Never going to be pitch perfect, but Aussie wickets need resuscitation

Will Knight Columnist

By Will Knight, Will Knight is a Roar Expert

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    When the mountains of cash pour in this year from the next broadcast deal Cricket Australia should set a good chunk aside to invest in the country’s pitch health.

    The issue – which has been bubbling away for the best part of the last 15 years – was brought into sharp focus because of the state of the MCG deck for the fourth Ashes Test.

    Over the five days only 24 wickets fell.

    “It hasn’t changed over five days and I’d say if we were playing for the next couple of days it wouldn’t change at all,” was Australian skipper Steve Smith’s review after scoring yet another ton on the final day to secure a draw.

    “I just don’t think it’s good for anyone.”

    Match referee Ranjan Madugalle agreed, rating the wicket “poor” in his post-match report – an assessment that earnt the MCG the embarrassment of becoming the first Australian Test pitch to be described as such by the ICC.

    “The bounce of the MCG pitch was medium, but slow in pace and got slower as the match progressed,” Madugalle said.

    “The nature of the pitch did not change over the five days and there was no natural deterioration.

    “The pitch did not allow an even contest between the bat and the ball.”

    (Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

    Cricket Victoria chief executive Tony Dodemaide thinks it might be time to dig up the drop-in wickets and start afresh with new soil and turf.

    It’s a good call. There’s strong consensus among players, officials and fans that the MCG pitch is as docile as a koala on Stilnox. There have been three Sheffield Shield draws at the ground already this season.

    But the MCG isn’t the only Australian wicket that could do with a makeover.

    It’s well accepted that the strips across the nation have become more homogenous in recent times.

    Since 2000 the Gabba isn’t as green as it used to be, the SCG doesn’t turn anywhere near as much as it used to and even the WACA isn’t as fast and bouncy as it used to be, although Test cricket has wound up there now. The MCG is plain docile. And Adelaide is still flat, but the day-night Tests at the ground mean the night session puts a bit of jazz through it.

    Even over the last week leading into the fifth Ashes Test at the SCG the wicket has commonly been described as “spin-friendly”. It’s not. It certainly doesn’t take turn from day one like it used to more than 20 years ago. It deteriorates at the same rate as many Test wickets, but the best slow bowlers didn’t used to have to rely on the day-three footmarks to get them gripping and turning.

    CA will be flush with money when the new BBL media deal is signed later this year – it’s expected to be a $300 million package – and the budget should be adjusted to account for a pitches allocation.

    There’s some complexity given the various agreements with the landlords and the existence of co-tenants at the five Test grounds. For example, ultimate responsibility for the preparation of the MCG wicket falls to venue operators, the Melbourne Cricket Club.

    (Michael Willson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

    But it’s an investment worth making given what’s at stake: the entertainment value of Test cricket that makes the game many millions of dollars in TV revenue and gate takings (although there is some irony in the fact that any ICC fine for the poor pitch – likely to be a maximum of $18,000 – would be significantly inferior to the money made by CA for the Test going the full five days).

    And the variation in pitch conditions globally is one of cricket’s great strengths – the green mamba in Durban, the seamer at Edgbaston, the raging bunsen burner in Nagpur, the scorched strip in Trinidad.

    But aside from the financial imperative at international level, Australia’s young and upcoming domestic cricketers – as it stands – aren’t exposed to wildly different playing conditions.

    Aussie coach Darren Lehmann has often lamented the way the wickets have gone. He compares his career – where he had to prove his skill and Test credentials with the bat by contending with bounce, seam and spin at Shield level – to those coming through the ranks these days whose adaptability isn’t pushed to the same degree.

    It’s a point he laboured during Australia’s 2016 Test tour of Sri Lanka, where batting against quality spin bowling was exposed as was the ability of Nathan Lyon, Steve O’Keefe and Jon Holland to extract the same fizz and other tricks from the dusty wickets.

    At least the drop-in pitches at the MCG and Adelaide (and I think the new Perth Stadium will be a drop-in) means experimentation and preparations can be done while the co-tenant AFL clubs are carving up the guts of the grounds.

    For the SCG and Gabba, CA have the money but do they have the desire to do the best thing for the punter and future international players.

    Will Knight
    Will Knight

    An AAP writer for more than a decade, Will Knight does his best to make sense of all things cricket, rugby union and rugby league, all while trying to have a laugh along the way. You can find him on Twitter @WKnightrider.

