The outstanding early-season facilities at Mount Maunganui's Bay Oval have made a major contribution to the Northern Districts Knights build-up to what is expected to be a successful season ahead.
Knights coach Grant Bradburn could not be happier with his team's progress so far, including the opportunity to have a serious hit-out on the excellent pitch at Bay Oval in a Twenty20 match against a Wellington XI yesterday, e followed by a two-day match which began today.
"It makes such a difference for us preparing for the season to be able to play at Bay Oval," Bradburn said. "It is very helpful now and was awesome preparation for us to come over here in early September.
"I guess we were helping Auckland with their preparation for the Champions League but, for us, it was an excellent line in the sand from our winter preparation, which is all indoors of course, to be able to give the guys a reality check about where they were at."
The matches at the Bay Oval are the culmination of a unique three-week spring build-up which Bradburn says has not been tried before by Northern Districts.
"Week one was coming together and working on our team culture and planning, week two we took 19 down to a boot camp in Gisborne and the third week is game time. The planning has been very particular around the three different aspects of what we felt we needed.
"The guys worked really, really hard in Gisborne and I think they are all pretty shattered but it will do them a lot of good. They had fitness testing throughout the whole week, including 400-metre running, speed and strength testing, and culminating in a 10k run on the final day.
"It was all interspersed with three sessions of cricket each day so we got heaps done down there. I couldn't fault the work ethic and attitude of the guys, so everything is coming together as planned."
Playing pre-season games against their opponents in the three competitions to come this summer has not been a part of Northern Districts planning in the past but Bradburn wanted to change how his team prepared for this season.
It is typical of how Bradburn approaches his role, as he is an outstanding analytical coach who thinks outside of the set boundaries, and his contribution in recent years to both the team's success and the development of the elite talent in the region has been enormous.
"In previous years we have chosen not to play our opposition but have had a lot of Knights verses A-team games," he said. "This year we wanted to change that focus up a little bit as we recognise that getting momentum into competitions against your opposition is key. Win or lose we have a dress rehearsal against our opposition and that is the attitude we are taking this year.
"If you take the last month on top of the previous three months, I could not be happier with how things are going."
Northern Districts have been regular winners of the one-day Ford Trophy and are defending Plunket Shield holders, but the HRV Twenty20 title has eluded them.
To reverse that trend, the Knights have recruited two outstanding players from England in James Foster and Steven Croft.
Essex captain, wicketkeeper and accomplished batsman Foster, who has represented England in seven test matches, 11 one-day internationals and five Twenty20 internationals, will fill the big gloves of the retired Peter McGlashan.
Croft is Lancashire's Twenty20 and one-day captain and is an attacking batsman and off-spinner, who was named in England's preliminary squad for the 2012 Twenty20 World Championship.
Other exciting new contracted players are ex-Canterbury allrounder Corey Anderson, NZ Under-19 leg spinner Ish Sodhi and 21-year-old hard hitting, batting allrounder Brett Hampton from the Greerton club.
"It was great to have Corey up here last year and he earned his way into the side and proved his worth through his performances and work ethic, so he deserves the right to be contracted," Bradburn said.
"It is great to also have young Brett Hampton on board. He is very green and inexperienced at this level but he has earned the right to play with his per-formances at district level for the Bay and for the Northern A side.
"Ish is another young fellah and he is from Auckland. He is very skilful and is new to being a professional cricketer and what that entails.
"He has had his eyes wide open in the first two weeks with us but he is loving the environment," Bradburn said.