Sunday, February 24, 2013

Forgive me…

Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned - it's been two months since my last confession...

I'm not Catholic but for those of you who regularly read Donning the Whites, you get my point. Unfortunately, my "real" job has got in the way of my second love, our great game - cricket. For those of you questioning my first love - family conquers all.

While I've missed my outlet, and our Twitter discussions, life isn't all beer and candy - blogging doesn't pay my bills. Thankfully, my project launches a new product tomorrow and 12 months of graft nears an end. Who knows, all things being equal I can get back to my laptop of a regular basis or write a quick piece on the iPad on my daily commute – don’t tweet and drive kids.

I’ve been two months away from the laptop and I've missed a lot:
  • The women's one day and T20 domestic finals
  • A Rose Bowl victory against Australia
  • Central Districts winning the Plunket Shield for the first time in six years
  • An up and down New Zealand tour to South Africa
  • The Women's World Cup in India
  • More captaincy, management and board ructions at NZC
  • The start of the England tour

There are plenty of pieces I need to pen and a couple of apologies to write, and I'll get to that. I've missed Six Quick Singles and if time allows I'll write the summaries after the fact during the winter for prosperity's sake - I learned more about New Zealand cricket in writing them than I have in years of watching and reading all things cricket.

But this blog isn't about that. England are here after six years without a tour to our fine land and as a disciple of our great game there is little better. Work and family may hold sway but regardless of the "distractions" I've found time to get to four tour matches, with the third test in Auckland still to come to round out the tour.

However, I'm not sure many Kiwis understand just how significant a cricketing moment it is when England visit our shores, or is it just that we've become apathetic to our summer game? It may well be the latter and attendance at the test series will undoubtedly bear that out - I imagine we'll be outnumbered by the touring English soaking up our summer sun, minus an ozone layer, supping on a Tui or a Speights and enjoying a steak and cheese pie on the grass embankment (barring the vast, empty spaces of the concrete monolith in Auckland, but that's a debate for another day - there's not enough space here).

Here's my thought on the matches I've attended, more about the grounds than the matches - I attend live cricket to enjoy the atmosphere and the competition, not analyse it to the nth degree (see my earlier comment about love not money).

Cobham Oval, Whangarei - 2nd T20 warm-up versus a New Zealand XI: With the exception of Eden Park's triple inclusion on this tour, New Zealand Cricket, especially at test level, is moving away from dual purpose stadiums, and back to bespoke cricket grounds with grass embankments and atmosphere - Cobham Oval fits the bill.

The NZXI won on the last ball, so we all went home happy, but the ground helped. Cobham Oval is a step back in time to what cricket grounds used to be like, but with better facilities. I'd rather not sit in small plastic seats, crawling over people to get a coffee or stretch my legs - my family certainly doesn't. The bride and Master 3 had a great day - a picnic on the bank stretched out on a blanket and plenty of room for the lad and I, dressed in matching Black Caps shirts (and with mini-me donning an old beige towelling floppy hat), to stroll around the boundary and enjoy the atmosphere. Cobham may never be an international limited overs venue, though it did well hosting Zimbabwe last summer, but why not a test match? If the Eden Park Outer Oval can be transformed so quickly, why not this fine oval, and its facilities, in the far North?

Eden Park - T20 and ODI: It may be my home ground but that's where my allegiance ends. Once that would have drawn a torrent of abuse but apart from @sillymidoff (a genuine lover of Auckland Cricket and supporter of its players), many of Auckland's sporting support wallows in apathy, more interested in cafe culture, their hopes drained by constant underachievement from our sporting sides. Throw a trip to the T20 Champions League and a couple of domestic titles at me if you will but there's little else.

The Garden is a fine rugby ground, and the Outer Oval is an enjoyable venue for domestic cricket barring the new iron fence on Sandringham Road, but an international cricket ground it is not. It may meet ICC's minimum requirements but that doesn't make it suitable for international cricket. Straight boundaries less than 50 metres away means it's essentially a concrete version of Pukekura Park without the trees and the steep grass banks.

I understand NZC's wish to house English tour fixtures in our biggest stadia but a miss hit that ends up 20 rows into the crowd isn't doing the game any justice. When quicks are forced to bowl short and spinners need to bowl flatter and dart the ball into leg stump then grounds are dictating tactics to too big an extent. That's unfair to both players and spectators - ground revenues are important, they help fund the game we all love, but they shouldn't over rule the game.

