July 17, 2003

Pitch drops in at Darwin

The first Test between Australia and Bangladesh at Darwin is an unusual one for a number of reasons: it's being played in the Australian winter; the venue has never been used for even a first-class match; and the Test will be played on a drop-in pitch.

This is not the first time that a drop-in pitch has been used in Australia. They were experimented with at the Colonial Stadium in Melbourne during the Super Challenge series against Pakistan. But a Test match is a whole new ball game, even if it is against the weakest Test side in the world. Once the venue was fixed, however, the use of a drop-in pitch became inevitable.

"The Marrara Oval at Darwin didn't have a cricket wicket," explains Tony Ware, the man in charge of installing the pitch. "The only way to bring cricket here was to use the portable wicket technology." Ware, who is the head of groundstaff at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), has prepared two wickets for this series. One is the pitch that the first Test will be played on; the other is the one for the tour game against the Chief Minister's XI, which Bangladesh won.

So how long does it take to prepare an artificial pitch? Ware needed three months. The pitches were divided in half and then merged together, using a sophisticated ratchet mechanism, once it was in the ground. That sounds simple enough, but the portable pitch technology used by Ware took him four years to develop.

Ware likes the weather in Darwin. With a minimum temperature in the lower 20s (degrees centigrade), a maximum around 31 and a fair amount of humidity, Ware feels that the conditions will bring the best out of his pitch. It is a hard pitch with some grass on it, and Ware says that it will favour the medium-pace bowlers.

"Australia will do well on the even wicket and Bangladesh - they are learning about cricket - may find it tough," says Ware. "With enough humidity and the climate not being too hot to dry the wicket - which would have created cracksit will last for five days or four days or whatever it takes to finish the Test."

Once the series is over the wickets will be moved back into the compound at Marrara and will be maintained for possible further use down the track. "The other main advantage is that we don't heavily impact on grounds like Marrara, which have other usages. We can move the pitch in and out without disrupting the facility for football games."

Can the players tell the difference between a real pitch and a drop-in one? Karl Johnson, the turf manager at the New Zealand's High Performance Centre, says, "A a lot of it is new territory and it just doesn't seem real to some." But he feels that if a player walks into the Jade Stadium in Christchurch - one of the two stadia in New Zealand with drop-in pitches, the other being Eden Park in Auckland - he would not know which one is drop-in and which is not.

As for the anomalies of the weather, the portable pitches can be put in marquees or tents and the trays can be moved under them, where they can be monitored in a controlled environment till they are brought into play. "This is a huge advantage for us," says Johnson, "as we can have a rugby weekend and, immediately the next week, a one-day international."

Drop-in pitches, although still a new territory, are slowly gaining interest in the cricketing world and with major big stadiums like the MCG being used for various sporting activities they are definitely gathering interest. Johnson says: "[Unofficial] level talks between the West Indies Cricket Board and the Melbourne Cricket Club are on to use the drop-in wicket at Florida, in the United States, one of the possible venues for the next World Cup in 2007." The moot question there is: the pitch might drop in, but will spectators?

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