Sidharth Monga on India in South Africa 2010-11 January 7, 2011

Moses Mabhida Stadium ready for cricketing spectacle

The Moses Mabhida Stadium is fast becoming as synonymous with Durban as the city's beaches and the Golden Mile

The Moses Mabhida Stadium is fast becoming as synonymous with Durban as the city's beaches and the Golden Mile. It is the one defining piece of architecture that usually stands out for cities. Think the Opera House in Sydney, the Sky Tower in Auckland. It is very similar in a way to the Sky Tower. Moses Mabhida’s spectacular overhead arch, the Arch of Triumph, is visible from most of the places in the city. From the top of the arch, in turn, most of the city is visible. At the top, you can go for the skywalk or for the swing, wherein you fall towards the pitch (it’s the football pitch we are talking about) before swinging out in an arc over it, in a bungee-jumping sort of way.

If you have been to the top without binoculars, you wouldn’t have noticed the men hard at work to convert this primarily football and athletics stadium to a cricket ground that will host the biggest crowd for a cricket match in the country. A couple of stands have been taken up by the stage for a Bollywood concert that will follow the Twenty20 international between South Africa and India on Sunday night, bringing down the capacity to 50,000, but Cricket South Africa says the match was sold out days in advance. No other cricket stadium in the country has as big a capacity.

It is a grand occasion, and there’s been a lot of hard work to get the stadium ready in time. Phil Russell, formerly the chief groundsman of Kingsmead, the main cricketing venue in Durban, called it the most challenging pitch he has prepared. More challenging than the time when he and his team “built a stadium in eight weeks, including the floodlights” for ICL games in Chandigarh.

Admittedly, there was more foresight involved here. Soon after the FIFAWorld Cup semi-final on July 7, 2010, the base of a cricket pitch was laid. “We dug it out, put the base in, the sand and stone, the day after the semi-final,” Russell said. That, though, didn’t stop the stadium from being used for football games. They just put the grass over the top of it, and played.

The actual time for preparation, however, has been only nine weeks, which is what makes it more challenging. In the second week of November, they started working properly on this, and the unique structure of the stadium made the job tougher.

“Getting it level was the biggest challenge,” Russell said. “Normally takes a couple of years to get it level. Then getting it compact. Right moisture content. Moreover, we have no experience of preparing a pitch in an enclosed area. We don’t get the sun up until eight in the morning, and then it goes in the afternoon. We have had to get around that as well.”

During the pitch-preparation period, Russell said only one scheduled football game had been cancelled, on November 11. That too because of the rain: footballers wouldn’t have wanted to play in rain with a block of exposed clay in the middle.

Russell said his brief was to prepare a decent Twenty20 pitch, but the drop-in pitch – as is the case in the rugby stadiums in New Zealand – was ruled out because of cost issues. According to Russell, it would have cost somewhere close to 2million rand, plus the time taken to ship it from either New Zealand or Australia. “But if you want a regular thing, it is worth spending on,” Russell said. “Forty-seven thousand tickets at 400 rand each. Comes to quite a sum.”

The biggest question is how this turf pitch will behave. In a rehearsal game last month, the low and slow nature of the track had become a matter of concern, but Russell was hopeful. He had initially hoped for stump-high bounce, but the rains over the last few days have led him to be a bit circumspect. “There is no grass on the pitch,” Russell said on the nature of the track. “We haven’t even tried to grow any grass at all. It’s just clay, but it is level. It will slide on quite quickly. Bounce only stump high.”

On first look, it seems that the expected low bounce would be offset by short square boundaries, but Russell was quick to dispel that notion. “The boundaries are just as big as Kingsmead. [This is just an] Optical illusion. Fifty-five metres square. Seventy metres straight. We can go 110 straight if you want.”

What will cricket leave behind it besides the memory of a gala night? Wouldn’t it affect future football games? Perish the thought. “There is a [football] game here next week,” Russell said. “They will have to bring a machine to take the top off, water it, get the grass from outside, interlock it, and hopefully make it fit to play soccer.”

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo