Some of the greatest rugby teams on earth play in New Zealand, and there was a bone-crunching Super-12 match between two of the best of them, the Canterbury Crusaders and Auckland Blues, at the Jade Stadium here last night. Nothing unusual about that, you might think, except that they rucked and trampled across a cricket square due to be used for the First Test between England and New Zealand in three days' time.
After the players, the pitch is arguably the most important factor in an international cricket match. To allay fears of England playing on a village cabbage patch, the groundsman, Chris Lewis, has prepared a portable pitch in a steel tray punctured with holes to allow drainage. This will then be lowered into place by a crane sometime on Monday.
Neither the technology nor the idea are new, having first been used during the Packer years of the late 1970s, but it will be a novel experience for this England side. They played and won a one-day match on a portable pitch in Auckland, but this will be their first Test match on one.
If Nasser Hussain is looking for clues as to how it might play, he needs to go back a year to the Test here against Pakistan. That was a high-scoring draw, with the pitch being so indifferent to bowlers of all creeds that two batsmen scored double hundreds.
According to Lewis, there were reasons for this. "The Pakistan Test was the fifth game played on the portable and it had nothing in it. Although this is the same strip, it has not been played on since. I expect it to have plenty of pace and bounce, and it will be durable. Put it this way, the players will give up before it does."
Like the real thing, there is variety, and although the trays containing the soil and grass are only eight inches deep, the drop-in pitch used in Auckland during the Pakistan series did not drain properly. The result there saw fast bowler Mohammed Sami, a hat-trick taker against Sri Lanka a few days ago, skittle the home side in their second innings to win the match.
Despite this, Lewis believes there are distinct advantages to using pitches prepared away from the middle. "You can work on it more frequently and more easily," he said. "For multi-sport stadiums it is definitely the future."
Because of the sheer weight of cricket, Lord's is considering something similar. Mick Hunt, the groundsman at HQ, has admitted that the pitches on the square are not as good as they could be, due to the lack of access afforded him by the near-constant cricket played there. Portability would alleviate that problem, as well as ending the practice of playing on used pitches, long a bone of contention within the county game.
After their experiences in India, England would probably prefer a worn surface. Apart from Andrew Caddick with ball, and Michael Vaughan with bat, the remainder have not looked especially at home on pitches that usually offer a bit, mainly off the seam. If the pitch for Wednesday's Test is atypical of Kiwi surfaces, it could suit England more than the home side.
"In India, we had to bowl back of a length in the channel outside off-stump. Here, we have to remember to get it fuller and straighter," said Hussain after his side had drawn their last warm-up match. "We don't have any more practice matches, so we'll just have to adjust quickly on the day. But that's the way things are going now, and with all the internationals, there are simply not enough months in the year to have any more than a couple of tour games to hit your straps."
The lack of matches has given them a dilemma over Mark Ramprakash, whose three innings have produced 46 runs. A fixture in India, Ramprakash has not been dismissed in single figures for 17 Test innings. But with Michael Vaughan in superb touch after his 156 against Canterbury and Graham Thorpe a certainty, that won't count for much, and Ramprakash's survival depends on England's tactical choice of playing one all-rounder or two.
With only Caddick looking dangerous, two looks fav-ourite, giving Hussain more options. In India, he relied mainly on Matthew Hoggard, Andrew Flintoff and Ashley Giles to put his carefully hatched plans into operation. Against New Zealand, he needs penetration without frustration, for outboring the Kiwi top order when they book in for bed and breakfast will be more difficult than frustrating Sachin Tendulkar. Before the Canterbury match, Hussain was not sure he could carry two all-rounders struggling for runs, but Craig White's 73 will have eased that particular anxiety. Unless the pitch is slow and green, which is how it appeared yesterday, the two all-rounder route is probably the one England will take, though neither White nor Flintoff has been among the wickets.
"The bowling is not a concern as I need people to peak next during the Test, not today," said Hussain. "Two weeks ago, while Hoggard was bowling well, the media were concerned about Andy Caddick. Now he's suddenly become our linchpin. Maybe someone else will be bowling well by Wednesday."
New Zealand is a scenic and pleasant country, but playing them has never whetted the appetite as much as taking on Australia for the Ashes. To downplay this series, however, would be a mistake, and both sides are essentially playing for the right to be just below Australia. Not top dog then, but deputy dog.
It will not be easy. New Zealand, led by a savvy captain in Stephen Fleming, operate much as England do, not moving heaven and earth as the Aussies can, but hoping to take advantage of scraps on the margins. But while the teams are closely matched in overall talent, the home side have the edge with their all-rounder, Chris Cairns, and left-arm spinner, Daniel Vettori. If both have good series, England will do well to win, drop-in pitches or not.
England (probable 12): N Hussain, M E Trescothick, M A Butcher, G P Thorpe, M Vaughan, C White, A Flintoff, J S Foster (wk), A F Giles, A R Caddick, M J Hoggard, M R Ramprakash.Reuse content