Daniel Brettig in Melbourne
As end-of-season debriefs go, the MCG’s for the summer of 2017-18 needed to be much more than a box-ticking exercise.
For a start, the pitch prepared for the Boxing Day Ashes Test had been the very model of a fizzer, providing neither movement nor bounce for bowlers but also lacking pace to aid batsmen playing their shots. The replacement of “Richards 208” with “Cook 244” in the members’ bar provided a lasting reminder of the dirge-like cricket that had taken place.
Equally, the stadium’s world-first system of drop-in pitches to make the juggle between cricket and football more manageable had fallen out of date and out of step with what had been done at Adelaide Oval since 2013 and Perth Stadium since last year: specifically a support base for the portable pitch trays that affords a far more natural environment for the turf and earth to exist in.
In the midst of these issues was a new curator, Matt Page, hired towards the beginning of the season but not yet in the role by the time of Boxing Day. In his absence, the prepared surface was a conservative one, starting out dry and flat, then becoming only more-so across the next five days. For Page, formerly in charge of pitch preparation at the WACA Ground and also involved with work on the new strips prepared for Perth Stadium across the Swan River, the need for change was clear.
“We sat down at the end of last year and we said ‘This is where we’re at, this is where we want to take it to, how do we go about getting to our ultimate goal’,” Page told ESPNcricinfo. “It may take us three to five years to get there, in terms of projects we want to knock off, but the Melbourne Cricket Club management have been really supportive of that and have been prepared to do whatever it takes to get to that overall goal.
“We’ve come off this year, things haven’t gone as we’d have liked, where do we want to go, what’s the overall goal for the MCG. What emerged was these are the sorts of wickets we want to be renowned for in terms of giving everyone a chance. How do we go about doing that? As a part of that, it was seen that we need to look at what’s sitting under the wickets in the middle, how can we improve our wicket nursery, and then how do we start measuring pitch performance.
“Those are things we were starting to do in Perth that we brought over, and then we can start building up a database on each wicket, how it performs and what we’re doing to it. Hopefully that will lead us to making better decisions in our preparation and not only get better pitches, but consistent pitches so when players and media rock up for a Test or a [Sheffield] Shield game they know what they’re getting. Even if the weather throws a spanner in the works, then we know what we need to adjust, so we can consistently produce quality wickets.”
The concept of pitch preparation and the ideas of those who prepare them have deep roots in history and tradition, but in recent years the conversation has begun to get far more sophisticated. While Melbourne’s move to portable pitches around the turn of the millennium was significant, the conversion of Adelaide Oval from a quaint venue with a natural wicket block to a major stadium with drop-in trays can be seen as the key move from an older culture of doing what was always done to a newer one of research and development.
Adelaide’s chief change was in the base on which the pitch trays are laid. “The pitches are in a steel tray but they have open bottoms so water can pass through, and the thing is with the concrete pillars, they’re 600mm wide, so basically on a pillar you’ll get half the wicket sitting on one, and half of the tray sitting on another,” Page said. “Then in the middle you’ve got your natural environment in terms of drainage sand and drainage gravel. So it should behave more like an in-situ wicket.
“It’s a more natural environment for them to grow in, that’s why they went down that path with what Adelaide do. That’s where we’re at at the moment, we’ve got this concrete slab and we want to improve the technology, and it’s with the architects as to how we’re going to get that out and what system we’ll put in place once the season’s done.
“To go to the rails system, hopefully that’s going to improve our pitch performance. And then it’s just a case of keep working through what we’re doing now, collecting data and seeing what we can get out of it and get ourselves closer to the goal of giving everyone an opportunity at various times of the game.”
Having seen how Adelaide has developed, largely under the guidance of the Oval curator Damian Hough, Page was part of a changing approach to the WACA Ground and, in turn, Perth Stadium. Another dull surface, this time at the WACA in 2015 when David Warner and Ross Taylor batted endlessly and Mitchell Johnson finished the match by retiring in something like protest at the state of the pitch he had just been compelled to bowl on, left Page, the WACA and the management of a stadium – still then in planning stage – to look at things through fresh eyes.
“We were trying to get it really hard like it was back in the day, hoping it would go through,” Page said of the 2015 surface. “This was before we started doing a lot of pitch-performance testing in terms of compaction and other things, and it just didn’t come out the way we thought it would. Perth has always been a place where, if guys get in they can score big, and it just didn’t have enough sideways movement, I don’t think the ball swung, and guys who got in on it filled their boots.
“The weather plays a massive part in what we do and, traditionally, back in the 1990s, we’d get Test matches in the beginning of February when Perth was stinking hot. You’d get those 39C days, and sometimes in December we wouldn’t get those temperatures so a lot of the wicket preparation would need those hot temperatures to really bake the top and get it hard. When we used to get those temperatures during the summer we’d find the wickets were really quick, whereas when we didn’t, we just weren’t getting that drying.
“Sometimes when you get things wrong, you learn more out of it than otherwise. The things we’re doing now include a lot of performance-testing in terms of measuring compaction levels, moisture, surface hardness bits and pieces. The scientific data will say if you do this, this and this, you should get this result, but there’s so many unknown factors. How much drying are we getting every day, how much humidity is there, what’s the wind doing. You can do the same thing for five Tests pitches, do your preparation exactly the same, but get one variable with the weather and it completely changes it.”
So in coming to Melbourne, Page was familiar with the pressure to produce equitable pitches, though now, with the advantage that the MCG’s reputation has been more to do with a fabled venue rather than the pitch itself. Given a mottled history of pitches good, bad and indifferent, complicated further by the use of early drop-in technology, the ground now has the chance to build a bit of fresh history – it has been a long time since anyone can remember an MCG pitch being remarked upon with unbridled enthusiasm in the way many raved about Adelaide and Perth this summer.
“I think the general perception is ‘It’s a drop-in wicket so they’re all the same’, but Adelaide is using Adelaide clay, Perth uses Perth clay and we use Melbourne clay,” Page said. “Theoretically we should still get those characteristics in a tray. Now how the clay behaves in the tray may be a little bit different, I think what we saw in Perth last week is that it still cracks like it did at the WACA. They’re portable pitches but if you’re using the same clay they should theoretically still perform in a similar way.
“We’ve learned massive amounts this year from our first three Shield games about preparation, but we’re finding if we leave the grass on them – not too thatchy, more leaf grass – 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.”
There have been numerous short-term changes to try to ensure a more lively surface for this Boxing Day, whether the addition of a layer of sand between the trays and the concrete base, the reduction of pitches on the square from 10 to seven to aid more natural wear and tear, or the strong decision to leave more grass on the pitch at the start of a game. But it is the longer-term project that stands the best chance of making the MCG not only a venue to be venerated but a pitch to be admired.
“That’s one of the things we spoke about at the end of last year, where we want to take it and it’s giving everyone an opportunity at various parts of the game,” Page said. “Giving the quick guys an opportunity up front, then the batters a chance in the middle and then the spinners towards the end of it, so everyone gets a chance to showcase their talents. If we do that then we see a good contest and a great game of cricket.”