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    The Crowd Says (36)

    • January 3rd 2018 @ 8:11am
      Linphoma said | January 3rd 2018 @ 8:11am | ! Report

      Drop-ins have not always been synonymous with flat.
      No one was bagging John Maley’s WSC drop in pitches if I recall. They went in at VFL Park (definitely) and maybe the old Sydney Showground for the Super Tests, and I recall they were marvels of the age. Why were they so good?
      Did they dig up the pitches again at the end of the cricket season? Does anyone recall?

      • January 3rd 2018 @ 10:24am
        Mattyb said | January 3rd 2018 @ 10:24am | ! Report

        I can’t recall but back in those days people still enjoyed cricket. There was limited talk of pitches and selection and people spoke about the game and the contest.
        Today all people can talk about is pitches or selection,I think in the lead up to the SA tour people will forget about the pitches and again talk about selection,the cricket itself will certainly again continue to be secondary on most people’s minds.

        • January 3rd 2018 @ 4:59pm
          John Erichsen said | January 3rd 2018 @ 4:59pm | ! Report

          People enjoyed cricket in those days because there was regularly a contest between bat and ball. Australian test pitches have been a major disappointment for many wanting to see that contest in recent years, flattering batsmen performances. if a pitch does have some grass and juice in it, we see teams bowled out for less than 100. Hopefully the South African tour will have some lively pitches and we can see just how good our much praised batsmen really are.

          Just one side note – since 2001, there have been 165 scores of 200 or more in test cricket. For the 80 years prior to that, there were 196. There was a slight increase in the 70’s and 80’s from low to mid 20’s per decade to late 20’s – low 30’s), possibly due to covered wickets and increased again through the 90’s (45 from 1991- 2000), possibly impacted by the limited bouncers per over law change. 2001 – 2010 saw this increase to just over 100 and in the seven years since then, over 60.

          There will be other factors, modern bat technology allowing mishits to clear the ropes at times and often clear the infield. for example. However, flat pitches contribute significantly to elevated batting stats. Sadly, Australian wickets are all too often removing the contest and making it little more than a test of patience and concentration.

          • Roar Guru

            January 3rd 2018 @ 11:37pm
            Chris Kettlewell said | January 3rd 2018 @ 11:37pm | ! Report

            It’s not just about flattering batsmen either. These pitches make it hard to get wickets, but also make it hard to play shots, so batsmen are hard to get out, but easy to tie down, so we see slow, attritional cricket, where the only hope of the bowling team is to bore the batsman out, and the only hope of the batsman is to wait the bowlers out.

            It’s the opposite to what there used to be where the ball would come onto the bat with true bounce making strokeplay and good run rates possible, but simultaneously keeping the bowlers in it.

    • January 3rd 2018 @ 8:39am
      JohnB said | January 3rd 2018 @ 8:39am | ! Report

      “For the SCG and Gabba, CA have the money but do they have the desire to do the best thing for the punter and future international players” – what exactly are you proposing? That drop ins get installed at the SCG and the Gabba? Or that more money be spent on the preparation? If the latter, fine, if the former, you’ve got to be kidding.

    • January 3rd 2018 @ 8:42am
      tyrone said | January 3rd 2018 @ 8:42am | ! Report

      Why would CA spend money made from BBL on Test quality pitches that will affect the quality of BBL pitches?

      It seems like you cannot have a pitch suited to both games on the same square.

      Maybe we need to think outside the box, do Test balls need to be made to allow for more swing, seam and spin (grip)? This way even a batsman’s paradise gives the bowler a chance at getting a wicket.

      A different ball in Tests that gives a bit more to the bowlers allows for a standard pitch suitable to all forms of the game with differing results.

      With regards to the poor rating, I wonder if we played Zimbabwe and bowled them out twice in two days but had no issues batting if the pitch would be seen in a better light? Maybe Australia and England are too good at batting and not good enough at bowling to have a great game. Maybe an uneven contest makes us believe that the pitch has something for everyone.

      • January 3rd 2018 @ 9:17am
        Internal Fixation said | January 3rd 2018 @ 9:17am | ! Report

        Hi Tyrone.

        I think you make some really good points but drop in wickets can be managed away from the main stadium and multiple can be curated – say for BBL and Test.

        Sydney has really changed and that remains a traditional wicket.

        The sad fact of this situation is the MCC Curators stuffed it up. Plenty of drop in wickets are decent test match pitches!

