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February 14, 2009
The Antigua Recreation Ground resembled a building site this morning as construction staff, painters, groundstaff and even firemen all helped to try and transform the venerable but near-derelict ground into a Test arena for tomorrow's hastily arranged third Test. By 5pm, however, all that hard work had paid off, as Alan Hurst, the ICC match referee, gave the all-clear for the match to get underway at 10am on Sunday, barely 48 hours after the original Antigua Test had been consigned to history's scrapheap.
"I'm very happy with the ground," Hurst told Cricinfo. "I think in the 24 hours they've had to prepare the ground, they've done a fantastic job. There are a few problems with the surface and it is not perfect, but they've done as good a job as they could have, and the wicket looks great."
People have been working through the night to bring the venue up to standard, and all through the day, the facilities slowly took shape. By the time it had passed its final check from the ICC, one of the most remarkable transformations in sporting history was well underway. Now all that remains is the action itself.
A few days ago this venue was basically a football field, albeit one used by both teams to prepare for the second Test, and the goal markings are still visible on the outfield. "The soccer lines were quite deep and embedded," said Hurst. "It was an area of concern for the players that the lines would give bad bounce. We can't guarantee that it will be perfect, but when the players see it they will be quite surprised."
However, the pitch looks sound - it was the one prepared specially for the net sessions of both teams, and described by Andrew Strauss as "spicy" - although, seeing as the ARG was famously the scene of two Brian Lara world records as well as the highest run-chase in Test history, there is faith in its ability to last the course.
"The pitch is never a problem here," Andy Roberts, the former head groundsman at the ARG, told Cricinfo. "I think it will last. The slight problem is the outfield." The ground is bumpy because of the football usage, and one piece of turf near the Viv Richards pavilion has been replaced using sods of turf from the local golf course, compacted into place with the heavy roller.
"There was a sandy patch at the pavilion end," said Hurst. "It wasn't like sand at the other ground, it was stable and never a safety issue, it was more what it looked like." An embarrassment on the scale of the second Test is certainly not anticipated.
One of the key issues facing the ARG is the state of the spectator facilities, but the double-decker West Indian Oil stand, the heart and soul of the ground in years gone by, will now be open on both levels after it was cleared by health and safety executives this afternoon. That leaves the total ground capacity at around 10,000, most of which will be taken up by dislocated England fans, although there is a hope that the locals will now show their support. "They will come down to the game, now that it's back at the ARG," one WICB official told Cricinfo.
Everyone has pulled together to try and make this work. Andy Flower, England's interim coach, arrived on the ground at around 9.45am to inspect the pitch and conditions, and was soon seen talking on his mobile phone. Both teams though had already expressed a desire that the show must go on.
The fire brigade were called in to water the outfield, while all the advertising hoardings were imported from North Sound and put into place first thing in the morning. The stands have been cleared of rubbish and were given a new lick of paint that remained tacky to the touch for much of the day. Out on the pitch the goal-posts, quite literally, have been moved.
The TV crews have been working flat out all day to get themselves ready for Sunday's 10am start, and while some of the detail will be lost because of time and logistical restraints - specifically no stump microphones and no referral system - full and uninterrupted coverage is anticipated.
The old scoreboard, which has already seen so much action in the 28 years since the ARG hosted its first Test, is poised and ready for action, while joiners and construction workers have put up a temporary sight-screen to one side of player's dressing room. There is a sense of optimism that was distinctly lacking at North Sound yesterday, and there are even a few smiles on faces.
The final verdict will only be ascertained once the Test gets underway, and rain late in the day was not what the groundstaff ordered. At the moment, however, it looks like the ARG is back.
Stats highlights from the first day of the second Test between Australia and India in Brisbane