There are 227km between Auckland’s North Shore and Mount Maunganui’s Bay Oval, and it’s worth totally the drive.
I live in the country’s biggest city, and understand that biggest doesn’t always equal best. That rings even more true when it comes to hosting test match cricket.
I’ve had the great pleasure of watching cricket at Hagley and University Ovals. I am a regular at Seddon Park, because I have to be. As a purist of our game, if I want my fix, I can’t find it close to home. There’s always going to be cricket nerds like me who refuse to be starved of test cricket, willing to part with cash to travel and get that shot of summer straight into the veins, live.
Now, Bay Oval will be added to the list of reachable-in-a-day cricket-specific grounds for Aucklanders, and if I’m honest, Hamilton better watch out. It’s much more of a destination ground than Seddon Park, and (pitches notwithstanding due to small sample size), offers a superior game day experience. It’s a short walk until you’re on one of the most famous beaches in the country, with coffee shops and Mauao herself open and willing. As Aucklanders, we were surprised to find free, legitimate carparks within the ground complex (although perhaps that was naivety at play – local clubs and businesses may wise up to the revenue potential next time around. Or is that just ruthless big city thinking?)
A cricket ground is a cricket ground is a cricket ground, right? But that’s exactly what I mean – a cricket ground is not a rugby ground, or even a multipurpose ground. As I watched endless number of kids chase Joe Denly between his positions on the boundary, stretching out as far as they could with their bats and hats, books and shirts, I thought about how it’s just another thing you can’t do at Eden Park.
Eden Park is not a ground which encourages interaction and engagement with cricket, even in the shorter forms. You have an individual seat, not space to sprawl out. There’s no allowance for fans young and old to toss tennis balls back and forth, unless you count doing so across cavernous concrete stands. It’s not an easy stroll onto the playing surface at lunch time, for nuffies to inspect the pitch (my hand is up), or to form the world’s largest slip cordon and toss a ball around.
With an array of tempting food trucks, a ‘village green’ with multiple tables and a rock climbing wall for young and old, there was plenty of breakout space in Mt Maunganui. Sure, Eden Park might have the Outer Oval, but if you’re out there taking a break or supervising little ones, you’re away from the action. Bay Oval makes it easy to have an eye on both.
It’s this type of experience which promotes the game just as much as the product on the field. Test match cricket is a hard sell to those who aren’t passionate about it. By making the product more accessible, more interactive, more tangible, you make it more inviting. It becomes a closer, almost hands-on experience for cricket fans of all ages, a good day out for families, a comfortable option for older fans, and good sunbathing day with gentle background entertainment for those who aren’t overly interested.
For those who aren’t local, there’s also the romance of a road trip. Windows down, music on, following the sun to one of the North Island’s most popular destinations. As we took the longer scenic route through Natea, Paeroa, Karangahake Gorge, Waihi and Katikati, it didn’t escape our comment that having test cricket in a place like Bay Oval makes it more accessible to the people who live in these towns.
Sometimes, when you’re an addict, any hit will do. But the conversations overheard on a well-stocked embankment echoed my thoughts – this is a good cricket ground making strides to be a serious international venue, not just for the holiday season. It helped that one of their pink own scored an impressive century, but many commented that they would return throughout the summer. The overall takeaway, not just from this big-city dweller, was a completely positive one.
Long live the true cricket oval.
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