Pitch doctoring of a different kind
Make no mistake, Adelaide has been the scene of concerted pitch doctoring this week. In departing from more than 140 years of history by scheduling a day-night Test, Cricket Australia have veered away from another tradition down under - letting the ground staff have full control over the preparation of the wicket.
The Adelaide Oval turf for Friday's Test has been micromanaged in consultation between CA, the oval's curator Damian Hough, the broadcasters, ball manufacturers, and the players themselves. Faced with the reality of using a pink ball that lacks the durability of its red equivalent, the board, the venue and the players have agreed upon a surface offering more grass than usual in Adelaide, helping the ball to be preserved while also offering more movement to bowlers.
Its qualities were tested when near-identical pitches were prepared for two Sheffield Shield matches in Adelaide earlier this season, the first a day-night affair between South Australia and New South Wales in which the likes of Steven Smith, David Warner, Mitchell Starc and Nathan Lyon all took part. There were some raised eyebrows about the way the pitch preparation has been decided more or less by committee, but positive feedback by the players about the way the surface played has allayed much of the earlier anxiety.
"This match is three years in the making from an Australian cricket perspective," CA's head of operations Sean Cary told ESPNcricinfo. "We've had the three rounds of Sheffield Shield cricket, and we've tried to come up with the best conditions that are going to not impact the balance between bat and ball.
"We don't want either the bat or the ball to be in favour, but what we've done with Damian Hough, and he's worked diligently in his wicket preparation, is to make sure the surrounds are favourable to the ball not being scuffed up as much.
"We're confident that what he's learned from the last two Shield rounds, one day-night, one natural-light Shield round, the feedback he's got from the captains, including Steve Smith the current Australian captain, is that they've been really complimentary towards his wickets, and they've said 'we'd love to have this sort of wicket for a Test match'."
For Hough's part, he was less eager to paint this as a pitch prepared entirely to suit a cricket ball, but admitted its composition was out of step with Adelaide's usual fare. "Leaving a bit of grass on it, we're hoping it will assist the quicks, and the ball will come onto the bat nicely," Hough said. "But having a bit of a coarse, thatchy grass should hopefully, going on the two games we have had so far and the pink ball Shield matches, it should be able to bite into that grass and get some spin."
As a former member of Hough's ground staff, Lyon is uniquely placed to discuss the vagaries of the surface. He and his NSW spin bowling offsider Steve O'Keefe were pleasantly surprised by the amount of spin on offer via the even covering of grass, while also noting that pacemen and batsmen alike were able to prosper at times - although with the added possible difficulty of facing a brand new ball under lights.
The presence of only two evenly grassed drop-in pitches alongside the Test strip has made for a decidedly lush square and outfield, meaning the game is unlikely to see much in the way of reverse swing. Adelaide is thus about to witness a very different Test match to what the Oval's faithful are used to, both underfoot and overhead.
"It's a little bit different, a little bit more grass on it, a more even coverage and a thick bed of grass. There's a little bit more there for everyone, it won't be a typical flat Adelaide pitch that we are used to," Lyon said. "In saying that we played here a couple of weeks ago and it was the perfect wicket.
"Damian Hough is a great curator and produced that wicket for the Shield game and spoke to myself, Dave Warner and Steve Smith before and after the Shield game to get our feedback. I know we all gave positive feedback to Damian. The ball held up pretty well when we played here a few weeks ago, it doesn't have that abrasive effect and it will be quite hard to get it to reverse. I dare say it will look after it pretty well."
As much as this match is a contest between Australia and New Zealand to decide the outcome of this series, it is also devised as a piece of advertising for the concept of day-night Tests. Cary noted the presence of a wide variety of cricket luminaries and administrators at the ground, with Pakistan already believed to be in talks with CA about taking part in another day-night match down under next summer.
"We're breaking the ice so to speak," Cary said. "There's going to be plenty of interest from other member boards around the world, we've got a number of CEOs from other countries here to witness this event, and I'm sure if they can see the positives, a full house at Adelaide Oval for the duration of the match and great viewing audiences at home, then I'm sure this will be a product other countries will be really interested in."
So it is that the Adelaide Oval wicket has been doctored by committee, though not for the usual reasons of trying to engineer a victory for the home side. Where usually such a practice would be cause for howls of derision from those Australians who believe each groundsman should be left to do his job in peace, this time around the endgame is more commercial than parochial.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig