It’s a strange day when you praise a groundsman for producing a pitch so dangerous it forced a first-class match to be abandoned.
Praise, though, is what MCG curator Matt Page deserves – for the intent behind the 22 yards of turf which was rolled out for Victoria versus Western Australia, if not the execution. Definitely not the execution.
No wicket which catapults deliveries off a good length into a batsman’s head or ribs is acceptable – particularly from a bowler with Peter Siddle’s now-gentle pace – but nor has been the barren MCG strip in recent years.
The most famous sporting ground in Australia, the perpetual host of the most famous fixture in the cricket calendar, is home to a pitch so thoroughly devoid of life that the much-vaunted contest between bat and ball only exists in spectators’ and bowlers’ dreams – and outside Victoria.
The recent Test matches at the venue have been laden with runs and light on entertainment. Last year, it was a dour win for India set up by a 443-run first innings. The two sides produced a draw on Boxing Day a few years earlier.
In 2017, Alastair Cook (244*) and Steve Smith (102*) put on masterclasses in how to grind out massive scores without offering a chance. Mitchell Marsh – known best for booming drives around the park before failing to stay at the crease for any significant length of time – made 29 off 166, unbeaten at the crease with Smith when the captains settled for an inevitable draw.
The two Australian victories in Melbourne in the past five years were made possible only by the lack of quality opposition. The West Indies might have failed to pass 300 in either of their innings as they were soundly defeated in 2015, but that was not due to the pitch. Australia used only five batsmen in their first innings. Four made centuries.
And the 2016 instalment had “draw” written all over it until Pakistan produced the kind of capitulation only Pakistan can, somehow collapsing to an innings defeat on the final day despite declaring their first innings sat 9-443.
It’s not as if these mammoth innings have been entertaining exhibitions of attacking batting, either. The lifeless nature of the pitch has demanded an equally comatose brand of accumulation.
The Sheffield Shield has offered no alternative narrative. Of the last ten competition fixtures to be played at the MCG, only two have produced a result, and more than a third of the innings there have been ended by a captain calling in his batsmen, not the no.11 losing his wicket.
So to see Page and his team try to spice up the pitch is at least an acknowledgement of the issue.
The problem now is how he reacts to the abandonment. Yes, he’ll have an unused strip work with for the marquee fixture. But there are no more Sheild games to have another crack at a lively deck before Boxing Day.
Given the recent abandonment, who could blame Page for playing it safe and dishing up a deck much like last year’s? It might only cater for dour cricket, but it will ensure the Test lasts the full, five-day journey.
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