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Inside Adelaide’s pioneering role in New York’s World Cup pitch | cricket.com.au

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Timelapse view of construction of New York’s T20 World Cup venue

After taking a video call from ICC officials asking if he was willing and available to transplant his expertise in cricket pitch preparation to the upcoming T20 World Cup, Damian Hough’s mind immediately turned to a couple of daunting challenges.

The first was the tight timeframe for this unprecedented turf curation project being rolled out on either side of the globe, with less than 12 months separating that initial enquiry from game day at a re-purposed public park in Long Island, New York.

The other was the extraordinary logistics involved in growing an international-standard pitch in the temperate sub-tropics of Florida before transporting it – in sections – across two days and 2000 kilometres through multiple climactic zones along America’s east coast.

As Hough notes with a wry smile, that looms as perhaps the greatest task in this leap into the unknown given he’s not moved a drop-in pitch more than two kilometres through the centre of Adelaide, a painstaking process that in itself took more than five hours.

“I’ve never moved a pitch further than from Adelaide Oval to Karen Rolton Oval, so moving them for two days on a fleet of semi-trailers certainly throws up a few different issues,” Hough told cricket.com.au recently.

“There’s a huge unknown in how it’s going to go with two days’ driving, and what it’s going to do to the turf and to the soil profile.

“But everything you do in life, there’s always a first time.”

The road to packaging up 250 tonnes worth of turf cricket pitches and trucking them along Interstate 95 began almost five years ago when Hough and his team of ground staff at Adelaide Oval began working with local sporting organisations to advise on and improve playing fields across Adelaide.

The resulting consultancy business, Adelaide Oval Turf Solutions, then broadened its remit to help overseas venues that were exploring the prospects of drop-in pitches which Adelaide introduced in 2013, and grew out of the work Hough undertook to help with pitch preparation in Pakistan in 2022.

India play Pakistan at the 34,000-seat modular stadium at Eisenhower Park on June 9 // Supplied-ICC

Through Adelaide Oval Turf Solutions, Hough and his team have also been exploring innovations in tray design and soil profiles in a bid to have drop-in pitches exhibit the same deterioration seen in ‘natural’ wicket blocks before the demand for multi-use stadia brought about the fundamental change.

So when the ICC decided to use the 2024 iteration of their biennial T20 World Cup to spearhead cricket’s push into the US market by scheduling matches at a venue that had never previously hosted international sport, they turned to Hough as their pitch doctor.

The pitches would need to be grown in the US, and it became immediately obvious to Hough the lack of understanding about cricket in a country that boasts no discernible pedigree in the British colonial game could prove problematic.

Hough talks pitches with Nathan Lyon, a former member of Adelaide Oval’s ground staff // Getty

However, an alliance was forged with LandTek – a US-based sports turf business specialising in natural and synthetic surfaces, including those used by New York Yankees and New York Mets – who became the on-ground partner for the pitch program and is building the outfield at the Eisenhower Park venue.

While four of the 10 trays needed to prepare the pitches – four of them at the match venue and six for a nearby warm-up ground – were fabricated in the US according to Hough’s specifications, urgency dictated the remaining six be built in modular form by an engineering firm in Adelaide.

“They’re in 2.5 metre sections and we put six of them in a stillage (stackable cage) inside a shipping container to send them to the US,” Hough said of a process that’s never before been undertaken in cricket pitch preparation.

“And when they got freighted down to Florida in early December last year, we had guys from the Adelaide engineering company over there to bolt them together.

Eisenhower Park was covered in snow during the early stages of the venue’s construction // Supplied-ICC

“The reason the pitches are being grown in Florida is that it’s the warmest part of the USA during their winter.

“New York is regularly freezing and grass doesn’t grow at that time of year, so we couldn’t possibly build them there given the time frame and had to find the best climate.

“Florida is not dissimilar to Brisbane in our winter months.”

It’s going to be fairly intense, but it’s going to be worth it just going by the calibre of games.

— Damian Hough

Once the trays were ready, Hough was on hand for a month to oversee the installation of the clay-based soil that was added in 50mm layers and repeatedly rolled as the process continued, to ensure the trays took on the properties of a cricket pitch from day one.

Hough sought the input of former Adelaide Oval employee Dave Agnew – who assisted with production of pitches for the 2015 Cricket All-Stars Series exhibition T20 games in New York, Houston and Los Angeles, and now works with Major League Cricket in the US – to source local soil.

They have chosen ‘Black Stick’, a dark clay-based soil used in pitchers’ mounds at a number of US baseball venues, and which exhibits characteristics similar to cricket pitches in Australia.

Once the soil was consolidated and levelled, it was topped with a washed couch grass (or Bermuda grass as it’s known in the US) of Tahoma 31 variety before Hough returned to Adelaide to finalise pitch preparations for the recent Adelaide Test match between Australia and West Indies.

“At that stage, it was about putting together a program with nutrients and fungicides to really drive root growth,” Hough said.

“Everything is condensed compared to a normal timeline for preparing a pitch because of the tournament starting in June, so we’ve got to try and fast-track it.

“So we’re trying to drive root growth which helps with the recovery, resilience, the ability for the plant to pull moisture out of the profile and it helps with that drying process of the clay.

“If we can get all that right we’re in a pretty good position.

“Right now, we’re comfortable with where it’s at.

“We’ll go back to the US over after round one of the AFL season (in late March) to do some intense rolling and the final renovation – which is scarifying, pulling out the organic material, a final top-dress and getting them flat – before we move them up to New York at the start of May.”

That process poses another unique set of challenges and is one that will make for quite the convoy from Florida to New York.

