Good judges, like J.L. Mosey of Eudunda-Robertstown, who has made more runs than any other South Australian in ‘proper’ club cricket, says there is no better seeing ground in the world. Pure light. Good sight-screens. Easy to see the ball on the wicket’s surface. “If you can’t make runs at the Adelaide Oval,” he once told me, “you can’t make runs anywhere.”


They have been playing Test cricket here since Billy Murdoch led the Australians against the Englishman in 1884.


This is the Adelaide Test and I feel that the proud South Australian nation is hosting it. Showing off its renovation. The quaint stands on the western side have come down, and have made way for a massive modern grandstand which is open and able to catch the gentle breezes that waft in from Glenelg and the bay.


I stand near the Col Egar Bar. They are even proud of their umpires in South Australia.


The Welcome to Country from does just that, welcomes all visitors, of which there are many, like me. Although I once lived in Adelaide for a year, and I have family in the South Australian nation.


Greta Bradman, the grand-daughter of Sir Donald, sings the Australian national anthem. The Don, a New South Welshman, remains a favourite South Australian son.


The crowd grows. People are wearing shirts which affiliate them. Within immediate view: Australia and England of course; but also the Yarrawonga Golf Club, HMAS Sheean, Grimsby Town FC, the the Barmy Army. A man with a goatee – Gawler goatee, not Paris goatee – wears a Port Adelaide shirt which has ‘1870’ on it. That is an old footy club.


Umpire Erasmus says play. I am reminded of the Erasmus of Rotterdam quote: “In the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king”. But I am on my own, so I don’t share my amusement, especially not to any locals.


The Test starts with furious action. Katich is run out, Ponting pokes at a good one and is caught at first slip, and Clarke goes the same way. The grand dame of scoreboards says three for two, in a most remarkable 20 minutes of Test cricket – especially here at the Adelaide Oval. The Australian crowd is bewildered. The English supporters, are ecstatic.


The Australians have to fight to survive against the accurate English attack. Each ball demands attention – of the batsman, of the spectators. That’s not the way of an Adelaide Test where you can talk and read and wander here and there, as batsman, set early, build their tallies.


The Australians are dismissed for 245. And the Englishmen survive a single oval.


The crowd heads off, to the many pubs and restaurants of North Adelaide, or across the Torrens to the city centre. To meet more friends.


I join some locals and Melbournians – a cricket and footy crew of men and women – at Rigoni’s.


The topography of Adelaide is a key element of the Test. People are never far away.




Day 2


Saturday. Sunny. Hot. A hint of humidity in the air, and the prospect of more storms. The throng is in early and we sit and hope for early break-throughs. Strauss is bowled by Bollinger, but then the batsman dig in and it doesn’t take long before the Adelaide rhythm is established.


I spend the morning session a few rows back from the fence on the south-eastern side. Some Melbourne visitors are arguing whether Daryl Braithwaite ever sang ‘Summer Breeze’. They have amused the English visitors nearby. We all get talking. Rick Jones, a former teacher, is still playing cricket for Ipswich CC, and for Suffolk in the over 60s county competition. It’s an interesting conversation about technique, and confidence, and pressure; about the previous Ashes series. He is convinced England has the better side.


They are impressed by the condition of the outfield; indeed, of the whole ground, and they wonder how, when there is no rain for months, the cricket grounds and the golf courses and the backyards of Adelaide can survive.


I tell them it’s santa ana, a couch-grass bred to be drought-resistant. It has runners, and thatch, but if you keep it closely cropped it’s perfect. South Australians are proud of it.


And protective of it. For some time, rubber soles were banned on the turf grounds of the city because they allowed players to slide, which burnt the grass, and that’s the only thing that santa ana can’t handle.


Some lawn-proud Adelaideans eschew the Victa and the Rover with their harsh rotary action. They prefer the cylinder mower, a delicate creature, with rollers and blades which cut like scissors. They make for a beautiful lawn. Once you find a good mower you’ll do anything to keep it.


The ground staff use bigger versions of the cylinder mower to mow the outfield.


At lunch I head towards the western side to the back of the stands.


Thousands of members, with decades of Adelaide experience, gather on the lawns (also perfect, although cut slightly higher), where huge marquees cater for those who have an appetite for fine food and something to drink on a pretty hot day. Beer and the wines of the Barossa and Coonawarra, McLaren Vale, the Hills and the Peninsula, the Clare Valley and the Riverland.


People laze on seats under table umbrellas, an eye always kept on the big TV screens parked strategically. Many of the South Australian types are there: young lawyers and stockbrokers, doctors and blokes who, as Barry Humphries would say, do a bit of business for Dad. All of the private schools are represented: chaps from St Peters and PAC (where the Chappells went), Pembroke and Westminster, who have lunched very well over the years.


