Auckland still searches for quality grounds
The laying of a first-class pitch block at the North Harbour stadium represents another step in Auckland's search for top-quality domestic and international pitches.
A search which Lindsay Crocker, the Auckland Cricket Association chief executive, is confident will have a successful end, perhaps with first-class cricket spread between Auckland and Albany, and Test cricket played on the Eden Park Outer Oval.
Crocker and the ACA received some flak after the drop-in pitch used for the New Zealand-Pakistan first Test in March was slow, with a modest bounce and which later gave Saqlain Mushtaq the chance to spin through the New Zealand second innings.
This was the latest of the brickbats which have tossed at Auckland playing facilities and which have had Auckland's place as a regular Test venue in danger.
Crocker accepts all the past criticism, and agrees the drop-in Test pitch was not thoroughly successful. However, the ACA took on the drop-in risk simply because it could not take the chance that the Super 12 rugby match the week before would damage the Test strip.
"The problem with the drop-in pitch was the drainage," said Crocker yesterday. "The water stayed in the bottom of the tray, the pitch was too soft when installed, the bottom remained soft while rolling hardened the top - thus the pitch was slow and low.
"This fault can be repaired, and I am confident we will get a better result in the future now we have the technology sorted out."
This is part of a four-pronged effort to improve and broaden Auckland's first-class facilities.
The laying of a new block at North Harbour stadium is something of a surprise, for there seemed more antagonism than approval when the stadium authorities gently twisted Auckland and New Zealand Cricket's arms last summer in a bid to establish the stadium as a cricket venue.
This was part of the original stadium scheme, and a full-size cricket field, surrounded by a low spectator bank, was developed.
Then, coincidental with the decline of the young North Harbour Cricket Association, the cricket area languished, and was for a time considered as headquarters for Australian Rules or equestrianism.
In the last 12 months the outfield has been relaid, now a pitch is being prepared and, next summer, the stadium should join the top-level facilities.
Crocker sees the stadium ground as a club venue, for a start, but the ACA are keen to see it developed as an overflow venue for Shell series matches that cannot be accommodated at the traditional Eden Park venues.
North Harbour could be looked at for international games in the future.
In the meantime the ACA are putting more work into Colin Maiden Park ground at Merton Road. This has already been used for Shell Trophy matches, it contains perhaps the best all-round pitches in Auckland, and the spectator and players' facilities are satisfactory. However, as the ground is not fenced, it does not lend itself to having a paying crowd.
But the plan that may have the biggest impact of all on Auckland, and Eden Park, cricket is the possible use of the Eden Park Outer Oval for Test matches.
Both the ACA and the Eden Park board of control are looking at plans and proposals to get the outer oval up to Test-match measurements.
"The outer oval is too short at the ends," said Crocker.
"We cannot extend in one direction because there is solid rock. So the extension must come at the other end.
"This would mean the re-siting of the present small stand (containing dressing rooms, indoor school and weight rooms) and the old wooden Members' Stand (now the home of The Cricket Society and the rugby referees.
"The questions about using the outer oval for Tests have been whether it can be done, and whether it should be done.
"We have evidence that it can be done," said Crocker. "After all, the old wooden Members' stand has already been shifted twice.
"Now we are waiting for the answer to the question whether it should be done."