The nation’s most infamous 22-yard grass strip again dominated headlines this week despite today’s much-anticipated start to the Test series against New Zealand.
But it could, and should, have been different. The sharp criticism of the MCG’s tiresomely problematic pitch might just have been offset had the MCC at least attempted to explain to fans the clearly unique issues it faces.
Instead highly rated curator Matt Page remains shielded from the media spotlight while a mostly uninformed public speculates as to why the pitch remains so bafflingly poor.
We’re told by both players and administrators that former WACA curator Page is an excellent operator, and there’s little reason to doubt this. But it also needs to be addressed that after two years in the job the pitch is still a huge concern.
Why have other venues, such as Adelaide Oval and Optus Stadium, produced competitive wickets in a far shorter time than what the MCG has had? Why can’t the purported best ground staff in the country fix the pitch? Why have improvements over two years been so minimal?
There’s likely a reasonable answer to these questions. But we simply don’t know, and it’s a fundamental PR failure.
By not addressing key questions the MCC has allowed speculation to bubble away to the point that their competency in hosting Test cricket is being seriously reconsidered.
Rather than providing an explanation for the hundreds of thousands due to attend the MCG and millions watching on TV, we’re left with officials and players blithely downplaying quite valid concerns that the wicket will again be lifeless on Boxing Day.
“I’m sure they’ll produce something good for us on Boxing Day,” Steve Smith said this week. But the basis of this confidence seems unfounded. It was Smith, after all, who said of the MCG wicket during the 2017 Ashes Test that not only did not change for five days but also that, “If we were playing for the next couple of days, it probably wouldn’t change at all either”.
MCC and Cricket Australia officials also reiterated their “confidence” in the pitch this week, but it’s the same rhetoric we’ve heard for years. It means little.
The supposed improvements of the wicket this season have also been overplayed. The pitch for Victoria’s Shield clash against Queensland was clearly a good one, offering decent carry and sideways movement well into Day 4.
But the one against New South Wales was nothing more than average given just 17 wickets fell across 295 overs of cricket. Then the pitch against Western Australia was clearly unplayable.
Aaron Finch’s take this week that it “wasn’t as bad as probably what it’s being made out to be” was bizarre given it was unanimously accepted as a dangerous situation.
Of course the troubled wicket isn’t an easy fix. If it were, it would have been transformed years ago. Even without understanding the intricacies of pitch technology, the task at hand is clearly a complex one.
So why don’t the MCC tell us why this is the case and the difficulties involved? Even hardened cricket fans know little about pitch technology and would welcome some context around what has become a recurrent and largely tiresome talking point.
The spotlight on the MCG and other Australian wickets is heightened by the comparatively lively decks in the recent Ashes series in the UK. For six weeks we were glued to televisions as English pitches and the Dukes ball combined to create another spectacle that enthralled us all.
Quite bluntly, Australia is worlds away from hosting an Ashes series that could match the recent series. The 2017-18 series – particular the MCG and SCG Tests – were testament to this.
Joe Root labelled the 2017 Boxing Day Test “as flat a wicket as you’ll ever see”, and the enduring image of Alastair Cook’s flicking off his hips through square, time and time again, is still to be purged from the minds of Australian fans.
Last year’s Boxing Day Test, the biggest day on the cricket calendar, was similarly tedious. Two wickets and a run rate of 2.4 ensured a sparse final-session crowd in what was a huge Test match against India, the series tied at 1-1.
The last two Boxing Day Tests have been turgid affairs at best, a lack of pace and lateral movement producing decidedly dull contests.
Most reasonable followers of the game understand there are underlying, complex issues with the MCG wicket. If only they’d attempt to explain why – we might have some more empathy for an issue that has turned one of the world’s most iconic grounds into a laughing stock.