Whatever happened to Lancaster Park?

Lancaster Park's Memorial Gates still stand, commemorating the athletes from Canterbury who were killed or went missing in WWI Karthik Krishnaswamy / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

The ghosts of long-gone landmarks hover around certain neighbourhoods. To get to where I grew up in Chennai, for example, you would get off at a bus stop named Liberty, and walk past a handful of businesses named Liberty, but the movie theatre that gave the neighbourhood its name no longer exists. Similarly, on a larger scale, Majestic in Bengaluru.

It's my last day in New Zealand and I'm in Waltham, an inner suburb of Christchurch, standing next to a used-car dealership named Stadium Cars. Not far away is a sports bar called the Final Whistle.

Both are a cricket or rugby ball's throw away from what used to be Lancaster Park, which was the home of both sports in Christchurch, more or less, from 1881 until its demolition in the wake of extensive damage suffered during the February 2011 earthquake.

This was where New Zealand played their first Test match, back in 1930. Sir Richard Hadlee, New Zealand's greatest cricketer and Christchurch through and through, took more wickets here than anywhere else - 76 in 14 Tests, at 21.51, including six five-wicket hauls. One of them, a match-winning, series-levelling 6 for 50 in March 1987, ensured West Indies never won a series in New Zealand in the 1980s, a decade in which they won everywhere else.

A photograph of Hadlee, appealing desperately for a wicket against England in 1988 - his only wicketless Test in Christchurch, ironically - is part of a line-up of pictures on the fence around the levelled ground that was once Lancaster Park. There's also one of the All Blacks legend Richie McCaw playing for the Crusaders, one of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip visiting the ground in 1963, and one from a Bon Jovi concert.

There's a gate around the corner, and all you see when you peer through the bars is acres of flat, grey wasteland. In which direction, you wonder, did Nathan Astle hit Andrew Caddick for those two massive sixes that ended up on the roof during his incredible 168-ball 222 in 2002?

An aerial photograph of the stadium a little distance away doesn't answer that question, but it contains an incredible level of detail, and you can point, pretty much, to the spot you're standing at right now. This is where the Lancaster Park Memorial Gates, built in 1924 to commemorate athletes from the province of Canterbury who served in WWI, still stand, and will continue to stand even as redevelopment takes place around them.

The building opposite the Memorial Gates still looks as it does in the photograph. It houses Leon's on Lancaster, a café that its current owner, Leon Yee, has run with his mother Patricia for at least 15 years, and whose previous owner, Yee thinks, had had it for about as long.

Yee has read about Lancaster Park's history, and knows of the time during WWII when it became a potato farm for a few years. He has made an effort to retain the old-school vibe of the café, and its walls are full of old Coke ads and rugby photographs. Out in front, above the sunroof, is a sign advertising a Christchurch cookie company; its mascot plays cricket on one side and rugby on the other.

"Originally it used to be a bakery, then turned into a lunch bar, and then sort of like a dairy-lunch bar, and I turned it into a lunch bar-café," Yee says.

The earthquake ravaged much of the neighbourhood, but the café remained standing.

"Just, everything shook, and yeah, a little liquefaction from this corner and over on that side," Yee says, pointing to various neighbouring plots. "I had no problems. Because it's an old building on piles, wooden ones, it just flexes. Not like a concrete foundation. I haven't really checked properly underneath, but the EQC [Earthquake Commission] people, they had a look and said it's fine."

Two houses down from the café is an empty lot that serves as an informal parking zone. You see these all over the city, apart from more visible reminders of the earthquake such as the ravaged façade of the Christchurch Cathedral.

"There was a lot of industrial [buildings] and offices around here," Yee says of the area around Lancaster Park. "Everything's eroding still, a little bit. They haven't really fixed everything around here, because there's other priorities in the city, I suppose."

A lunchtime queue from nearby businesses has come and gone, and I ask Yee how his enterprise has changed with no more sport at Lancaster Park.

"I get free weekends," he says. "I used to open up on the weekends - any events on, concerts, rugby, cricket.

"Cricket was always good, because [it was on] sometimes during the week as well. Cricket [was] probably the best crowd, actually. People used to come over, it would be summer, so they'd get drinks and everything."

According to the Christchurch City Council, the site of Lancaster Park will be redeveloped and opened "for public recreational use", with fields for rugby, football and cricket, as well as "informal, public open space and landscaped areas that reflect on the rich history of the park".

Yee suggests this will give the ground something of its original character, before stands came up all around it and turned it into a 36,000-seater stadium.

"Not a big stadium, just embankments," he says. "Going back to probably what it originally used to be. Might have to go back to work on the weekends, might have to give up golf!"

And then, perhaps, the ghosts of Lancaster Park will be ghosts no more.