Cricket in a spin over Blake wicket loss

The doomed pitch at Blake Park - a scruffy patch of brown grass and bare earth at the moment, but in summer home to large numbers of local cricketers.

Bay of Plenty grassroots cricketers, including Mount Maunganui Cricket Club, are feeling ‘pretty let down’ by Tauranga City Council’s decision to dig up a precious grass wicket block at Blake Park.

The wicket, adjacent to the Mount Rugby and Sports clubrooms which the cricket club moved into three years ago following the loss of their original premises at the park, is used extensively by the club’s seniors and Western Bay of Plenty age-group representative teams throughout the summer months.

Senior local administrators, including the Western Bay association’s Don Warner and Tai Bridgman-Raison of Bay of Plenty Cricket, have expressed concerns about the development, though are encouraged the council is ‘working to see’ if they can replace the pitch at another location.

The council released the decision via an email to the Mount Cricket Club.

Long-serving club official Hamish MacMillan was behind their submission on the proposal to the council’s Long Term Plan process, and says the council has reneged on its side of the bargain when the club agreed to give up its headquarters, and put them in an invidious position.

“We agreed to move in exchange for this,” says Hamish. “Now, prior to the original lease term expiring, it’s being dug up and taken away.”

Hamish says they voluntarily gave up their clubrooms and wicket in 2015 – some four years before the expiry of the initial lease. They also had annual rights of renewal for ten years. He says the deal was that they would get a new grass wicket by the Mount Sports Club premises, and renovation of the outfield to bring it up to cricket standard.

“We feel pretty let down to be honest,” he admits.

Demand from the New Zealand Rugby Sevens training base at Blake Park for full-width fields and year-round access is behind the council’s decision, Hamish believes.

“High performance sport is now starting to dictate what happens on a community reserve,” he says. “We’re losing matchday facilities to create better training facilities for sevens rugby.

“It’s pushing grassroots users out.

“We get the growth of sevens, we get the growth of other sport, and we get this is a high-use facility. We don’t want to lose that. We think the cheapest road for the council is to do what they said they were going to do - renovate the outfield and keep the pitch where it is.”

Council also committed to remove the berm on the Maunganui Rd side of the park to allow room for wider rugby fields and still accommodate the pitch block, Hamish says.

Mark Smith, manager for Tauranga City Council’s parks and recreation team, denies they are bowing to the demands of NZ Sevens.

“It’s not about accommodating high performance sport,” he says. “We value the contribution local sports clubs make to the community, and do our best to accommodate everyone’s requests.

“Unfortunately, as there are several different sports that use Blake Park regularly, alongside tournaments, events and the general community, it’s not always possible.”

Removal of the Mount Cricket Club’s original clubrooms was part of future plans to develop the park, Mark says. “Council staff have worked alongside the club to ensure the impact was minimised and they could continue to call Blake Park home. We’re still supporting the club through the transition.”

They have also agreed to replace the grass wicket block with an artificial pitch. An improvement for junior cricketers, Hamish believes, but not for senior and rep players.

Cricket retains access to two grass wicket blocks on the top field at Blake Park, between Bay Oval’s Carrus Pavilion and the Harbourside Netball Centre.

A compromise solution proposed by the club involving the erection of an ‘operations centre’ alongside the field, which would have included toilet, changing, storage and cooking facilities for all park users, has been rejected by the council, says Hamish.

They have agreed to install an open day shelter, he says, but that will not provide the facilities they need.

Mark says the council is working to see if they can develop a new grass block at Alice Johnson Oval in Papamoa, adjacent to Gordon Spratt Reserve.

If that goes ahead, it will allay some of the fears of Western BOP Cricket Association Cricket Co-ordinator Don Warner. If not, however, he’s concerned about the effect of an overall reduction of the number of grass pitches in the region on the broader cricket community.

“From a Western Bay perspective it affects us greatly,” he says. “The opportunity for kids to play on grass and get experience on grass, which is where premier cricket’s going to be played, is crucial.

“At the international level which is where we’re trying to get all of our kids to, the sooner you get them on grass the sooner they get to experience the different bounce and swing and turn of the ball. So grass is crucial.”

He would like to see cricket as far down as college grade played on grass. “But to be consistent, they need to be all on grass, and that’s something we just can’t do,” says Don. “There’s not enough grass wickets.”

The Bay of Plenty association’s Cricket Manager Tai Bridgman-Raison shares Don’s concerns. “From our perspective, it’s all about the demand for facilities. With the cricketing numbers in the Western Bay we’ve barely got enough grounds to fit everyone in.”

He’s not concerned where it should be, but is keen to make sure cricket is talking with council about replacing the block they’re losing at Blake Park. “Because the demand on the facilities is there,” says Tai. “We need to find a solution.”

The possibility of a new pitch in Papamoa is no consolation for Hamish and the Mount club, however. He says they will look to appeal the decision.

“We’re pushing for it,” says Hamish. “I sent them an email saying we are upset and will continue to pursue our options through our elected representatives.”