More than 9000 fans packed out Bay Oval in Mount Maunganui this summer for a sold-out match between the Black Caps and India. It was considered the biggest event in the cricket ground's short history. Reporter Scott Yeoman explores the journey to get there, and where this success story could go next.
Anna Peterson played under 12s cricket at Blake Park in Mount Maunganui, back when Bay Oval was nothing more than wasteland and largely unused grass fields.
She's watched the land slowly transform over the past 14 years into an international cricket venue that's now a regular feature on the world stage. Just like she is.
Peterson, 28, made her first-class debut at Bay Oval in the 2007/08 season for the Northern Spirit. She recalls the basic facilities of the time.
"They just had the embankment; they didn't have the buildings or anything like that. We were in the tents and stuff."
Several years later, she walked onto Bay Oval as a White Fern for her fourth international, playing against England in February 2015.
"It felt like I was coming home," Peterson says.
"I remember feeling really proud of how far it had come when I was walking from the nets to the changing rooms, seeing the flags on the new flag poles up, the Mount in the background, the new picket fence. It looked pristine."
Some are now calling Bay Oval the best cricket ground in the country and, remarkably, it is run year-round by a full-time staff of just three.
Its progress and postcard setting were on display to millions of people this summer.
Drone footage shot at sunset during a Black Caps game against Sri Lanka showed six LED light towers shining down on a patterned green oval, a crowd of thousands spread out on grass embankments, outdoor practice facilities in the foreground, and Mauao and Tauranga Harbour a picture-perfect backdrop to it all.
The white-roofed Carrus Pavilion, electronic scoreboard, and media towers at each end of the ground were other permanent structures visible from the air – all signs of how far Bay Oval has come.
That panoramic scene was beamed around the world on more than one occasion as the Black Caps and White Ferns played five one-day internationals (ODIs) between them in the same month.
It was Bay Oval's biggest season yet; the size of the crowds, the number of ODIs, the quality and profile of the Indian opposition, the scale and range of hospitality on offer, and the reach of the images broadcast.
So, what is next?
Bay Oval is a success story in a city where pipe dreams are often pitched, and then die.
The ground's general manager Kelvin Jones remembers the sceptical looks when the idea was first proposed to the Tauranga City Council in the early 2000s.
Blake Park had just lost first-class cricket; it was no longer deemed up to standard.
Jones was working as an operations manager for Bay of Plenty Cricket at the time, alongside David Johnston.
"We saw the need, saw the opportunity," Jones says.
The first priority was the return of first-class cricket to the area, but a group of local cricket tragics wanted to go bigger.
"In the initial days it was actually convincing sceptical councillors and sceptical funders that actually we can be an international cricket ground," Jones says.
"And to be fair to them, who are we to come and say that we could do that?"
The Bay Oval project eventually got underway in 2005 – the first sod was turned in March and it was adopted as part of the Blake Park sporting precinct future development policy.
Since then, the council's support has been key to the ground's success.
It has contributed more than $2 million over 10 years towards the development of a pavilion, public toilets, car parking and lights, as well as providing an annual operating grant.
The Bay Oval land at Blake Park was provided by the council, and local businesses and passionate individuals developed it from there, sometimes providing expertise and services at no cost.
The first match at the ground was a club fixture in March 2007 and one of the earliest centuries scored there was by future Black Caps' captain Kane Williamson, who was playing for Bay of Plenty under 19 at the time.
The Northern Districts women played their first official game at Bay Oval in December 2007 and the men in February 2009.
Jones says for a long time they used to run first-class games out of portacoms.
"We literally had no running water and no power. So those were the tough years."
Looking back, they developed the ground in exactly the right way, he says, starting small.
"Whilst the big vision was always there, we chipped away at the little things."
The Bay of Plenty Cricket Trust was formed in 2009 by the Bay of Plenty Cricket Association as the ground's governing body. The not-for-profit charitable trust also builds artificial cricket wickets and practice nets in schools and clubs in the area.
It was renamed the Bay Oval Trust in 2014 – the same year the $2m Carrus Pavilion was opened and the first official ODI came to Tauranga.
It was an ICC Cricket World Cup Qualifier between Canada and the Netherlands.
Later in 2014 the Black Caps played South Africa in two ODIs at Bay Oval – major milestone events for the new international cricket ground, which was then dealt a blow when it missed out on the ICC Cricket World Cup in 2015.
"We just weren't quite ready, really, probably a year behind where we needed to be for the World Cup," Jones says.
However, ODIs and/or international Twenty20s have been played at Bay Oval every year since and so far the ground has hosted Black Caps matches against seven of the top 10 cricket playing nations in the world.
It also held seven ICC Under 19 Cricket World Cup games last year, including the final.
"I had hoped it would get to this point a lot sooner, to be honest, I never saw it as a life's work," Jones says, with a laugh.
Yet he and his small team, and the Bay Oval trustees, still continue to look ahead, to the next season and the season after that.
"In our eyes the Bay Oval will never be finished, but people are starting to say it's the best cricket ground in the country. As flattering as that is, we still think we've got a long way to go and a lot more to achieve. There are many more things ahead."
