World Cup

‘Drop-in pitches can have character’

The pitch is supposed to be the heart of a cricket ground. It is where the contest between bat and ball takes place; it is where the game is essentially played; it is where all eyes are drawn. And yet here we are, where the heart is not really a permanent occupant of the body, but ready to be disconnected, packed, and transported out to beat in its own little jar elsewhere.

Drop-in pitches are a necessity in this part of the world where financial reality sometimes dictates that cricket shares venues with rugby and Aussie rules. Of the seven knockout matches in the World Cup, only two — in Sydney — would have been played on traditional pitches.

Blair Christiansen, Eden Park’s Turf Manager, has worked on Auckland’s drop-in pitches for over a decade now. Portables, he calls them. There are five trays at Eden Park, each holding a different pitch.

Their preparation began six months ago, when each tray was earmarked for a different fixture. During the rugby season, a sand-tray is placed in the middle of Eden Park, to match the rest of the outfield.

The difference between portables and conventional wickets, says Christiansen, is not vast. “They are similar in terms of the soil-types that we use — same depth of soil, same grass-type. But they do behave a little bit differently to a normal, traditional cricket pitch. So we need to manage certain aspects of their preparation, like the drying times, a little bit differently.”

Christiansen is at pains to emphasise that portable pitches can have character, contrary to popular perception. “Our ones do. Last year we had a Test match against India that was pretty good. Previously we had one against England, which went down to the last over. Early on, they were being treated the same as traditional pitches. We learnt our lessons. Now we’re trying to develop a particular trait in them — we’d like them to have pace and bounce.”

Drop-in pitches are not new to cricket, but the logistics of transporting them continue to be fascinating. It is a painstaking task — at Eden Park it takes four-and-a-half hours to transplant one tray from the outer oval into the middle of the main ground, and replace the old one. It is a distance of only 300m.

A giant crane — the ‘transporter machine’, they call it — winches the pitch up. “The pitch is three metres wide, 25 metres long and weighs 20 tons,” Christiansen says. “We lift it up as one piece from the ground and drive it out here and pick up the other pitch, transport it to the ground, put it out in the hole.”

Manoeuvring the crane through tight spaces is a delicate task. It’s driven out slowly, out of the driveway and onto the road outside and back in through another gate.

“We stop all the traffic coming in and it takes about 20 minutes to get off the road and enter the main gate of the stadium,” he says.

“And you have to make sure the field is really in good condition because the machine weighs 40 tons, ensure it can take that weight. It’s a delicate procedure and you sort of have to be mentally on it.”

The outcome of Tuesday’s semifinal could, to some extent, depend on the pitch Christiansen and his team have prepared.

After the match, the last World Cup game to be played in New Zealand, it will be picked up, driven off, and deposited on the adjacent ground. And for a brief while there will be a hollow in the middle of Eden Park, as if nothing ever existed there.

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Printable version | Sep 27, 2021 8:25:38 AM |

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