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Feature

Why Test cricket in New Zealand is unlike anywhere else in the world

The usual routine is that it gets harder to bat in the second innings, but it's a little different here

The pitch for New Zealand's last Test at the Basin Reserve, in March 2019, against Bangladesh

The pitch at Basin Reserve looked rather green  •  Raton Gomes/BCB

Try as they might, India won't forget their last Test match at the Basin Reserve. They bowled New Zealand out for 192 on the first day, then took a 246-run first-innings lead, then reduced New Zealand to 94 for 5 in their second innings.
And then, well, they had to wait 123 overs to get their next wicket, as Brendon McCullum and BJ Watling put on 352 runs together.
Almost every series since then has thrown up a comparable second-innings rearguard. On the same ground less than a year later, against Sri Lanka, Watling joined Kane Williamson in a similar situation, and they put on an even bigger partnership, an unbroken 365 that turned the match on its head. Then, in successive Tests, there were Tom Latham and Henry Nicholls in Christchurch, and Angelo Mathews and Kusal Mendis batting through an entire day's play in, once again, Wellington. At the start and end of 2019, we saw, in Hamilton, a rollicking double-century stand in a losing cause, between Mahmudullah and Soumya Sarkar, and match-saving centuries from Kane Williamson and Ross Taylor against England.
Test cricket in New Zealand is like Test cricket in no other part of the world. Wickets tumble quickly in the first innings, but by the time the second innings rolls around, something happens to the pitches, and instead of deteriorating and becoming unpredictable in terms of pace and bounce, they simply get better to bat on.
Since India's last tour of the country at the end of the 2013-14 season, the average first-innings wicket in New Zealand has cost 34.79 runs - that's solidly in the middle of the pack, when you line up first-innings averages across the nine countries that have hosted at least 10 Tests in this period.
The average second-innings wicket in New Zealand, meanwhile, has cost 36.09 runs. That's more than anywhere else on the planet, by a distance, with Australia coming in next at 29.56. New Zealand is the only country where it's been harder to take wickets in the second innings than in the first.
In India, for comparison, a first-innings wicket has fallen with every 36.88 runs added to the scoreboard, and a second-innings wicket with every 24.23 runs. That more or less fits in with the traditional expectations of how pitches are expected to behave. New Zealand? It's just different in New Zealand.
Even the strategies are different. Neil Wagner, for instance, wouldn't be banging in bouncer after bouncer, from all sorts of angles, for over after over, if he didn't need to, if the pitches offered him something in the second innings. But they often don't. They just somehow get better and better to bat on.
Why is this so? Over the last couple of weeks, ESPNcricinfo met two experts to find out: Andrew McMecking, the assistant groundsman at Seddon Park in Hamilton, where the Indians played their three-day warm-up match, and Hagen Faith, the head groundsman at the Basin Reserve, the venue of the first Test, which begins on Friday.
Both agree that the weather is the primary reason for the lack of wear and tear on New Zealand surfaces.
"We just don't have the heat here in New Zealand," Faith says. "We'd love to have the Indian heat or the Perth-type heat, something like that, to really complement our soils."
McMecking says the high humidity also prevents pitches from drying out and breaking up. "So what we try and tend to do is leave a bit more grass on them, so that there's some pace and bounce throughout the whole game, and try and get wickets throughout the whole game rather than on days four and five."
In Hamilton, this would typically mean around 15-17mm of grass. Down in Wellington, it can vary quite a bit depending on the weather.
"For this match, we're around the 15-18 mil mark," Faith says. "We've gone in a lot longer, I think it was about five years ago that we went 30 mils. There was a lot of grass on that wicket, so yeah, it's a horses-for-courses-type situation."
Those are extravagant lengths of grass by Indian standards. For last year's day-night Test between India and Bangladesh, the curator at Eden Gardens left 6mm of grass on the pitch - which is a lot for an Indian pitch - in order to preserve the shine of the pink ball for longer.
In Australia, McMecking says they usually trim down to around 6-9mm, but they're able to do this because of the kind of grass that typically covers their pitches.
"I think in Australia, they have a different grass, the Couch, which is a warm-season grass. It's a lot thicker grass, so they tend to mow it down quite a lot more, and they know that their wickets are going to break up, so they try and help that.
"They do sort of, from what I've heard, keep it 6-9 mils, so there's still something in it for the pace bowlers. And sometimes, a little bit of grass can create a bit of purchase for spin bowlers too, with bounce and a bit of grip as well.