One goal stands out.
The first test
Chris Rapson, a founding trustee and board chairman for many years, says a test match – the longest, oldest and grandest version of the game, played over five days with a red ball and white clothes – will add to the "folklore" of Bay Oval.
Tradition is important for a cricket ground, and test cricket is tradition.
"We've always said we're a group of cricket purists here, who have been around the game for a long time," he says.
"And it may not be fashionable for spectators nowadays, but we're not a test ground until we've had a test."
Jones says Bay Oval approaches New Zealand Cricket every year and puts its best foot forward.
"We've continued to receive positive feedback from them on test cricket, we've probably felt that we've been ready for a while ... but for whatever reason, they've been reluctant to expand the number of test venues."
He remains positive and determined, however, and is looking ahead to next summer, when the Black Caps are scheduled to play home test matches against England and India.
Rapson is optimistic.
"We've got some good friends now at New Zealand Cricket who realise that the ground that we've created has got the capacity and capability to actually hold an event like that."
Black Caps strike bowler and Mount Maunganui local Trent Boult also likes their chances.
"I feel the ground is definitely in shape, it's a good wicket, it's settling nicely and it offers a bit with the ball and is obviously a good wicket to bat on as well," he told the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend.
Boult says the training facilities at Bay Oval are great and the lights are "brilliant".
"I'm not too sure what the future is for pink-ball test matches but you never know, that could be a great place for something like that to happen."
Jones says having a day/night test match at Bay Oval is a "no-brainer".
"We've got the best lights in the country by far. We've got the weather for it."
Possibly the best person to comment on Bay Oval's ability to host a test match is its groundsman, Jared Carter.
He has been there before.
In the spring of 2007, New Zealand Cricket turf manager Jared Carter arrived in Mount Maunganui to carry out a warrant of fitness.
He was there to inspect the new cricket ground and measure it against International Cricket Council (ICC) requirements.
Bay Oval passed that first test and Carter, a few years later in 2010, returned to become its full-time turf manager.
He says he travelled all around New Zealand while working for New Zealand Cricket and always thought Bay Oval was going to be the best ground in the country.
"And I still believe that to this day."
Last season Carter and his small team of part-time staff and volunteers won a New Zealand Cricket Turf Management Award for the best international short-form pitch in the country. It was a major recognition of Bay Oval and its potential.
Carter believes the ground's success could extend to long-form cricket as well.
He has helped prepare 12 test match wickets during his career – nine at the Basin Reserve in Wellington, two at Lord's in London and one at Old Trafford in Manchester.
He says everything has to be more precise with a test match wicket.
"You've got five days to try get the pitch to change as much as possible, without taking it to the extreme that the game will be over in two or three days."
Carter says he was disappointed Bay Oval did not get a test this season, and hopes it will happen next season, but also acknowledges there are a lot of factors involved in getting a test match.
Not all of them are pitch or outfield related.
The future of Bay Oval
The focus from the beginning was always the cricket – creating playing surfaces, practice facilities and a pavilion that players loved.
Build it and they will come.
Infrastructure and facilities that appeal to broadcasters and media have also been invested in. And then there was light.
Six 50-metre LED light towers were installed at a cost of about $3.5m at the start of last season, part of an overall spend of close to $5m that funded a brand new electronic replay screen and scoreboard, and increased seating capacity.
Now it's the spectators' turn, Jones says.
"We're still a little bit of a ground with temporary fencing, a gravel entrance way, a made-up entrance, we don't have a proper area for disabled people to come in, be comfortable and get to easily, it's dusty, we rely on portoloos."
Challenges like car parking, traffic management and public transport to and from games are also on his radar.
Just as the LED lights elevated Bay Oval to the next level of ODI and international Twenty20 cricket, Jones says more permanent infrastructure for spectators could be the secret to it hosting its first test match.
A second stage to the Carrus Pavilion has long been planned, and would provide the appropriate lounge-type venue for visiting VIPs, who are currently hosted in marquees.
There are also plans to make the embankments slightly bigger this winter and Jones says they will look at temporary grandstands if Bay Oval secures a big Twenty20 against the likes of Australia, who are touring New Zealand next summer.
"We think if we can get to a crowd number of around 12,000 for a T20 crowd, we're certainly the biggest of our type in the country."
While that might still sound small to some, Bay Oval's slogan is, after all, "Closer to the action".
This summer, speaking to fans on the grass embankments, a common compliment was the crowd's proximity to the players.
Simar Bahl, a 22-year-old from Auckland who was in the crowd for the sold-out Indian blockbuster, told the Bay of Plenty Times: "It's good, it's quite intimate with the players right there, and no big concrete stadium and all that."
Jones says the fight to secure big matches among New Zealand cricket grounds is "extremely competitive" and so Bay Oval needs to stay ahead, as other venues also look to improve.
He says it's no secret that one of the India ODIs was meant to be played at Eden Park this season.
"We got it simply because they couldn't extend their resource consent to 11pm with the lights. Straight away we're a benefactor of, I guess, Auckland not getting itself together in terms of a cricket venue."
