At Manuka Oval, just down the road from where Parliament House looms over Canberra, there’s a real feelgood factor as the Australian capital gets ready to host its first Test match.
The realisation of this long-sought event has locals taking a justifiable pleasure in their town being the scene of the looming contest with Sri Lanka.
But while cheerful stories were being written about Manuka’s ascension to the club of Test venues, another less chipper reality has gone largely unnoticed.
Canberra might never again host another Test. We’ll get to the reason why in a tick.
Symbolically, Nathan Lyon is the perfect representative of the city’s emergence. Anyone and everyone in cricket knows the story of how he came down from country New South Wales to bowl his off-spin at club level in Canberra ten years ago and landed a job on the Manuka Oval ground staff.
The wickets he prepared included those for Prime Minister’s XI matches, played in by far more illustrious cricketers.
These days, Lyon is as well-known as any of those stars – probably more so, given his rise to international stardom since being plucked from obscurity to play for Australia in 2011. Now it’s his adopted city’s turn to become a Test star.
“I think it’s exciting. Coming down to Canberra, playing the first-ever Test match here and coming off a great win,” he said in the days before the match.
“I’ve got a lot of family coming over from Young. It’s going to be a pretty special moment when we sing the National Anthem out there, and especially when I get the opportunity to bowl out there.
“I’ve got a lot of history on the ground – it’s one of my favourite grounds for obvious reasons.”
It’s lovely stuff. But when you look at the schedule for the next few years, Canberra doesn’t have a chance in hell of adding Test No. 2 to its inaugural dance.
Cricket Australia has trimmed every engagement against less lucrative opponents to the minimum of two Tests required to officially constitute a series.
Clashes certain to draw big audiences and coverage remain five-match contests: five each between Pakistan and New Zealand next season, for instance.
After that, we drop to four against India and one against Afghanistan, then a home five-game Ashes summer in 2021-22, with a further five each against South Africa and West Indies the next season.
Five-Test summers mean Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth. There’s no chance for Canberra or Hobart to get another piece of the action until at least the end of 2023.
Short shrift for the long game
The long form of the game isn’t just being cut at home. The Ashes in England will be Australia’s only touring Test engagement this year. In 2020, Australia’s fixture totals two Tests in Bangladesh and, in 2021, three in South Africa.
Only in 2022 does Australia hit the road in earnest, with trips to play Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and India.
It’s taken ACT Cricket years of lobbying to get this Test, and millions of dollars of upgrades to be eligible. One-day games and Twenty20s were staged as trial matches, requiring light towers costed at $5.5million.
A new media centre had to be built ahead of the Test, for a further $7.5million, along with additional seating.
These improvements will be useful for AFL matches, Big Bash games, and white-ball internationals, but a Test was always the ultimate prize.
Cricket ACT boss James Allsop says he was lucky to come into the job a few months before this moment, and cedes credit to those who did the earlier work.
“I just wrote to all the staff to congratulate them,” he said the day before the match. “There’s been 140 years of Test cricket and only ten venues in Australia, and we’re about to become the eleventh.
“We need to soak in the moment. The ground’s grown a lot – Manuka has come of age, but it’s also a boutique ground where you can get close to the action.
“Don Bradman played his last game of cricket here. There’s a lot of history.”
A fragile Sri Lankan batting order needs to rise to the occasion rather than descending into anti-climactic collapse, as in the first Test, because after this week Canberra’s next long wait resumes.
ACT Cricket will be lobbying for other international matches, whether it’s white ball, red ball, women’s or men’s,” says Allsop.
But Tests remain the prize.
Sri Lanka have been part of a couple of footnotes regarding Australian venues already. In 2004 they became the second team to play at TIO Stadium in Darwin and Cazaly’s Stadium in Cairns. Neither has been used again.
These were Australia’s eight and ninth Test locations, with Perth Stadium assured of a long future as the tenth. Sri Lanka will never be deemed sufficiently high-drawing to play there, and that is why they’re the team to christen Australia’s eleventh venue.
Here’s hoping that Manuka doesn’t become another quirk of history.