Aside from the prestige of a Test match, the first in eight years in the earthquake-ravaged city, it also serves also as an opportunity for both sides to fine tune ahead of the looming World Cup.
The World Cup squads are due to be finalised on January 8, a day after the second Test ends.
Even as the Sri Lankans settled into lodgings in the main South Island city they were alerted to its earthquake risk when a magnitude 4.0 quake struck on Wednesday, followed by several aftershocks.
With the former home of cricket in Christchurch, Lancaster Park, destroyed in the 2011 quakes which claimed 185 lives, a new venue was purpose built at Hagley Oval and quickly developed a reputation in domestic cricket for producing a result.
Neil Wagner, vying with Doug Bracewell for the third seamer’s slot behind spearheads Tim Southee and Trent Boult, said the bowlers have been told the Test pitch is the same as the net wickets.
“And the nets played pretty good. It was nice and quick and had a bit of bounce to it, so it definitely excited all of the bowlers.”
At Test level, both sides have enjoyed a confidence-boosting 2014 with Sri Lanka claiming series wins over England and Pakistan and New Zealand beating the West Indies and India at home, the West Indies away and then drawing on the lifeless wickets in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
– World Cup preparations –
Southee and Boult have developed into a formidable opening bowling force for New Zealand and also playing Wagner and Bracewell in a four-pronged seam attack was a possibility although batting coach Craig McMillan hinted it was unlikely.
“The fast bowlers have a little bit of a smile on their face, seeing a bit of green grass, which we haven’t really seen for the last eight weeks,” he said.
“Playing four seamers is an option, and it’s something we’ll discuss. But there’s also a lot of left-handers in that Sri Lankan batting line up, so the offspinner Mark Craig becomes quite important.”
Sri Lanka arrived in New Zealand with a relatively inexperienced squad and admitting the series had an important role in their World Cup preparations where they face New Zealand at Hagley Oval in the opening match on February 14.
“We know whom we want in our 15 except for one or two places which we hope to fill during the Test series,” coach Marvan Atapattu said.
The nature of the wicket has also impressed the Sri Lankans whose bowling mainstay of recent years, left-arm spinner Rangana Herath, will miss this Test because of a leg injury.
Bowling coach Chaminda Vaas said the green top was ripe for his fledgling pace bowlers — to be drawn from Suranga Lakmal, Shaminda Eranga, Dhammika Prasad, Nuwan Pradeep and Dushmantha Chameera.
“As a seamer you are overjoyed when you see tracks like what you have here, because you don’t get that in Sri Lanka,” he said.
However, a lack of experience could count against the Sri Lankans with 11 of the 16 players in their squad having played fewer than 20 tests.
Wicketkeeper Prasanna Jayawardene has played 56 tests, the third most in the current squad behind Sangakkara (128) and Herath (57), who will not play the first Test. -AFP