The 2017-18 cricket season was over but it was a day to be outside. I gathered up the sports sections of the Saturday papers and made my way to the MCG.
Not that there was any sport to watch. But there was a stool, the bar was open and a sweeping view of the MCG’s surface was on offer. So took my place and noticed the removal of the cricket pitch was well underway. I was surprised at the amount of broken concrete strewn around where the digging was taking place.
Was I witnessing why the MCG pitch had been criticised for being so bland? Was all that concrete generating heat that was drying out the wicket? Having watched Alistair Cook’s 244 not out in the 2017 Boxing Day test, I’d decided the drop-in pitch may as well have been a bitumen lane off the nearby Monash Freeway.
All due respect to the then English opener. As much as he was assisted by a batting-friendly wicket, the innings was a feat of concentration.
Of course, I wasn’t in a position to make assumptions about concrete drying out the pitch. Especially when my groundsman experience barely extended beyond planting a few tomato plants on Melbourne Cup Day. And there’s no doubt the groundsman’s job is difficult.
Imagine the job description in 2017. Carry out restoration after a Guns and Roses concert in February. Manage the transition from a cricket pitch to a surface ready for AFL. Along the way remove seven drop-in cricket pitches, each weighing 32 tonnes, before readying them for transport to where they’d spend the winter (at the time Seymour).
Then there’s the week by week need to return the ground to pristine condition for the next round of AFL. All this is referred to as ‘turf management practices.’ Perhaps it’s no surprise the groundsman resigned at the end of 2017.
The MCG pitch has had its share of controversy. South Africa have voiced their desire to hold a Boxing Day Test against Australia in Cape Town, South Africa. During the year of Cook’s double century, the ground was rated ‘poor’ by the International Cricket Council.
Only 24 wickets fell over five days. The condition of the surface on day five would have more typically similar to what is expected around day three. Confidence hardly improved after the series against India the following year where the rating was ‘average.’
Since then, some, including Shane Warne, suggested a day-night Test would help bring some life back into the pitch.
Meanwhile, in our most recent cricket season, the new curator concluded the concrete tray that held the drop-in pitches was a problem. His efforts in rectifying this, however, weren’t initially successful and resulted in the abandonment of the Sheffield Shield match between Victoria and West Australia. Shaun Marsh and Marcus Stoinis were in fact both hit by deliveries that unpredictably lifted.
That left attendees to the Boxing Day Test unsure what to expect. Would it be another bland surface, offering the bowlers nothing? (Probably movement in the first session before becoming bat-friendly) or after the extremes experienced in the Shield match, would this be a pitch where the ball jumped and moved, perhaps dangerously?
At the end of the first day’s play, attended by over 80,000 the results were in. And there were voices of approval to be heard.
Trent Boult, New Zealand fast bowler, was quoted saying the pitch had ‘trampoline bounce.’ (Joe Burns discovered that the hard way, lasting only four balls). Further approvals came from Kane Williamson, Shane Warne and Ricky Ponting.
The MCG’s reputation had been saved.
Despite that, whilst not holding the Boxing Day Test is unthinkable for many Victorians, the current arrangement between Cricket Australia, Cricket Victoria and the Victorian state government only guarantees the Boxing Day Test for 2020.
There’s no certainty social distancing will be over by then anyway.
Of course, we love everything about the MCG. It’s like family. (Admittedly the family member who sometimes needs to stand in the naughty corner).
During my visits, I tell the same story every year about the light towers being the oldest part and then speculate where the section of picket fence is located that remains as part of the original.
For all the renovations that have been completed, during the next cricket season, we may well find out one more section needs further work. It’s out there, in the middle.