Before the iconic arc of Moses Mabhida held up the Durban sky, there was a grotty grey concrete block masquerading as a football stadium in its place. It was so nondescript that I can barely remember it. But I have vivid recollections of how the new stadium grew each time I went back to Durban. Over three years from 2006, what started as a building site turned into a gleaming white façade.
All over the country, works of art were being erected. Not far from my home in Johannesburg, the calabash shaped Soccer City was being sculpted, in Port Elizabeth the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium was taking the shape of the Sydney Opera House, and in Nelspruit giraffe-shaped supports held together the Mbombela Stadium. It seemed as though the whole country was under construction.
The ten theatres of dreams that were being refurbished, and in some cases created, were for the 2010 Football World Cup. Australia’s Cricket World Cup is still three years away, but there is building going on at three of the four grounds I’ve visited on this tour, and only in Perth is the construction because of cricket.
An ambitious apartment project, which will offer buyers a view of the cricket from their balconies, is about to get underway at the WACA. It is the brainchild of Dennis Lillee and will not be for the average cricket fan. One-bedroom apartments will start at AUD 520,000 with penthouses costing AUD 2.7 million. I’m told property is more expensive in Perth, but for those prices a more than decent abode could be bought in South Africa.
A new grandstand is also being built. Lillee said the two developments will keep Test cricket at the WACA for the foreseeable future while limited-overs matches may be played at a venue like Burswood, which is still under construction. It also means the WACA will not be at risk of substituting its “unique” pitch, as Lillee called it, while other Australian grounds like the Adelaide Oval are moving towards drop-in pitches.
Australian Rules Football, the winter sport, is the moneymaker in these parts and often shares grounds with cricket, the summer sport. It’s because of the popularity of the AFL and the demand for more seats that stadiums are expanding. Both the SCG and the Adelaide Oval will soon have completely different characters, as they become bigger and more modern.
The WACA is no danger of that. Subiaco Oval is the where all the kicking games, including soccer, are played in Perth, and that leaves the WACA solely for cricket. Lillee’s dream is to turn that into a lifestyle, which is why he has been the driving force behind the living complex. It made me wonder if there could ever be a way to do the same in South Africa.
The Wanderers in Johannesburg already has an apartment block next to it and the residents have occasionally been known to get tetchy over the parking situation, the roads being closed and the music and fireworks during a cricket match. While it remains my favourite ground in South Africa, SuperSport Park in Centurion is more homely.
Over the years, SuperSport Park is also the ground that has changed most notably. The wooden chalets on the grass embankment were replaced with brick ones, and two seasons ago a swimming pool and deck were added to the main stand. Apart from occasional flooding of the Hennops River, it would accommodate housing quite comfortably in the area closest to the river.
Other grounds have remained pretty and there seems to be little need for that to change drastically. Kingsmead’s grandstand could do with a lick of a paint, Paarl could use a proper press box instead of single-level scaffolding, and Benoni is long overdue a make-over. But for the rest, if ain’t broke, we don’t fix it.
The other difference, of course, is that none of South Africa’s grounds are used for any other sport. Moses Mabhida was in danger of becoming the first, when it hosted Makhaya Ntini’s farewell match, a disappointing T20 on a slow, drop-in pitch. While the cricket was bland, the spectacle was not.
It was the first time I had been inside the stadium I watched being built, and it was magnificent. But that kind of flash is best enjoyed occasionally. The WACA, whose redevelopment is being confined to one side, seems to know that.