Daniel Brettig in Melbourne
As he did in Perth, Nathan Lyon drags Virat Kohli wide of the off stump with his drift and his drop, leaving India’s captain feeling for a ball of which ball he is not quite to the pitch. Rather than skidding on and taking the edge, however, this ball grips a little, turning past the groping bat and hitting Kohli on the front pad outside the line of the off stump.
In usual circumstances, this would have been cause for an “oooh”, a speculative appeal, and maybe a cursory chat about referring Marais Erasmus’ not out verdict. But this was the MCG on Boxing Day, on a pitch that, for all the work of the curator Matt Page and the Melbourne Cricket Club over the past 12 months, showed little sign of improvement in terms of the life on offer for wicket-taking or fast scoring.
So instead the Australians saw the mirage of a genuine chance for a wicket, appealing desperately, then consulting thoroughly in the limited time available before the captain Tim Paine gave Erasmus the “T” signal for a review.
The fact of the mirage was revealed from the moment of the very first replay, showing that the ball had struck Kohli so far outside the line of the off stump that by the time ball-tracking was ready the Australians had already resumed their in-out fielding positions. A Melbourne crowd of 73,516 that had momentarily stirred, collectively chuckled then returned to thoughts of home and an early night after all the holiday revelry.
After such a large build-up, and plenty of optimism from Page and his ground staff about the experimental work they had done throughout the winter, the behaviour of the surface on the biggest day of the Australian cricket calendar had to be regarded as something of a disappointment. Little more than half an hour of pace was required before Paine resorted to the spin of Lyon, only the second time he had bowled inside eight overs in a first innings in a Test in Australia over eight summers.
Within the next 10 minutes, Paine dispensed with third and then second slips, deciding that ring fields and searching for a mistake was the order of the day rather than the more predatory hunt for outside edges that he and his pacemen prefer. While the pitch did begin to quicken after the first hour, aiding the exemplary Pat Cummins in conjuring a short ball to pin Hanuma Vihari on the gloves and end his stay in the 19th over of the match, the process was stunted.
“Yeah tough going. There wasn’t much on offer,” Cummins told Fox Cricket afterwards. “Especially this morning. There wasn’t really any sideways or bounce or pace. It got a little bit quicker towards the end of the day but not a lot in it for us bowlers and they batted pretty well.
“I think the key on this kind of wicket is you’re not going to blast them out so you’ve just got to be really disciplined. We bowled a couple of good spells, a couple of maidens, I think it’s about trying to bowl five or six maidens in a row and hopefully they crack. But they’re batting pretty well at the moment.”
He felt that Australia were in the game as long as they could strike early on day two with a relatively new ball
Kohli was to offer a more genuine chance when Paine took the second new ball, tempted wide of the stumps by Mitchell Starc and edging, but Paine’s dive from close to the stumps was unable to achieve a clean interception. If the Australians, half expecting such conditions, had trained for being closer than they had stood in Adelaide and Perth, they undoubtedly would prefer to be standing further back for clearer sights of the ball.
For India’s debutant Mayank Agarwal, there was vindication of his sound mental approach before opening the batting in Melbourne. He had chosen to keep his mind clear of preconceived notions about the pitch until he could actually play on it and adapt accordingly. “I won’t complain about the pitch, I thought it was good to bat on. It did do a bit early on and then it was a bit slow. As the day progressed and we batted on it more, it got a little quicker,” Agarwal said.
“I didn’t think too much of the wicket and didn’t put too much thought into the wicket before the game. I wanted to try to stay blank and take it as it comes and just let me assess the wicket and see how I would go about it. I thought they bowled extremely well, they didn’t give us any loose balls, they kept it tight, and they were attacking.”
A Test-match pitch should offer evolution over hours, sessions and days, affording assistance to various disciplines of the game across its lengthy journey towards a conclusion. It may be too early to make a definitive judgment of this surface, particularly given the far hotter temperatures expected in Melbourne over the next two days, but the vast body of evidence about the MCG’s drop-in pitches and the concrete slab underneath them is that if the turf does not afford early assistance to bowlers and reap wickets as a result, there will be little deterioration later in the game to counterbalance it.
In the words of Page to ESPNcricinfo before the Test: “We’re finding if we leave the grass on them, not too thatchy, more leaf grass, but if we leave the grass on and more moisture in, then we actually get a better result in terms of pace, bounce, ability for the spinners to be able to spin the ball off the surface, than if we go in drier and harder.”
According to all of the ground staff’s research and preparatory work, this surface should have done more than it has. But at the same time the ground’s custodians are aware that more must be done urgently to ensure that there is more for Page and company to work with, namely by adopting a more up-to-date system for drop-in pitches that will mean less concrete and more natural variation provided by Melbourne’s mixture of clay, turf, gravel and sand.
Certainly for Cummins, his reminder earlier this week that he would like to discuss with Cricket Australia the prospect of longer-term central contracts for the fast bowlers only gained in relevance as he and his fellow pacemen slogged their way through what should have been the best day to bowl in this match. “As fast bowlers, we put ourselves through a lot,” Cummins told AAP before the match. “I guess every sport has long-term contracts so I just asked the question of seeing if I could do something longer term.”
Longer term is exactly how the MCG’s management and staff are thinking in terms of creating better pitches, but the clock is ticking. Afforded the luck of the calendar by the ICC’s move to a more punitive pitch rating and penalty system a matter of days after the conclusion of last year’s dirge of a draw, they need to see improvement, and soon. Otherwise the mirage Lyon and Australia’s fielders saw when Kohli was struck outside the line will be followed by genuine questions about a fitting location for Boxing Day.