Panorama photograph of Australia v Wellington at the Basin Reserve, 1946. New Zealand Cricket Museum Collection

The Basin

The Basin has a long history, but many people don’t know the origins of how it came to host cricket.

Wellington plan by Captain William Mein Smith in 1840. Credit: Collection of Te Papa Tongarewa

Sometime in the 14th century, the Kurahaupō waka arrived in Aotearoa New Zealand. Among the three chiefs who captained the vessel on its journey was Whātonga. A great explorer, Whātonga would venture around the lower North Island, from the Māhia Peninsula to the Manawatū, and the top of the South Island.

[.richtext-box]It’s from Whātonga that Wellington’s harbour gets the name Te Whanganui-a-Tara, named for his son, Tara.[.richtext-box]

This name has many references within the region including in the Ngai Tara iwi, one of numerous iwi descended from Whātonga. Ngāi Tara established Te Akatarewa Pā above the modern-day Mount Victoria Tunnel.

From this site, the Hauwai Mahinga Kai (food gardens) was developed between Mount Victoria and the cone of Pukeahu, with the swamp at the lowest point of the valley between these peaks central to food cultivation. From this swamp, local iwi would catch eels and fish while cultivating the land into Newtown and the Aro Valley for fruit and vegetables. When Taranaki iwi moved into the region and established the Te Aro Pā, they continued to cultivate the area and expand the foods produced.

When English colonists arrived in Wellington, this rich agricultural area became desired for very different purposes as they sought to develop the new settlement.

In 1840, when Surveyor-General, Captain William Mein Smith drew up plans for Wellington, a stream linked the harbour to the Hauwai Swamp, which he simply labelled ‘Basin’. Smith’s intention was for this basin to become a safe harbour for ships, accessed through a canal to the harbour. Over the next 15 years the city continued to develop around Smith’s basin as people from around the world moved to the new colony.

Then, an earthquake changed everything. At 9.11pm on January 23rd 1855 an earthquake struck. Estimated at a magnitude of 8.2, the quake was centred in the Wairarapa but had a profound effect on Wellington’s landscape.

Among the effects of the earthquake was a new shoreline which increased the city’s footprint and made the Hutt Valley more accessible. It also saw the land through Te Aro rise by about 1.5 metres, turning Smith’s basin into a swamp.

By 1861, Wellington was expanding rapidly, and debate was stirring about the make-up of the Town Belt. Central to the conversation was the establishment of a public reserve at Te Aro. Cricket fields were being built upon as quickly as they were developed and the English settlers’ passion for the game would not abate. Eventually, the council agreed and gave cricketers the site they desired, Smith’s former basin at Te Aro.

It was no small task turning this swampy piece of land into a ground suitable for cricket and recreation. However, the prison at the nearby Mt Cook barracks offered free labour and, in February 1863, prisoners began the task of draining and flattening the new ‘Basin Reserve’. While the work to reclaim land from the earthquake-derived swamp was successful, the Basin Reserve’s place as the home of cricket was not confirmed until it was leased for the sport in 1866.

The Basin Reserve in 1875 after the prisoners had cleared the grounds. The stream that ran from the harbour between Kent and Cambridge Terraces is visible along the centre of the photograph. Photographer: James Bragge. New Zealand Cricket Museum Collection

While cricket’s love affair with the Basin Reserve had begun, it would be two years before it was ready for play.

On January 11th 1868 the Wellington Volunteers played the crew of the HMS Falcon. In a low-scoring affair, the Falcon crew chased down the 38 runs they need to win with one wicket to spare. After the match, the umpire apologised to the players for the stony, thistle-covered playing surface. From there, cricketers invested heavily in the ground so, by the 1880s, the Basin Reserve was almost unrecognisable from a decade before; picket fences, the Caledonian Stand, and a vastly improved playing surface meant cricket was here to stay.

The original layout of the Basin Reserve was rectangular, large enough to fit two soccer fields. This meant it was not uncommon for several club cricket matches to be played at once. It was a different story for big matches, when every inch of space was needed to fit the large crowds that would flock in.

[.richtext-box]When Lillywhite’s All England XI visited in 1877, cricket was so popular in New Zealand that a holiday was proclaimed, and schools closed for two days.[.richtext-box]

Six weeks after playing at the Basin Reserve, the same All England side would feature in cricket’s first Test match, playing Australia at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

This photograph shows the Basin Reserve split so two games of cricket could be played simultaneously. Wellington XXII v Arthur Shrewsbury’s XI in March 1888. Credit: Don Neely Collection, Wrigglesworth & Binns

New Zealand’s first Tests were played against England in 1930. After the visitors won the opening Test in Christchurch, the Basin Reserve hosted the second Test starting on January 30. Here, on his home ground, Wellington opening batsman Stewie Dempster made history with New Zealand’s first Test century. Moments later Jackie Mills, on debut, added his own as the pair put on an opening partnership of 276 – still New Zealand’s highest, for any wicket, against England.

NZCM Collection: The Basin Reserve during the New Zealand v England Test from the 24 – 27 January 1930. This was the first Test match held at the grounds and the second Test match hosted in New Zealand. Photographer: Evening Post. New Zealand Cricket Museum Collection
Trish McKelvey batting her way to become the first New Zealand Women’s Test centurion against England in February 1969. Photographer: Dominion and Sunday Times. New Zealand Cricket Museum Collection
Trish McKelvey batting her way to become the first New Zealand Women’s Test centurion against England in February 1969. Photographer: Dominion and Sunday Times. New Zealand Cricket Museum Collection

In 1969 another historic first century was scored here as Trish McKelvey hit 155* against England, New Zealand’s first women’s Test hundred. In 2014, at just 13 years-old, Amelia Kerr wrote her name into the history of the ground, scoring the Basin’s first T20 century at any level as she made 113 for Tawa College.

[.richtext-box]Today, the Basin Reserve has seen more New Zealand Test matches, and Test victories, than any other ground. It has also been the venue for some of the most remarkable performances in our cricketing history; from JR Reid’s 15 sixes in a first-class innings, to Martin Crowe and Andrew Jones’ World Record partnership of 467 in 1991, and Brendon McCullum’s historic score of 302 in 2014.[.richtext-box]

Who knows what will happen the next time cricketers’ step through the picket fence.

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