And country folk. Many look so country they could be extras from a mainstream TV drama series. Blokes with hair growing on the beer-bulb of their nose and out of their ears, wearing moleskins (low, under the tummy) and boots, and hats, and their wives with crows-feet eyes and polo shirts.


People, catching up.


The atmosphere (early) is church fete. It changes the further the sun gets over the yard-arm.


It’s a quirk of nature that the farmers are down for the Test this season. Usually, in early December, they’d be on the header (listening to Jim Maxwell on the ABC) reaping. And if not, they’d be getting the machinery ready.


The reaping is almost always over by early January. That’s why the Australia Day Test was so well attended. So many made Adelaide an annual pilgrimage, their produce in the siloes, and the cheque not far away. Ready to celebrate. Or, in the bad years, copping it on the chin. Making appointments with the bank manager. And wondering whether it would ever rain again.


They have been frustrated by the new Test scheduling which has precluded so many from attending.


I get talking to some farmers from up around Jamestown. Harry Simpson looks to be in his mid-thirties. From Belalie North, he tells me this season the family has 4500 acres of wheat, 1500 of barley, and 500 of canola. (That’s the size of a small English county) And it’s all looking good. “Been wet,” Harry tells me. “Most places aren’t ready. But we’re right to go. Dad’s reapin’ now, and I’m at the cricket.”


I get talking to another bloke from up that way. He’s had a few beers, enough that when he sees a bloke taking notes, he comes hunting to be in the story.


“Whadya wanna know?” he asks.


While I am trying to introduce myself his phone rings. I turn and talk to a few others but he taps me on the shoulder. “The contractor,” he says.


After the call is ended he tells me that he’s got a bloke cutting hay for him. “All good mate,” he says. “He’s run out of bailing twine. I told him he could buy as much fuckin’ bailing twine as he liked.”


On the ground play proceeds in the Adelaide rhythm. The Englishmen – Cook and Trott – are accumulating runs. Out the back, no-one is moving: it’s turning into a long summer-afternoon party.


I bump into some of the Adelaide Lutheran Footy Club blokes: Bongo (still playing cricket in his mid-40s), Stolly, Crappers (up from the south-east), Kups (and family). The club is in Div 5 in the Adelaide competition which has 20 divisions, each with ten clubs. It’s a traditional city: cricket and footy. There are a lot of footy people around, and many a recruit has been secured over beers at the Test. The Lutherans current coach Andrew Zobel was talked in to taking the role two Tests ago.


Adelaide Lutheran is a club full of names like Liebelt and Zweck, Munchenberg and Gehling. The Germans have had an impact in the South Australian nation, and as German as they were, they also took up the Australian sports with enthusiasm.


You can get a mettwurst roll in one of the tents.


The beers flow.


It’s hot and humid. But there is no storm.


Suddenly it’s stumps, and the Englishmen are 3/217.




Day 3


The bells of St Peters ring out across Adelaide, and its cricket ground.


The cloud has come in, and the weather bureau says the rain will arrive by tea. I spend the morning with my brother and his kids, up from Naracoorte. They are thrilled to be at the Test match as we sit on the seats in the open.


Then I head high up into the new stand which affords a terrific view not only of the ground but of the Adelaide Hills. There I meet a couple of blokes from Alice Springs who want to talk about Xavier Doherty, who is not appreciating the very placid Adelaide wicket, and about Warney, and whether he might make a comeback. They also know their cricket.


Petiersen just keeps batting.


I meet up with Robert O’Callaghan, a winemaker and long-time cricketer (although now a golfer) from the Barossa. He has made traditional wines, for years and is well-known for the highly acclaimed Basket Press and Sparkling Black Shiraz. A wicket-keeper batsman, he played for Tanunda and in many a country week carnival, when representative regional sides from around the state play in Adelaide – a post-harvest tournament which has been popular for generations.


Robert has always said that the Barossa is a remarkable place. That it is the sheer good fortune that there is a little strip of South Australia where the right weather and the right soil produce the grapes which are perfect for the wines he wants to make. But there is always struggle in the vines; and struggle in the vintage.


When the rain comes, play is abandoned, and we settle in, drinking Cooper’s..


Petiersen has reached 213; England 4/551.


Day 4


The rain has cleared the Englishmen chase runs on a quiet Monday morning. Pietersen is dismissed and Bell and Prior go after the Australians until Strauss declares with the score at 5/620.


The Australians have a fight on their hands. Although it’s starting to wear, the wicket is still a belter. It’s the idea of hanging on which will create the pressure.


The Barmy Army, which has camped between the scoreboard and the Moreton Bay figs trees for the Test are in good voice, encouraging Graeme Swann, who might do some damage.


Storms are possible, if not likely.