Bay Oval's location and its LED lights – which have low-light spill, making resource consent easier – meant Tauranga won that game. And so the Eden Park/Western Springs debate, and delay, is more relevant than Bay of Plenty cricket fans might think.
"My view is that Auckland needs something like that, it's our biggest city, it should have a cricket ground," Jones says.
"But if I'm really honest, the longer that takes to happen, the better it is for us, there's no question."
Of course, regular enhancement of Bay Oval requires regular funding.
Paying for progress
"There's only so much money."
Jones is explaining the fine balance between continuing to upgrade the venue and taking more staff on.
He says Bay Oval is currently low cost, thanks largely to its remarkably small team of three full-time staff (boosted by contractors, part-timers and volunteers leading up to and during the season).
Jones admits those staffing levels are "unheard of for an international ground" and says it does need looking at in the near future.
As do many other things, including naming-rights sponsorship.
Jones says the LED lights, new scoreboard and other ground upgrades last season were made possible by a "phenomenal community effort" – funding from the council, TECT, local businesses, individuals, groups and gaming trusts.
And while support from those sources continue to be key, he says Bay Oval cannot keep relying on them.
So Jones is open to looking at naming-right sponsorship, as well as seeing Bay Oval used more for different types of events, like concerts, fundraisers or conferences.
With that as a potential growing source of income, along with sponsorship, council funding, community and gaming trust grants, and New Zealand Cricket match fees, Bay Oval appears to be financially solid moving forward.
Its annual returns show total assets growing steadily since 2010 (last reported at a little more than $9m), with a few deficit years along the way but mainly surpluses, and a couple of those surpluses particularly big (thanks to development projects like the pavilion and the lights, scoreboard).
Jones says operationally the Bay Oval Trust is close to break even, and it carries very little actual debt and invests every part of a surplus back into the development of the venue.
New Zealand Cricket and the Tauranga City Council are of course key stakeholders in that development.
The three parties will meet at the end of the international summer to conduct a review of the season and, according to New Zealand Cricket, they have collaboratively focused on continued improvements to the fan experience.
New Zealand Cricket manager of public affairs, Richard Boock, notes Bay Oval's continued improvement in the delivery of international cricket and singles out strong crowd numbers this season, improved diversity of catering options, and enhanced fan activations as examples.
"Undoubtedly the new LED lights at Bay Oval are a point of difference from other venues in New Zealand and, by definition, extremely advantageous. The quality of the lighting is world-class," Boock says.
However, he is giving away no clues when it comes to the burning test cricket question, saying only that New Zealand Cricket will begin the allocation process for next summer's programme at the end of this international season.
Gareth Wallis, the council's manager of city events, says the council is planning to undertake some detailed research into the social and economic benefits of cricket matches at Bay Oval this coming summer.
Council staff are also currently investigating and assessing options around the idea of having the public areas of Blake Park - i.e. its sports fields - managed by a third party.
Bay Oval is part of that investigation and assessment.
Mark Smith, the council's manager of parks and recreation, says no decision has been made yet and that it is not an investigation into how individual groups run their activities.
"There are many areas on Blake Park that are leased to sporting organisations and sports are successfully delivered and managed by these codes," he says.
"Tauranga City Council is looking at ways to involve all user groups on Blake Park in a review of how we manage the site."
It is unclear what that review will mean, if anthing, for Bay Oval and its management, but what is clear is the regard with which the people currently in charge, are held.
'We're all community people first and foremost'
Jones says it has always been cricket people driving a cricket facility for the right reasons.
While the city council and all other supporters definitely deserve credit, the drive behind Bay Oval came from a core group.
"With all due respect, we're not council, we weren't just trying to tick cricket ground off a list, we really cared about it and had a group of people who knew cricket, cared about cricket and we're all community people first and foremost," Jones says.
"Certainly no one is going to make their millions out of doing what we've done, far from it, but the rewards are where we're getting to today."
One of Bay Oval's most dedicated devotees, David Johnston, whose wife Annette has also worked for Bay Oval for many years, attributes the ground's success to a "really good group of people".
He calls the ground "a labour of love".
Johnston says they have never been afraid to get stuck in and make things happen, sometimes doing jobs not necessarily in their job description.
"Whereas you get tied into a bureaucracy and you might end up not being able to get the things done that you want to."
He says realistically there may come a time when Bay Oval becomes so big that it needs to come under different management or ownership, but believes there is no reason to change the formula in the short-term.
"It's certainly been a fantastic journey and hopefully it can continue for a lot longer."
Meanwhile, over the past three years, White Fern Anna Peterson has played several more matches at Bay Oval for her country, the latest in January this year.
It's her favourite ground in New Zealand, she says, and the Mount is "a great place to stay and train".
Peterson believes the possibilities are endless and says developing other facilities around Bay Oval, like indoor nets and a gym, could see it become a hub for New Zealand Cricket.
Of course, there's also the view.
Peterson says at one end of Bay Oval, as you stand at third man on the boundary, you can look out over the bowler and see Mauao in the distance, sometimes next to a cruise ship docked in the harbour.
"I mean, where else would you want to play?"