"We've got a rye grass [in New Zealand], which is actually a winter grass, a cool-season grass, so we do tend to struggle, this time of year, to keep it green, but we do what we can."
Two kinds of soil are primarily used to prepare pitches in New Zealand - Patumahoe, from south Auckland, and Kakanui, from the region near Dunedin in South Island. The Wellington Test will be played on a Patumahoe strip - this soil, made of a brown clay, is reckoned to be the quicker of the two types, since it dries a little quicker than Kakanui, a black "shrinking-and-swelling" clay that swells when wet and shrinks as it dries.
"Ideally with the Patumahoe, it's quite a quicker clay than the Kakanui, so whether there's a bit of moisture or whether it's a bit dry, hopefully it'll still have quite a lot of pace and bounce," McMecking says. "So generally on day one, it won't be at its hardest, but it'll still be a good surface, but days two and three it'll get a lot better and a lot flatter.
"Days four and five, it tends to probably get more variable rather than breaking up, and the bowlers will have to decide how to [adjust]. Maybe [straighter lines] and lbws and things like that."
The very grass that gives these pitches their life on days one and two can, conversely, play a role in holding them together and preventing the deterioration that brings spin and inconsistent bounce into the game. As long as there's good, true bounce, however, Faith feels a good spinner can still play a role.
"It depends on how much grass has been left on, to be brutally honest," he says. "If you're leaving a real thick mat, then you're not really giving it an opportunity to maybe bring in a spin bowler later on. But then if you've got bounce, then the spin bowler's always going to be there. There's something there for a world-class spinner, who's going to make you look pretty silly in a heartbeat."
Faith says there are things teams can do, just about within the rules of the game, to hasten whatever wear and tear there can be on pitches.
"What sort of spikes they're using, how close to the boundaries they're pushing the laws of the game, of going to the danger areas and all that sort of stuff," he says. "Look, there are certain ways they can do that, legally, which is fine. But how they manipulate that during the game depends on the context of the game, weather conditions, all that sort of stuff.
"Every team's looking for that extra 1-2%. I wouldn't say that no team isn't going about it. I think every team's looking for those extras, and that's fine, it's part of the game, so we're certainly not trying to cheat that element from our own preparations - we're just trying to make sure we've produced the best we possibly can, which is hopefully going to take us to the last session on the fifth day."
The type of rollers teams choose to employ is a contentious issue too. Faith isn't a fan of heavy rollers, and reckons that they play a significant role in pitches flattening out.
"Rollers - are they being used properly, around the world?" he asks. "Do teams understand why they're using a roller? Do we need a four-ton roller? Can a heavy roller be a 500kg roller? I don't think we need really heavy rollers. In New Zealand conditions, I believe we don't.
"We haven't been rolling with heavy rollers for our first-class domestic competition - I think the heaviest roller we get up to is a two-ton roller, during a match. We've seen good results because of that throughout the competition. We've seen more result matches, and we're not seeing as many draws and what have you.
"The heaviest roller we have [at the Basin Reserve for Test matches] is a four-ton roller, and our light roller is 500kg. You can have a nice wicket that might be nipping around, creating a few dents or whatever, but then, it might only happen for two sessions, but as soon as you have the heavy roller on, it just flattens the wicket, and you're losing pace, you're losing all sorts of stuff."
Even the kind of wind blowing over the ground can influence how much, or how little, a pitch dries out over five days.
"Our northerly wind, that's our drying wind," Faith says. "It comes across the land, north to south. We find that it'll dry the wicket a lot quicker. The southerly, that's basically coming straight off the Cook Strait, so there's a lot of moisture, it's a much colder wind as well; you'll know when it's the southerly, trust me."
So come days three, four and five at the Basin, depending on which team you're in and what your match situation is, you might find yourself hoping for bright sunshine, or for low, grey skies; you might reach for the 500kg roller, or the four-ton juggernaut; you might ask your bowlers to follow through as close to the danger area as possible, or steer clear at all costs; you might curse the onset of the bitterly cold southerly, or you might simply put on an extra sweater and crack a little grin. Either way, it'll be Test cricket like it is nowhere else in the world.

Karthik Krishnaswamy is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo