Sheffield Shield crosses the Tasman

The Bert Sutcliffe Oval – the venue for the Sheffield Shied game © Martin Hunter-IDI

Back in October, the New Zealand touring team was hosted for a tour match at Blacktown Oval to Sydney’s west – if “hosted” is the right word. The ground staff had been unable to grow grass after the football season, leaving a pitch of rolled mud that was at first a road before growing progressively more treacherous.

Fearing injuries to their batsmen before the first Test, New Zealand pressed successfully for the match to be abandoned, and made a speedy exit to Brisbane. The absurdity of the episode was only enhanced by the fact that Cricket Australia had scheduled a Sheffield Shield match to be held at New Zealand Cricket’s high performance centre in Lincoln by way of preparation for the return trip, and that the centre’s curator was at Blacktown that week discussing facilities with Cricket NSW.

Four months on, and there will be no “get square” on the outskirts of Christchurch. The pitch for the Shield fixture between NSW and Western Australia will not suffer for lack of grass coverage, and nor will it force an early abandonment. The flexibility of New Zealand to allow an event without precedent in cricket history – a domestic match played on the shores of an imminent Test match opponent – is rare in an age of administrators protecting hometown results, and may yet have other flow-on benefits for the nation across the Tasman.

The concept was first discussed as New Zealand and Australia pieced together a new bilateral agreement in the afterglow of last year’s World Cup. Cricket Australia argued there was insufficient time amid a looming World Twenty20 for the originally scheduled three Tests and a warm-up match, and New Zealand countered that a revival of the dormant Chappell-Hadlee ODI series would be advantageous. The Sheffield Shield match was tossed up as a compromise for cricketers not part of the 50-over series.

“The scheduling is a significant jigsaw puzzle at the best of times,” CA head of operations Sean Cary told ESPNcricinfo. “But with the lead-up to the World Twenty20 and Australia needing to play India at home, New Zealand in New Zealand, South Africa away before the T20 World Cup, we had to jockey between the three countries to alter the FTP slightly to fit everything in.

“The New Zealand tour match came about because we’d changed the original schedule for a three-Test tour to two Tests with ODIs in a shorter space of time. That meant we didn’t really have enough time to play a fully-fledged tour match before the Test series, so in part of the negotiations around additional matches for the Chappell-Hadlee Trophy series we floated with NZC the idea of playing a Shield match in New Zealand in lieu of the tour match.

“We chose a NSW home match v WA because a large proportion of the current Test squad comes from those two states.”

As it has turned out, only Peter Nevill, Nathan Lyon and Adam Voges will be taking part among members of the Test side, while Joe Burns, Jackson Bird, James Pattinson, Peter Sidle and Chadd Sayers must be content with a Shield match for Queensland on the eastern seaboard. The likes of Steven Smith, David Warner, Shaun Marsh, Mitchell Marsh and Usman Khawaja are part of the ODI series.

Even so, the fixture is providing a chance for further cross-pollination between the administrations of the two countries. “Essentially its a NSW home match, so they operationally take their structure from Sydney to Christchurch,” Cary said. “NZC have supported in that they are match managing the contest. There are some little bits and pieces to fine tune like online scoring and that side of it, we need to do a bit of work ourselves with NZC to make sure everything looks and feels as if it’s being played in Australia … but essentially it’s a NSW home game.

The pitch in Blacktown, where New Zealand’s tour game was abandoned on their tour of Australia © Getty Images

“NZC are responsible for the wicket. In our pre-tour visit I met the curator, I went out to the ground, he showed me which wicket is being used, it’s right in the centre of the block. They’ve not played any cricket on it this summer until that Shield match so it’s going to be in pristine condition, and the curators these days have a lot of pride in their work. They’ll produce as best quality wicket they possibly can.”

As for the Blacktown episode, Cary said there was a strong degree of understanding among the New Zealand ground staff for the problems faced at by those responsible for the ground at the time. He also conceded it had been CA’s error to have the tour game played in Sydney rather than in Brisbane, where Allan Border Field sat unused at the same time the Blacktown match was called off.

“There’ll be no tit-for-tat there,” Cary said. “We’re first to acknowledge unfortunately we didn’t make the right decision in terms of venue selection for that Blacktown game. We apologised profusely and gave the best possible solution for New Zealand after that. Funnily enough the curator at Lincoln was actually at Blacktown at that time because they’d been invited over to see what NSW had done with their indoor centre and training set-up and providing their own information.

“He saw the situation and was very much feeling sorry for the curator because he knew he didn’t have much to play with in terms of a four-day wicket. They were sharing knowledge about the indoor nets for all seasons that New Zealand cricket are starting to prepare, and they were sharing that knowledge with Cricket NSW.”

What is clear about this fixture and its lead-up is that relationships are building between the two countries that may be useful in future. The concept of New Zealand-based Big Bash League teams has been touted in recent times, and such a possibility will be more realistic for all the information sharing that has gone on over the past year or so.

“Because of the relationship the curators built up through the World Cup being hosted in both countries, we had the New Zealand curator group here and our curator group went to New Zealand over the two years leading into the World Cup,” Cary said. “They’ve built relationships, they share knowledge and everyone gets along well.

“From a high performance perspective it gives guys opportunities to get a taste for international cricket, they travel to another country, they have to go through all the rigmarole of customs and getting acclimatised and all those things. So it helps our developing cricketers, and also shows we can share knowledge and experience in an operational sense and hopefully learn from each other and be better at putting on cricket in our respective countries.”

Lincoln’s quiet surrounds will feel a long way from the hustle and bustle of the BBL, but it will also be very distant from those chaotic scenes at Blacktown. New Zealand’s generosity to Australia in this case should not be forgotten.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Source: ESPN Crickinfo

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