Cricket: Fingers crossed for the University pitch

By David Leggat

The worry beads have been put away, although fingers remain crossed.

Otago officials are quietly optimistic that the University Oval pitch will be in good shape for its test debut.

The first test against Bangladesh starts at New Zealand's seventh and newest test venue tomorrow. A month ago you wouldn't have bet the house on it being ready after a match between Otago and Auckland was over inside two days, courtesy of a green and unready pitch.

New Zealand Cricket heads got together, chief turf assessor Jarrod Carter headed south from Christchurch and has spent a fair amount of the intervening four weeks in Dunedin. The problems were identified as the moisture content being too high, and an overly dense covering of grass.

"There's no shying away from the fact it wasn't an ideal pitch and we've been establishing a procedure so it won't happen again," Otago Cricket chief executive Ross Dykes said yesterday. "The grass has been thinned out and the moisture and density levels continually monitored. Those levels are what they should be and we are confident it's as good as we can get it."

Dykes talked of the "learning experience" of the past few weeks, with a new groundsman Tom Tamati having a tough introduction to international cricket.

"Turf culture is always a learning experience, and the greater the bank of knowledge you've got, the better you are able to prepare a pitch."

Sun yesterday would have been helpful to brown off the top of the pitch. However, occasional drizzle and heavy cloud cover didn't help. Still, Dykes believes the ground staff are half a day ahead with preparations.

It's a critical week for the ground, and Otago officials hope the ground passes its first examination with more ticks than crosses. "This is a huge step for us and we've got to get it right, not just the pitch, but the whole infrastructure of the ground to prove it can cope," Dykes said.

Yesterday, the pitch still had plenty of grass but the Kakanui clay needs the grass as a binding agent. It will have a haircut today and plenty of rolling with the hope of producing a good surface, if on the low and slow side.

Neither captain will be tossing and turning over what to do should he win the toss. The choice will be to bowl - in New Zealand's case to maintain the heat on Bangladesh's batsmen they managed during the ODI series clean sweep; Bangladesh captain Mohammad Ashraful will see it as their best chance of getting early wickets and a toehold in the match, at least on day one.

The University Oval is a pleasant setting and there is a strong desire to get international cricket back in the deep south. The last test was 10 years ago; the most recent ODI in 2004, both at Carisbrook.

One man who is delighted the test is here is Otago opener Craig Cumming, who has held his place after having his cheekbone smashed by a Dale Steyn bouncer in South Africa in November when he missed an attempted pull shot. "It won't be the bounciest and fastest we've played on but it'll be good," Cumming said.

"I played here when it had an old wooden stand and a bumpy outfield. It's exciting for Otago cricket."

Cumming is a doughty, tough-minded customer and the selectors have recognised that. He had six plates inserted around the right cheek, another above an eye but he was ready to get back in the middle two weeks after the Centurion incident, which occurred when he had made a solid 48.

Cumming and opening partner Matthew Bell have never batted together but share similar history.

"We've both experienced highs and lows and it's important to have confidence in one another," Cumming added. "If you're getting off to a good start all the guys are going to be more relaxed and it's no secret when you're relaxed you play your best cricket."

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