Drop-in pitches were installed at Karen Rolton Oval ahead of the 2023-24 season // Supplied-SACA

In order to fit the trays on flat-bed semi trailers, the 10 prefabricated pitches will be cut in half using demolition saws, dug out and loaded by crane for the two-day trek to their final resting place at Eisenhower Park and its nearby practice venue.

The transportation date will be dictated by the readiness of facilities in New York where a 34,000-seat modular stadium is under construction, and will provide potential issues Hough did not have to contend with moving drop-in pitches to Karen Rolton Oval last September.

Each of the 20 sections will be individually wrapped to protect the soil and live grass from the drying effects of wind as the parade of trucks wends its way from the tropical rainforest climate of Florida’s east coast, through Georgia, South and North Carolina, Virginia, Washington DC, Maryland and New Jersey.

Precisely what will be used to enshroud the 13m x 3m trays that each weigh around 15 tonnes – to prevent the spring winds drying out the clay – is unknown, but Hough concedes given the level of innovation already involved in this project that “nothing is off the table”.

“They’re going to be wrapped in protective covering of some description,” he said.

“Whatever it takes to create a microclimate within the transport phase, to keep out the wind and the natural elements of the different conditions.

“The locals tell us that during that trip from Florida to New York, you’ll encounter all four seasons – it’s warmish, then it gets through some mountain areas, then it’s gets cold before it becomes mild.

USA’s Ali Khan and Chris Gayle with the T20 World Cup trophy at the Empire State Building // Supplied-ICC

“The moisture in the clay means they’re not going to dry out ridiculously if we can stop the wind from blowing on them.

“There was talk at one stage that a few of us would jump in a car and go with the trucks, and when the drivers stop to have a break, we could check and see how the pitches were tracking.

“I was initially keen to do it because I thought it would be a good way to see the countryside, but I’m not sure how we pull over and give them a water on the side of the highway.

“We’re still working through that sort of detail.”

Hough holds a clearer picture of what awaits when the convoy rolls into Nassau County, New York in early May at which point the venue that is scheduled to host eight World Cup matches between June 3 and 12 will be all-but completed.

Among those eight games at Eisenhower Park will be the June 9 encounter between near neighbours and bitter rivals India and Pakistan, which is expected to break existing global television ratings records, as well as India’s historic June 12 clash with co-host USA.

When the trucks arrive, the trays will be lifted by crane and gently lowered on to the sand base in the hole that will form the four-strip wicket block, then the pitches will be laser levelled to ensure perfect flatness and a near-indistinguishable join in the middle.

April 3: The Eisenhower Park venue is taking shape for the T20 World Cup // Supplied-ICC

“It’s going to be fairly intense, but it’s going to be worth it just going by the calibre of games,” Hough said.

There are non-Test venues in Australia (such as Marvel Stadium in Melbourne) that transport and install their pitches in two halves, but it is the characteristics of Adelaide Oval’s drop-ins that the ICC is seeking through Hough’s involvement.

Following his match-winning 120 from 55 deliveries for Australia in February’s second T20I against West Indies, Glenn Maxwell described the Adelaide surface as “probably the best wicket I’ve ever played on” while players involved in this summer’s BBL campaign provided similar feedback.

From the curator’s perspective, his aspiration for a T20 track is consistent bounce with the ball coming on truly so batters can play their shots, thereby leading to high scores and maximum entertainment.

But his role in the ICC’s bold push into the largely untapped US cricket market also provides Hough an opportunity to explore the broader mission that he’s been working at since the redeveloped Adelaide Oval first turned to drop-in pitches more than a decade ago.

He is acutely aware of the criticism that accompanies the increased use of prefabricated pitches in not only multi-purpose stadia, but in parts of the cricket world where existing wicket blocks have become moribund and climactic conditions make wicket production a thankless task.

Hough’s holy grail is a drop-in deck – perhaps housed in differently designed trays he is pioneering with the Adelaide Oval Turf Solutions team, with a soil profile that is tweaked and enlivened from season to season – that ultimately mirrors the Adelaide Oval pitches from the era of his curatorial mentor and predecessor, Les Burdett.

India and Pakistan also clashed at the Adelaide Oval in the 2015 men’s ODI World Cup // Getty

“The biggest criticism of drop-in pitches is they are all the same, so we’re trying to produce a drop-in where the characteristics of the pitches are exactly what the old Adelaide Oval square used to be,” Hough said.

“We’re trying to dismiss the theory out there that we can’t have drop-in pitches because we lose the characteristics of an existing wicket block.

“We’re looking at technology, and we’re looking at tray designs and other different things and that’s not a 12-month thing.

“It takes years of doing it, and looking back and seeing what works, what doesn’t and what we need to adjust.

“You can stay in your happy place and keep doing what you’re doing because the feedback is pretty good, or you can push yourself to look for improvement.

“And that might mean going backwards a little bit in a Test match, but with a bigger vision of trying to get a pitch that’s going to naturally deteriorate.

“That’s my mindset – how do we get to the point we can produce a drop-in pitch that’s cost-effective, but is also really similar to what we grew up with, when we knew what the playing conditions at each individual ground would be like.”

2024 ICC Men’s T20 World Cup

Australia’s Group B fixtures

June 6: v Oman, Kensington Oval, Barbados, 10.30am AEST

June 9: v England, Kensington Oval, Barbados, 3am AEST

June 12: v Namibia, Sir Viv Richards Stadium, Antigua, 10.30am AEST

June 16: v Scotland, Daren Sammy Stadium, St Lucia, 10.30am AEST

Super 8s fixtures TBC

27 June: Semi-final 1, Brian Lara Academy, Trinidad, 10.30am AEST

28 June: Semi-final 2, Providence Stadium, Guyana, 12.30am AEST

30 June: Final, Kensington Oval, Barbados, 12.30am AEST

For the full list of fixtures click here. All matches will be broadcast live on Amazon Prime

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