      • January 3rd 2018 @ 9:27am
        paul said | January 3rd 2018 @ 9:27am | ! Report

        Your last comment reminded me of the drop in pitch used in Darwin in 2003 when Australia played Bangladesh. It had zero pace, zero bounce, zero turn, yet Australia won, simply because they were playing weak opposition.

        Maybe if CA got the old curators who prepared Test pitches to their liking with the current guys, you might get better results. In saying that, these guys have to get pitches up for 2 forms of the game where bat dominates ball, then prepare a completely different surface that allows for a contest across 5 days. That’s got to be bloody hard to do.

        • January 3rd 2018 @ 5:26pm
          Bakkies said | January 3rd 2018 @ 5:26pm | ! Report

          ‘In saying that, these guys have to get pitches up for 2 forms of the game where bat dominates ball, then prepare a completely different surface that allows for a contest across 5 days. That’s got to be bloody hard to do.’

          Blokes like Les Burdett and Kevin Mitchell did that for decades particularly when the game had a more balanced schedule with a one day game played on the day after the Shield game had completed right through the summer. This was on top of producing a test pitch. Burdett was known for producing batsmen’s paradises however his pitches deteriorated to provide opportunities for the spinners and matches got results. Dizzy, Ryan Harris and others still were able to build first class careers bowling on a batsmen’s paradise.

          The red ball has always been different to the white ball. It has different pieces and stitching.

    • January 3rd 2018 @ 8:46am
      Jeffrey Dun said | January 3rd 2018 @ 8:46am | ! Report

      I notice that the ICC will shortly be revising penalties for poor pitches. The rating of the MCG pitch is the last before the ICC introduces a revised process.

      Under the new guidelines, the MCG’s poor rating would have accumulated three demerit points, with any venue accumulating five points over a five-year rolling period being suspended from hosting international cricket for 12 months.

      Given the MCG’s propensity for producing poor pitches, (two in the last four years), it would be hilarious if it was suspended from hosting test matches.

      The people responsible for the MCG pitch had better get their act together.

    • January 3rd 2018 @ 9:16am
      Cam said | January 3rd 2018 @ 9:16am | ! Report

      Hobart has a great pitch. Problem is CA wants to avoid the place.

      • January 3rd 2018 @ 9:18am
        Internal Fixation said | January 3rd 2018 @ 9:18am | ! Report

        I for one vote Hobart for the new boxing day test 🙂

        That will shut Bill up

      • January 3rd 2018 @ 2:52pm
        Not so super said | January 3rd 2018 @ 2:52pm | ! Report

        Yeah, at least 345 people will turn up to watch

      • January 3rd 2018 @ 3:06pm
        Johnno said | January 3rd 2018 @ 3:06pm | ! Report

        Isn’t the Adelaide pitch a drop in pitch…..and that goes well. I think states should start investing in developing drop ins. If Adelaide can do it, then the rest should.

        • January 3rd 2018 @ 4:25pm
          Alicesprings said | January 3rd 2018 @ 4:25pm | ! Report

          Agree.

          Little talk about the Adelaide pitch. Funny that.

          The poor pitch has less to do with the fact its a drop in and more to do with the simple fact the curator stuffed up.

        • Roar Guru

          January 3rd 2018 @ 10:43pm
          Cadfael said | January 3rd 2018 @ 10:43pm | ! Report

          Don’t forget that Adelaide trests arenowday/night games with a different ball. As Andersonshowed, plenty of swing in the evenings.

    • January 3rd 2018 @ 9:34am
      jamesb said | January 3rd 2018 @ 9:34am | ! Report

      People often wondered why the Sheffield Shield has been played at grounds like the MCG, Gabba and the SCG infront of thousands of empty seats. Well IMO there’s two reasons.

      Firstly it allows the first class players to get used to playing on a variety of first class pitches. And it should be a variety of first class pitches. The other reason is to give the curators practice in producing good test standard pitches in the lead up to the actual test match. And judging by the three shield matches in the lead up that ended in a draw, the preparations for the Melbourne test were a disaster.

      • January 3rd 2018 @ 5:30pm
        Bakkies said | January 3rd 2018 @ 5:30pm | ! Report

        Well the ACB dictating when Tassie were able to declare to allow Paine to bat didn’t help that match and it may cost them at the end of the season. Tassie would have declared earlier to give their bowlers more time.

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