For all that, England mastered the conditions and New Zealand didn't learn the lessons. An extra five to ten kilometres an hour allowed Broad, Finn and Anderson to bowl shorter without the ball standing up while Morgan, Root et al. hit anything full back down the ground earning money for old rope – the New Zealand batsmen either defended, and didn’t turn the strike over, or tried to hit the ball too square.

But it wasn’t the ground that was the worst feature of the Home of Rugby – the men and women in hi-vis vests did their best to destroy any atmosphere, especially in the East Stand; the new equivalent of the old terraces. By the end of the match on Saturday night security nearly outnumbered the spectators, so many had been sent on their way early. Unless spectators are abusing players or their peers, or throwing objects, how much harm can they do? Getting rowdy, even a little unruly, shouldn’t end your day. Having overzealous security staff auditioning for the police force throwing their weight around isn’t needed and their attitude as “enforcers” causes more issues than it solves. That Tim Southee threw back a confiscated beach ball to a restless, and frustrated, crowd after it had been confiscated simply highlights the problem. I’m a purist but not all those who attend are – if grounds don’t cater for, or even marginalise, them it will simply lead to more staying at home and that benefits no-one.

Seddon Park, Hamilton – first ODI: Thanks to the generosity of the Northern Districts Cricket Association I had the opportunity to acquire tickets for myself and a couple of my extended family to sit in the Members’ Stand for my first trip to Seddon Park as a spectator – I had a chance to stumble around on the hallowed turf as a player many moons ago but it’s a different view off the field.

While the ground was probably a couple of hundred short of capacity, the atmosphere was great and the finish matched the surroundings. With their backs to the wall, New Zealand showed the fight they always do when they’re back into a corner – that they need to be under such pressure to perform is one of the many afflictions that continue to affect the international game in this country. That said, the efforts of New Zealand’s favourite ginger, returning on one leg (his good one only has two toes!), to help his skipper take his side to an unlikely victory had the locals in raptures. With injury ruling him out for the rest of the series I’d imagine Martin Guptill enjoyed the delights on the ‘Tron on the house.

With a crowd of ten thousand unlikely to get to any single day of the Auckland test I question the decision to take a test away from Hamilton when they provide such an enjoyable experience.

For all its shortcomings I’ll be back in the South Stand for the final test of the series – a chance to see test cricket at home, and some of the game’s most dominant stars, is too good an opportunity to pass up. I’ll always want New Zealand to prevail, or sneak a draw, but it’s rare to see the delights of some of the world’s pre-eminent cricket craftsmen in your own backyard. As a lover of our great game I could think of little better than watching the England batsmen ply their trade for two days – to see them struggle on a sub-standard wicket, regardless of the result, would leave me a little empty. Given how he’s lifted the game to another tempo when he’s entered the fray in the limited overs matches I’d love to see Joe Root in the tests, but even without him Cook, Compton, Bell, Trott, and Pietersen are more than enough to fill the heart of a test traditionalist. It may seem odd, but it’s Trott I most want to see – his temperament and single mindedness appeals. To those English supporters who had a go at the South African about the slowness of his efforts in the ODI in Hamilton, look at the England score comparatively in Napier at 38 overs – the only difference was his dismissal soon after and the destruction of those who job it is to up the tempo. That England supporters constantly berate him confuses me, but then we do the same to Taylor and McCullum.

If you haven’t got along to a match to date, and you’re anywhere in the vicinity of Queenstown, Dunedin, Wellington or Auckland in the next month, pay your coin and see some quality cricket – England don’t tour very often and it’s a cricketing treat. As for the cost? The sum outlay for all my tickets would buy you one day of an Ashes test in a poor seat at an English venue – fill your boots.

Tell me what you think – I’d love your thoughts. Have you got a story from the tour - a view from the stands or simply a great anecdote? Drop me a note and I’ll find you a spot on Donning the Whites. Post a comment below or tweet me @aotearoaxi.

Sorry, before I forget, have a read of the latest issue of the Waikato Valley Cricket Magazine, a fantastic local cricketing magazine edited by one of the Northern Spirit players, Anna Peterson.

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