After a good opening stand Katich is dismissed and then the skipper goes cheaply. Later in the day, as Swann bowls over after over, Clarke uses his feet when he can. Swann has tremendous control, and the battle is intriguing. Clarke and Hussey draw on their powers of concentration. This is a real struggle. And just when the tourists look like they’ll go to stumps having taken just three of the Australian wickets, Pietersen gets one of his offies to bite and jump and Clarke nicks onto his pad and in to the waiting hands of Cook.


The storm doesn’t arrive. It’s humid, but this is not Darwin or north Queensland.


That night we sit in the beautiful summer stillness eating Greek food and chatting. The weather forecast is for severe thunderstorms for the final day.


The Australians just have to dig in, and survive.




Day 5


The sun shines, but it is a Queensland sky. All eyes are to the north and the wispy clouds which signal moisture. It’s just a matter of time.


The strip of rolled soil in the middle of the Adelaide Oval offers encouragement to the bowlers, especially Swann. But it is a poor shot from Hussey which alters everything. He skies a pull to Anderson at mid-on. It’s not the shot of a man desperate to survive.


The clouds gather beyond the spire of St Peters, building and building, funneling upwards. It’s dark to the north-east, as the Australian wickets tumble. There is lightning over the Hills but the storm cell looks to be missing Adelaide.


That one passes to the east. But the sky is becoming wilder and wilder.


The Australians are bowled out far too easily. They have been annihilated, by an innings.


A massive storm hits at two o’clock, just an hour or so of playing time after the last wicket falls. It would have ended play for the day. Some of the locals, who know struggle, are very critical.


The rain is so heavy it causes flash flooding around Adelaide. Water, a rare commodity in South Australia, backs up through the storm-water system (not designed for this sort of thing) and forces the lids off manholes in the city’s streets.


I am trying to begin my drive back to Melbourne. I have to stop and wait (for an hour) and then drive back through the Hills.


It has all been so very Adelaide.


An Adelaide Test, for all its ability to entertain, is not about entertainment. It’s about struggle and survival. It’s a Test match made in the image of the land and its people. Sure, it is the Test of the parklands and St Peters and the Torrens. But even more it’s the Test match of the Mallee scrub, and old shiraz vines, of ancient Murray River cliffs and the bald hills of Eudunda, and of the grain country where maybe you will get a crop, maybe you won’t. A carnival where the fortunate and the unfortunate come together in bacchanalian style, and rue their lot.


And celebrate it too.



About John Harms

JTH is a writer, publisher, speaker, historian. He is publisher and contributing editor of The Footy Almanac and He has written columns and features for numerous publications. His books include Confessions of a Thirteenth Man, Memoirs of a Mug Punter, Loose Men Everywhere, Play On, The Pearl: Steve Renouf's Story and Life As I Know It (with Michelle Payne). He appears (appeared?) on ABCTV's Offsiders. He can be contacted [email protected] He is married to The Handicapper and has three school-age kids - Theo, Anna, Evie. He might not be the worst putter in the world but he's in the worst four. His ambition was to lunch for Australia but it clashed with his other ambition - to shoot his age.


  1. Skip of Skipton says

    I noted your prescience there John in regards to the floods of last summer. Great read.

  2. Peter Baulderstone says

    Sheer poetry, mate.
    I reckon there is a lot of Bob Hawke blarney in you mate. RJH was always a Croweater (his birthplace) when he wanted to look civilised and refined. A Sandgroper (his upbringing) when he needed a quid from Burkey or Laurie. A Victorian (his work grounding) when he needed a drink (often) or a vote (almost as often). A Sydnersider for a bet, and now to luxuriate on the world’s most beautiful harbour in retirement.
    JTH – I reckon is a Queenslander for his earthy roots. A Croweater for his red wine; Lutheran antecedence and refinement. A Victorian for his footy team; politics and skivvies. Sydney is too garish. Perth too far. Tassie – too cold; too poor and there are ferals lurking on the NW coast.
    A man has to draw the line somewhere.

  3. All I have seen of Australia so far is Melbourne and Adelaide, and the land between along the Great Ocean Road (and farther along the coast, through Mount Gambier, Robe and Coorong), plus a drive through the Barossa Valley to a friend’s summer shack in Morgan, on the Murray (where we took a sail). But now I have a better feel for the differences. The Adelaide Oval has always seemed like the perfect place to take in a cricket match. Now I know. Some day. Wonderful, illuminating read.

  4. Richard Naco says

    My interest in footy slid gracelessly into hibernation from 1974, when the finals series was relocated from majestically central Adelaide Oval to a renovated swamp at West Lakes. The AFL moving back there is long overdue.

    Wonderful story, JTH, which made me a tad homesick (this, after 26 years away from the place). Coincidentally, my Westminster Old Scholars mag turned up in the post last night, but nobody from my class rated a mention this time (a bit of a blessing in regards to the obituary column).

    I suspect that one of the reasons that I loved living in Canberra so much is that there are so many exiled Croweaters there that our accent is easily identified, and that it seems a bit like home away from home.

