ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 / Features
Big city, small country
The cricket stadium in Auckland, and the city itself, are unlike the rest of New Zealand
Cricket loves quirky and Eden Park fits that bill. Although purely a cricket ground in its early days, after opening in 1900 it has arguably been more associated with New Zealand's No. 1 sport, rugby union. You get a sense of this from just walking around the outside of the ground, an area dotted with statues of oval-ball heroes.
As ever for a cricket follower from the UK, the first impression of New Zealand's grounds comes through television at ungodly hours. In 1996, in what would eventually become the Astle-Morrison Great Escape - I remember Alec Stewart's pulls and flicks going one-bounce, or no-bounce, over the ludicrously short deep square-leg boundary, and Graham Thorpe's cuts and glides travelling equally quickly in the same direction.
These days, since the ground was redeveloped for the 2011 rugby World Cup, the dimensions are a little different as the pitch has been realigned. Now straight down the ground is a mere chip or top edge away. When a fast bowler with a long run marks out his stride, he is not far off running in from the boundary edge. Michael Holding may have been starting from the stands.
Watching Rohit Sharma's world-record 264 against Sri Lanka recently reminded me of something that was mentioned during England's Test at Eden Park in 2013 - a match that ended thrillingly with England clinging on, nine wickets down, the closing moments including a desperate dive for the popping crease by Monty Panesar that would not have been too far different from an All Black reaching for the try line.
Perhaps prompted by one of Peter Fulton's eight sixes, Mike Selvey, the former Middlesex and England seamer-turned-respected correspondent for the Guardian, having noted the World Cup fixture list, said: "India could score 500 against Zimbabwe." (I trust no offence is taken if that quote is not entirely accurate). The two teams meet at Eden Park on March 14 and it will be a daunting prospect for the Zimbabwean attack. The Indians should also be well supported by the sizeable expat community in the city; Auckland has the most diverse population of New Zealand's cities.
That is one of four games the ground will host during the tournament. Away from the prospect of batting carnage, it could be the venue's first match - when the home side host Australia - that indicates how the World Cup has captured the nation's imagination. In 1992, the last time the tournament was held on these shores, the corresponding fixture was the opening game in New Zealand's set of matches.
Martin Crowe struck an unbeaten 100 to set up a 37-run win for the hosts, which ignited a spark among the supporters, who had previously held low expectations for a struggling team, and helped carry the side to the semi-final, again at Eden Park, when only a spectacular innings from Inzamam-ul-Haq denied them a place in the final.
Working at the ground for a cricket match does bring a few challenges due to the set-up of the venue. The press box is situated at an ideal height for a rugby match, where movement from the stands is not a problem and it is sideways to the action, but it is stationed right behind the bowler's arm for cricket - seen as the perfect angle for viewing, but not when it is at the players' eye level.
Visiting for the 2013 England Test, we were greeted by a black mesh over the window, which had been requested by the officials. It made it as though you were watching a day-night match with lights and through a haze of fog or smoke. Hasty negotiations followed and an agreement was reached to remove it on the condition everyone was completely still when the batsman was facing that end. So for next five days there were endless cries of "Don't move!"
Spectators can rattle around the ground during a sparsely populated Test - although that is a problem felt by many venues around the world - but the limited-overs formats are far better attended, and if the prospect of a Trans-Tasman meeting can stir the emotions of the supporters it has the potential to be a fantastic atmosphere.
However, the talk of building a new cricket ground in the Auckland vicinity is an encouraging development. As Andrew Miller wrote in his piece about Dunedin, New Zealand is one of the few places that distinguishes between a cricket ground and a stadium. Give the public a smaller, boutique venue, which is designed for the sport, and they may yet return.
While Eden Park is a contrast to the tree-lined, grass-banked, picket-fenced grounds dotted around the country, Auckland itself is a contrast too. It is the closest you will find to the "big-city" lifestyle. That is not a criticism in anyway, but it means a different vibe from some of the other locations.
In the decade between my first visit as a bright-eyed backpacker to my next for the 2013 England tour, the skyline had become more imposing to accompany the iconic Sky Tower, which was opened in 1997 - and, if you are so inclined, off which you can jump - especially around the heavily regenerated marina area, where the "City of Sails" is there to see in all its glory and provides a wonderful location to spend an evening over a glass of New Zealand's finest. Find yourself a seat in one of the bustling alfresco dining spots around Viaduct Basin and watch the world go by.
However, that does not mean it isn't possible to escape to the calm and quiet. A short boat ride out of Auckland harbour is Waiheke Island, the second largest island in the Hauraki Gulf. The previously mentioned England rearguard in 2013 scuppered a few journalists' plans of heading over for fish and chips to sign off the tour. Witnessing another of Test cricket's great escapes was ample consolation.
From being on the verge of a famous victory, that day turned into one of agonising disappointment for New Zealand and their captain, Brendon McCullum. But if he can be walking off Eden Park victorious on March 24, knowing that his team are flying across the Tasman for the World Cup final in Melbourne, the ground will have earned itself another historic mark in the country's cricket history.
Andrew McGlashan is a senior assistant editor at ESPNcricinfoFeeds: Andrew McGlashan
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