By Greg Stutchbury
DUNEDIN, New Zealand, March 6 (Reuters) - Otago Cricket Chief Executive Ross Dykes was left disappointed and frustrated on Wednesday after bad weather washed out the opening day of the first test between New Zealand and England and rained on University Oval's parade.
The match has been billed as the ground's arrival as a true international cricket venue and the culmination of more than a decade of strategic planning, which included a lengthy battle with the local preservation society and massive upgrades of drainage, wicket block and playing facilities.
Thousands of fans were reportedly flooding into town for the match, while there was intense local and international media interest. Expectations were, putting it mildly, high.
But then the rain came. And it rained. And rained. And rained.
The first day was washed out without a ball being bowled and more than 4,000 fans who had flooded into the picture-postcard ground across the road from the new Otago Regional Stadium were forced to slosh their way back into the bars, restaurants and hotels of downtown Dunedin.
"I suppose the real disappointment was everything was set," Dykes told Reuters in his office in a modern addition linked to the back of the old grandstand.
"The ground looked immaculate. The stands were filling up. You saw the toss and ... everything was building towards a great climax ... then you saw the rain and it was just a damp squib.
"I know there are four more days and the weather forecast is going to perk up but you gear yourself for day one really and the expectation was pretty high."
The England test was supposed to be University Oval's 'arrival' party, Dykes said. It is the match Otago Cricket had been targeting to host ever since the ground was awarded its first test -- against Bangladesh in early 2008.
The local cricket association, in conjunction with Dunedin City Council and Otago University, began refurbishing the ground, increasing the size of the wicket block from five to eight pitches.
Poor drainage facilities that blighted the ground's second test involving West Indies in December 2008 meant the council helped fund a new porous base underneath the playing surface and major drainage works.
Another major problem for the redevelopment was an 80-year-old former art gallery at one end of the ground, which meant the straight boundaries were only 50 metres away.
Otago Cricket had sought to demolish the building but the New Zealand Historic Places Trust stepped in and placed a protection order on it.
Lengthy negotiations resulted in the demolition of a small portion of the building and its refurbishment into a function centre and hub for sports education and programmes.
The partial demolition allowed the boundaries to be stretched to 66 metres, and Dykes said it was one of the final pillars they needed to transform the ground into an international cricket venue.
"I think we have a ground now in terms of the surface, playing facilities, we have got it pretty right. We have got all the things cricketers need. All things that television and the media needs," he said.
"Where we are lacking is spectator room. Where do you put people?"
The ground can hold about 5,400 people with two temporary stands, which are used at the Otago Regional Stadium when it hosts rugby test matches, installed.
Dykes, however, said there were plans to close off a road adjacent to the ground and build a terraced bank that would provide greater capacity.
"Given the ambience of this ground that's a pretty good idea, though the temporary seats don't look too out of place," he said.
The decision to develop a boutique, cricket-only ground for Dunedin had been made in the late 1990s when cricket administrators realised the incursion of Super Rugby into the summer months would create a battle for facilities.
The 30,000 capacity Carisbrook, with its stark terraces which gave rise to a tradition of students bringing down sofas to sit on before setting them on fire at the conclusion of a match, was also becoming a less attractive venue for cricket.
A return to a more traditional, village green style atmosphere was envisaged, which would better suit Dunedin's small population of just over 100,000 permanent residents.
"We knew that we are not going to fill a 30,000 stadium so we figured why not fulfil a niche with test cricket.
"Everything that is around this ground lends itself to test cricket. This place does hum. Everyone is so close to the play. It's a good cricket atmosphere.
"You look at the ground and you think cricket." (Editing by Peter Rutherford)