By DON CAMERON
Until 20 years ago, there was always a comfort for a touring cricket writer visiting Wellington.
After enduring a match there, one always had the prospect of a much more comfortable and companionable match ahead - at Lancaster Park or Eden Park or at that Kohinoor diamond in the world cricketing crown, Pukekura Park in New Plymouth.
The Basin Reserve in Wellington was the most extraordinary of major sporting grounds. It was wide, and usually windswept. The only raised spectator accommodation came from a tatty old dowager of a grandstand on the western side of the ground.
The players, great men of world cricket, would issue from cold, clammy, shiny-concrete dressing-rooms, and their only outdoor area was an exposed grass bank near the back fence, perhaps 200m from the pitch, where they could loll in deckchairs while the public streamed by.
The social centre was a solitary, longish room in the grandstand, and lunches were served on paper plates. They carried boiled potatoes and ham sliced so thin you could read the platemakers name through it.
The late Bob Vance changed all that. The Basin Reserve is now the best-appointed cricket ground in New Zealand. We may well see, given reasonable weather, a crowd of 10,000-plus for the second day of the New Zealand-Australia test today.
If Aucklanders do not squirm as the fact that the whole first test at Eden Park drew about the same number of people, they should. It is a damning excuse if Aucklanders spurned the test because they considered it a three-day farce.
The obvious fact is that the best quality of cricket will normally come from a ground designed for cricket - and not primarily for rugby.
Which raises the intriguing points: does Eden Park present playing facilities of true test cricket quality? Might not Auckland follow the Christchurch thinking and look towards a specialist test cricket ground away from the over-burdening influence of rugby?
As a test cricket ground, Eden Park will be deficient as long as the angle of the pitch-siting presents such a variety of boundary lengths. It used to seem quaint. Now it seems idiotic.
The quality of the pitches in the four-strip block has long been a matter of good (and perhaps mostly bad) luck. Colin Miller, Daniel Vettori and Shane Warne were given ludicrous help because there was too much early moisture in the pitch, which gave the ball grip and a tennis ball-like bounce.
Now the pitch people are planning to test the Kakanui soil used at Carisbrook and the Waikare soil from what used to be Lancaster Park. Experts will examine the innards of the pitches at the Gabba in Brisbane and the SCG in Sydney as they are disinterred before development as soccer venues for the Olympics.
There have been all manner of past experiments with Eden Park pitches, from dear old Bob Beveridge on his hunkers as he planted Indian doub tufts like rice in a paddy-field, to the electric under-blanket that eventually became known as Dick Shortt's disaster.
None was a consistent success simply because Auckland cannot deliver consistent weather and springtime growth. All the expert turf culture and its technology seems powerless in the grip of Auckland's wayward weather.
If Eden Park is to survive as an international cricket venue, faced with growing and money-heavy pressure from rugby, it may well be that portable pitches will need to be installed for one-day matches on the main, floodlit ground, and that permanent test match pitches be laid on another ground - with the Eden Park No 2 ground being the cheapest alternative.
Wellington has shown that the Basin Reserve remains the most viable test cricket ground in the country. It really looks like a cricket ground. So could Eden Park No 2 with some sympathetic redesigning.
This is not a new concept, but the low quality of so much of the cricket, a pitch hopelessly biased towards spin and designed for three-day fumbling, the mushy outfields after rain, the miserable crowd for the Australian test insist that cricket take action.
Auckland or New Zealand Cricket must provide playing facilities that are a help, rather than a hindrance, to the development of our players (batsmen and bowlers) and the status of test matches as the pinnacle of the game.
Of the major centres, Wellington leads by a furlong.
By DON CAMERON