There have been assertions that drop-in pitches have changed the nature of cricket in New Zealand, with alleged “belters” on steel trays making the green and seaming wickets a thing of the past. The truth, however, is very different.
Firstly, only two of New Zealand’s international cricket venues use portable pitches: Eden Park in Auckland and Westpac Stadium in Wellington, both of which also host rugby and football. The rest are traditional wickets. (While Napier’s McLean Park also doubles up as a rugby ground, the wicket there is permanent.)
Secondly, even drop-in tracks provide significant assistance to bowlers, as was evident from the New Zealand-England Test last year which Matt Prior saved with a stunning rearguard.
Thirdly, and most significantly, if New Zealand tracks are not what they used to be, it’s because that is how they are being made nowadays, drop-in or not. “I don’t think this trend has anything to do with drop-in pitches,” says Blair Christiansen, Eden park’s turf manager. “It’s just the way they are being prepared these days. In the past we were probably renowned for low, slow green seaming wickets, whereas now they are pretty flat, a lot more pace and bounce,” he says.
A conversation with Christiansen also helps dispel the notion that drop-in pitches are some kind of fast-food: cheap, ready to make at short notice, filling, but ultimately not nutritious.
Pointing to the pitch that will be used for the third ODI between New Zealand and India on Saturday, Blair says: “This one has been here for two weeks now. Fourteen days is what it takes to prepare a track for an international game. Why 14 days? Because drop in pitches are exactly the same as the traditional pitches: they have the same soil, same grass, same dimensions, same depth of soil. It’s just that they are portable,” he says.
Just behind the stadium’s West Stand, there is the Outer Oval, where first-class cricket matches are played in Auckland. But there is something amiss here: the pitch, which is now at Eden for the match. The vacuum stares at you like a dried fountain canal at a Delhi garden.
Eden Park has four portable turfs in all. Three are cricket pitches — two of which at any point are in the nursery and one at the Outer Oval or the main ground depending on the schedule — and the other is a rugby turf, which replaces the wicket once the cricket is over.
“These wickets never get any sort of winter play (rugby or football). When they are finished here, they go to the nursery and just get looked after and pampered. It means I have one less worry. We don’t have to sweat about having scrums on them and ruggers don’t have to worry about being tackled on the hard surface. That way, it’s a win-win,” he says.
It’s also win-win from cricket’s point of view. In a rugby mad nation, it can co-exist, without having to worry about the costs of maintaining a ground. “In New Zealand, I don’t think we have the population to support stand-alone cricket venues. So here, we have an outstanding stadium, but one which caters to different sports and events. Cricket in one of those events.”
However, it hasn’t been all-win for Christiansen. His workload has increased significantly when compared to what it was when Eden had a traditional pitch, before 2002. Earlier there used to be proper demarcation of sporting seasons: cricket from October to March, then rugby and football. Now, the lines have blurred, and “work intensity” has increased.
“I would say my work has become more intense,” says Christiansen, who has been here since 2000. “Now we have such scheduling that between cricket games, we might have a football game and then a cricket game, lots of ins and out. So work has increased,” he says.
Christiansen, whose other assignments include helping to prepare the Chinnaswamy Stadium track in 2007, doesn’t predict the concept going to India. In Australia and New Zealand, we have stadiums which are used for other sports as well. “In India I don’t see there being a need for drop-in pitches because you have massive cricket-only grounds with big squares and multilple pitches. There is no need for such wickets there.”
Maybe there is a need, after all. If someone digs up a pitch, as had happened at Feroz Shah Kotla in 1999, it will help if there is something to drop in.