Drop-in pitch centre of attention
Last Saturday Eden Park was hosting a rugby match between the Roosters and the Warriors in the NRL. On Friday it hosts the deciding Test between England and New Zealand, the first five-day match here since 2006, with much focus on the drop-in pitch which was lowered into place just hours after the rugby finished.
The process where the pitch, grown near the No. 2 Oval, is wheeled on a large flat-bed frame into the ground took about three hours. Drop-in pitches are not new, Eden Park has used them since 2002, but they always add intrigue especially considered the talk surrounding the nature of the pitches so far in the series.
Mark Perham, the head groundsman at Eden Park for 11 years who looks after the surfaces for cricket and rugby, said he had received no direction from New Zealand Cricket over what to prepare. "I wouldn't be surprised if there was a result. No one wants to see three draws. Getting through the new ball is key, wickets can go in clumps so the game can move on pretty quickly."
The pitch for this Test has been used for three Twenty20s earlier in the season and has since been reseeded. Perham added that he expected more pace and bounce than the previous two Tests and said that a good guide are the pitches produced on the neighbouring oval which hosts Plunket Shield matches and which uses the same soil.
However, he said there was unlikely to be much for the spinners as the clay-based soil used does not break up although Bruce Martin, who plays for Auckland, picked up seven in a match early in the summer and 5 for 45 in the second innings against Canterbury.
There were a wide range of totals this season in the Plunket games staged next door including teams being bowled out for under 200, but also a total of 658 for 9 during which Colin Munro (269) and Craig Cachopa (166) added 377 for the sixth wicket. In another match Gareth Andrew, the Worcestershire allrounder, hit an unbeaten 180 at No. 8 although that may have more to do with the standard of New Zealand domestic cricket.
The lack of recent Test history at this ground will add to the head-scratching for the captains. The previous Test here in 2006 resulted in a 27-run win against West Indies and there hasn't been a draw since 1999 (pre the era of drop-in pitches). "The main difference [for internationals] is you have all the good bowlers," Perham said.
England have a mixed history with drop-in surfaces in New Zealand. They encountered two during the 2002 tour, the first producing the famous Christchurch Test which began with England 0 for 2 in the first over, was followed by seven wickets for Matthew Hoggard and then turned into a batting paradise with record-breaking double-centuries from Graham Thorpe and Nathan Astle before England ultimately won by 98 runs.
Fortunes were reversed in Auckland where New Zealand slumped to 19 for 4 before reaching 202 then skittling England for 160. They eventually won by 78 runs, but the main controversy of that match was the use of the floodlights on the fourth evening which left Nasser Hussain furious because he said his fielders could not see the ball. New Zealand took advantage and amassed their match-winning lead.
There are also the dimensions of the ground - with a straight hit of less than 70 metres - to consider, which Brendon McCullum said will be factor. "Since the wicket has been turned around the dimensions are significantly different to previous Test matches," he said. "In one-day cricket and T20 there's an expectancy for the ball to sail over the boundary but perhaps less so in Tests, so it will be an interesting scenario if some guys gets in and can access those short boundaries. It will have its quirks."
Whatever happens this time, though, Perham won't be listening to any of the comments. "You've just got to take it on the chin, I don't listen to any of it. We just want to produce the best cricket wicket possible, where if you bowl well you take wickets and if you bat well you score runs. You don't want to get back into dirty green seamers. Who wants to see the Test over in three days?"
The pace bowlers on both sides might put their hand up to that question.
Andrew McGlashan is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo