Things change. Sometimes you lose. The Gabba Hill is no more. It has given way to the concrete and plastic amphitheatre that is the new Gabba—a smaller version of the MCG but without any of the associated history. It’s a ground that could be anywhere in the modern world. These words are not intended to be a brainless whinge and a nostalgic lament for the passing of the old Gabba. This is an acknowledgement that the new urban sports ritual is in fact, for some of us, a very different sports ritual to the one we knew and loved for the happy period of a quarter of a century.
I first started attending the Gabba in the mid-1970s. It was a special treat to come down from the country to watch a day of the Test match, usually in late November. It meant missing a day of school. In those days we sat in the grandstand and had little idea of what happened on the Hill. This was where the so-called yobbos sat—an ugly breed of rough-edged Australians—and carried out their decadent practices. I was from a sober, middle-class Protestant family.
When I came to Brisbane in 1980 to attend university, visits to the Gabba became more regular: Tests, Shield matches and Gillette Cup matches. Sometimes we’d go to the greyhounds on a Thursday night. There was some local footy played there in those days but I rarely went. Really, though, the Gabba then was a cricket ground. The annual Test match usually coincided with the end of exams and many students could be found at the cricket enjoying the relief of finishing another academic year.
In those days the Gabba oozed local character: the poincianas along Main Street, the scoreboard, the Moreton Bay figs on the eastern side, the dog track, xxxx beer. This was a charming and intimate ground. The grandstands conveyed a disregard for architectural consistency, giving the impression that a new bedroom had been quickly added on each time Mother Gabba fell pregnant. In the Don Tallon Bar at the back of the Sir Leslie Wilson stand, Queensland blokes stood pork-pie-hatted, Tele under their arm, sipping rumbos. On the other side of the ground the Queensland Cricketers’ Club confirmed that you were in a sub-tropical colonial outpost where British civilisation had arrived—albeit in a quirky local form. Its superb balcony (which seemed to have you hovering over the slips fieldsmen) was one of the few places on the planet where shorts and long socks were the preferred attire of the local gentry—and you would not have been surprised to spot the occasional pith helmet.
The Hill, then, was expansive. It sloped gently down to a line of 44-gallon drums, each with LMT (Leo Muller Toyota) spraypainted on them (almost as an afterthought). Finished cans would be hurled in the general direction of the bins. A telegraph pole survived—somewhere at the middle front—which acted as a constant temptation to those made more cavalier by the embibement of the local product. At the back of the Hill, beer was dispensed from what some Hillites called the Karen Pini Stand. It was named after one of the nation’s most famous centrefolds, who had appeared (I’m told) in the first ever edition of Australian Playboy. One morning Hillites arrived to find someone had stuck a series of those centrefolds to the bar.
I loved the Hill. When others screwed up their noses at my preference I would laugh and describe a day on the Hill as ‘a sociological experience’. The Hill, l learnt quickly, was not populated by the alcoholically brain-dead but by a diverse collection of free-spirited people. I loved observing, chatting with those around—a not too infrequent occurrence. I loved the sense of fun, the rat-baggery, the larrikinism, the humour (sometimes quite elaborate), the smartarse comments. It was no place for the faint-hearted but, generally, it was a happy and fraternal place. It exuded a particular attitude to life: a radical, anti-authoritarian spirit. (And it demanded you try and smuggle in a bottle of rum inside a hollowed-out loaf of bread.)
I have always liked the reality that Hillites are not passive observers but rather significant actors in the day’s events. They dress up: special costumes (nuns, monkeys, Santa Clauses), home-printed T-shirts that identify heartfelt affiliations (Logan Village Second XI Gabba Test 1998-99), embroidered caps that announce it’s Angus’s Bucks’ Parry. What is happening to them is as important as what is happening on the field. They trade in bullshit. Only the most naive would take everything said to them on the Hill as gospel. It is quire remarkable (for a start) that so many F-111 pilots, deep-sea divers, secret agents, diamond traders, swimwear-model photographers and movie producers should be gathered in one place.
There are rituals. I used to pack my 1950s metal esky with standard Hill fare: ham and salad sandwiches, nectarines, Bertie Beetles, a banana cake and Barbecue Shapes. For years, one group has been bringing the batski—a cricket bat with three holes in which are placed beer cups. The boys line up and scull together—a communal gesture which is followed immediately by cheering and backslapping. It works for them.
Although there are rituals, a lot of Hillite behaviour is spontaneous. On the Friday of a Test the Hill is always full of the free-spirited. Many of them have woken up after a big Thursday night and thought ‘I’m not going to work today. What’ll I do?’ And then they remember the cricket’s on. There has been little or no planning in their attendance. These are people who feel they are not going to be dictated to. They are delighted to have absconded from a day at work—while their counterparts in the grandstands are in a state of constant worry that their RDO will render the workplace inoperational.
Traditionally Hillites had a running battle with the boys in blue. At the Gabba, the paddy truck was always parked on the ramp alongside the Hill. The battle was on. In the last years of the Hill the police were no longer the target of Hillite vitriol—the hundreds of mercenary security zombies who now patrol the ground (and who delighted in identifying and over-reacting to the slightest misdemeanour in an attempt to justify their employment) became the enemy. Interestingly the police are now seen as far more moderate and even likable.
During the 90s it became clear that the Gabba as we knew and loved it was on death row. The scoreboard was torn down and replaced with a functional electronic eyesore that was about as unique as a Big Mac. It told us when a ball had reached the boundary and when to cheer. As the redevelopment progressed, sections of the once glorious Hill were annexed by the imperialist redesigners who imposed their own culture on the place. It was like Africa a century before.
There were moments of realisation that things were changing. At the West Indies Test in 1996, the authorities decided to reduce the number of staff working the ticket offices. For years it took no longer than fifteen minutes to get in. You could turn up at 10.30 and still see the first ball. This day, some people didn’t see a ball bowled in the morning session—a lesson to teach us to book. But a Hillite is unlikely to plan anything. The Hill was in a very bad mood that day. By the Test against England in 1998 there was a tiny patch of grass (a veritable Abyssinia), fenced, with a scarp down to a huge hole in the ground where yet another plastic and concrete grandstand was to go. Of course now the redevelopment is complete. There is no Hill. Nothing. And I am denied an experience that I found not only enjoyable but meaningful. It’s now better if I get a ticket (so I can get in), which means I have to plan to go. Once there I have to sit in a small chair alongside the same people for the entire day. I cannot take my favourite esky because it doesn’t fit under my chair and hence is not allowed in.
The Gabba has changed. A significant choice has been removed. Sports marketers don’t just want any crowd, they want the right type of crowd: passive, accepting, decent, middle-class. Sports venues are increasingly sanitised, and they reflect the prejudices of those who work together to design them: sports administrators and architects. They might crave comfort and replays and mini-TV screens and voice-overs. But Hillites don’t—they crave the Hill. Comfort and convenience are not major issues. (Ask a Hillite who’s having a little post-tea kip and see what the response is. He’s sleeping the sleep of the just.)
One of the many frustrating things about the change is the automatic assumption that the Hill would go and that the Gabba would be a better place for it, There seemed to be no regard for the voice of the patron on the Hill. Well, there are those who are extremely disappointed. Yet they enjoy the cricket and the footy enough to keep returning. They have the faith to believe that the new Gabba will generate its own stories and rituals and they will probably come to be participants in their own way.
Why is there such grace in the ignored and disregarded?