    Now, if only it had fritz, Menchocs & Woody Woodroofes lemonade! (And if I could only move back there from my internment in Sydney!!)

  5. Although I have been to Adelaide on many occassions I have never driven there. I always look out for the Jesus trees as the plane (from Melbiourne) starts to descend if the day is clear.

    You are right. Adelaide is a different country.

    While on the way to the airport one Sunday arvo with three others from other states we went through a very quiet city centre. Espousing our local knowlege we were talking about what was what. The Taxi driver was earwigging but said nothing. We were probably getting a few things wrong but he was restrained.

    I noted this and turned to one of my peers and asked if they play footy in South Australia. The taxi driver was on the hook. “What part of bloody Melbourne do you come from?” he grunted.

    We all individually fessed up. Not a victorian in the car. The driver did not say another word.

  6. Skip of Skipton says

    Richard, they do have Fritz in Sydney. They call it Devon.

    A bloke came into the shop where I work the other day looking for Escort cigarettes. I asked him if he was from Adelaide. Of course he was. He settled for Peter Jacksons.

  7. Wonderful read John, I have driven between the two countries often and each place you describe brings back the feel,the images, the views, and the tastes. You are a great story teller, talker and I can see you just chatting and drinking and watching and enjoying. Well done


  8. Only ever driven to Adelaide via Broken Hill – where you are already on SA time …
    West End beer signs abound and the good footballers go down the bitumen to Adelaide.
    You can’t draw the six nations on state boundaries Comrade.
    Just as the southern Riverina is Victorian in attitude and flavor.

  9. Alovesupreme says

    This is a beautiful, perceptive piece of writing, evoking many fond memories of Adelaide and visits there. I love the city, and formed my early impressions from the Dunstan era, when it seemed like a civilised oasis, marrying traditional Adelaide reserve and grace with progressive attitudes in social policy. John Hepworth once wrote wtte that he was grateful that Adelaide existed. He didn’t want to live there, but it was a kind of bolt-hole to which he could repair when life in other places became too much for him.

  10. John, do you think the atmosphere will change much after the redevelopment of the Adelaide Oval?
    Although facilities may be better I don’t like the shopping mall feel of the new MCG .

  11. Alovesupreme says

    I wanted to add a note of appreciation for your wonderful ear for the vernacular. In truth all your senses get it, as you convey the distinguishing features of the many parts of Australia with which you are familiar.

    I’m particularly interested in the aspect of regional linguistics. My father grew up in the Hunter region, but was an exile for most of his life, the bulk of it in Victoria. His speech patterns were a peculiar mix of Hunter dialect and, Australian slang, which owed a considerable debt to his years of military service. There were words I grew up thinking that they were his inventions that never caught on, but I recall reading Donald Horne (also a Hunter boy) using some of them.

  12. Richard Naco says

    Skip: try as it might, Devon just isn’t Fritz.

    And there is definitely no such product as ‘bung’ devon!

  13. John Harms says

    PB, You are right: I have never spent much time in Sydney, although did have a wonderful time there recently with the Almanac launch at Harry McAsey’s Alexandria Hotel and lunch the following day at Machiavelli’s (what character that place has).

    Glenn B, not many Australians have been to Morgan, which reached its peak in about 1885. What a story! The wharf there when the paddlesteamers were so vital was like Flinders St station.

    Rocket Kim, I agree that the borders aren’t right? I reckon I’ll write something on that issue. My Riverina cousins defintiely have a Victorian sensibility. The Tweed is an interesting one – that’s if it still exists after the deluge.

    Alovesupreme, I reckon I could live in Adelaide, and have relatives and friends who love it. They know what they like, and they do it. I cold really live in the Barossa, which has a wonderful feel to it. It has retained the pace of an older time.

    Pamela, that is a really good question. The atmosphere of the Gabba changed after it became like every other stadium in the western world – having had such local charcter. It will be test for those who oversee the re-development. I think the new stand has been done very well – especially for summer and cricket, but not sure how it will cope with the wild southerlies which can blow through from May-August.

    Fritz. Yes. But more importantly the Germans make mettwurst. What a delight. Nothing like it. I’m a salami fan, but mettwurst is better. It has centuries of German peasantry in it. A metty role (mettwurst and cheese on heavy white Tanunda bread) is one of life’s culinary treats.

    Thank you for all of your kind words.

  14. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Fantastic report on the differences between the states and spot on in so many ways we are at least , 6 different countries more really . I have only been to , WA , a couple of times but felt that was the most parochial state . I enjoyed your description of the drive and as some one who does that drive reasonably often felt you got it spot on .
    The , Adelaide , test match is the catch up with so many people week of the year which you have painted the picture expertly apart from , 1 , glaring omission cmon , Harmsy !

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