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The prefabricated surfaces prepared for 2015 are a case of character being traded for cash flow
July 30, 2013
An American band called Houndmouth appeared recently on David Letterman's Late Show. Other than their good-time, mid-western tunes, the most amusing element of the performance was the tag "RENTALS" emblazoned across the group's bass drum. It was a joke, of course, but taking a glance down the fixtures for the next World Cup, it was hard to avoid applying a similar tag a little more seriously to many of the venues employed by the Australia and New Zealand organisers for 2015.
One of the first trends to pop out when observing the schedule for the tournament is that no fewer than five of its seven knockout matches will take place on drop-in wickets at football grounds - two at the MCG, one each in Wellington and Auckland, and one at Adelaide Oval, a ground that has just lost its famed strip of turf to the demands of AFL expedience.
Only the SCG has managed to maintain its place as both a cricket ground and a favoured venue, courtesy a partial facelift in the nick of time. Even then, the ground that was recently lauded globally for the graceful way it celebrated its 100th Test match had to beat off the entreaties of Sydney's drop-in Olympic Stadium, which has struggled to be loved by players even in a format as transient as T20.
By contrast, the Gabba appears to have lost out because its redevelopment arrived too early, being completed more than a decade ago. Little consideration seems to have been given to the fact that Brisbane and Perth provide two of the more unique surfaces to play cricket in the world. Certainly the incentive to retain a pitch of genuine character has fallen well behind that to ensure a venue is bigger, brighter and more entertainment complex than cricket ground.
Cricket's need to "fit in" among the other sports played around it in Australia and New Zealand has never been more succinctly stated. The game has become a minor tenant in many sporting venues across the two countries, and it is worth measuring the cost of this shift. Australia's struggling Ashes batsmen have complained about the loss of pitch characteristics around the country, and drop-in wickets do little to help.
The prefabricated surfaces prepared for 2015 are likely to be of the inoffensive kind that administrators can rely on for high scores and late finishes, but will not provide any sort of addition to the experience in the way the local turf did during the 1992 edition of the cup. Back then, the bounce and swing on offer in Australia contrasted neatly with the slower, lower surfaces on the other side of the "ditch" and provided a rich blend of tactical and technical conundrums.
As Ricky Ponting put it when looking over Adelaide amid its redevelopment last year: "Most often grounds change for the better, but sometimes they change for the better of other sports. When you look at our grounds now, all our grounds around Australia have always been cricket grounds but they've changed into football grounds more than anything these days, and cricket's trying to survive on football ovals."
In the case of the World Cup, there has been some level of goodwill extended towards cricket by the football codes, at least in part because a gap of 23 years between events is hardly a blip on the financial modelling of the AFL or Super Rugby. An AFL spokesperson told Melbourne's Herald Sun that "we are happy to work around their schedule, as this will be a fantastic event for the city, state and the country", omitting to add this was only true so long as it didn't happen too often.
The creation of room for the event in the summers of Australia and New Zealand has not been without scheduling compromises on cricket's side. Cricket Australia has mapped out a mere four Test matches against India that summer and has no plans to add another two against another touring team, as has become customary. This means at least two capital cities will miss out on their annual Test, with Brisbane again likely to fall victim to the schedule, alongside the perennially undersung Hobart.
The irony of this would not have been lost on Tasmanian officials in attendance at the launch as Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made a reference to the high government cost of installing floodlights at Bellerive Oval. Federal and state government funding has been a major factor in many of the upgrades that will be seen at venues in 2015. In return for this outlay, there has been a measure of political jostling to the handing out of matches. The high profile India v Pakistan pool match on the second day of the tournament is a fixture often referred to as "more than a game", but in the chambers of the South Australian government, it has been described as such for reasons less to do with border stoushes than marketing opportunities.
In the words of the SA Premier Jay Weatherill: "The government, through the South Australian Tourism Commission, had a specific strategy in bidding for a schedule that would guarantee the maximum exposure for Adelaide and South Australia. What has been announced today exactly matches that strategy because not only will India be playing their first match on the opening weekend of the tournament in Adelaide, but they will be based here for a week prior to that game, playing warm-up matches, including one against Australia. It gives South Australia an outstanding opportunity to get significant leverage into India."
So even on a day when cricket took a fair share of attention around Australia, New Zealand and the rest of the world, it was hard to escape the feeling that in 2015 it will be as much a pawn of footballing, corporate and government interests as a major player. Whether or not Houndmouth are still around in two years time remains to be seen. Either way, their drum kit will be in for more business as a result of the "RENTALS" label, just as the preferred cricket grounds of the 2015 World Cup have traded character for cash flow.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets hereFeeds: Daniel Brettig
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