Sport Cricket Boxing Day will put the MCG to the test as it searches for the perfect pitch

Boxing Day will put the MCG to the test as it searches for the perfect pitch

MCC curator Matt Page prepares the wicket for the Boxing Day Test. Photo: Getty
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It’s December 26 and the Melbourne Cricket Ground is on trial.

Of course it’s a mighty stadium, with the echoes of an epic, 100,000-attendance AFL Grand Final having barely faded away.

And, of course, it will host somewhere north of 80,000 for the Boxing Day component of the third Test against India.

But leaving aside the criteria facing stadiums, the MCG has to prove itself as a cricket ground.

That might sound strange for the ground where Test cricket was born in 1877. But in recent years the actual part of the ground required for cricket has barely been fit for purpose.

The pitch has been so slow and dead that the Victorian team has racked up years of draws.

The MCG pitch will be on trial this Boxing Day. Photo: Getty

People who don’t watch much cricket might think we talk about pitches way too much. But surfaces can make all the difference – there are reasons why Rafael Nadal has won 11 French Opens on clay, compared to a couple of Wimbledon titles on grass.

At the MCG, the worst of the lot was dished up for last year’s Ashes Test. It was a pitch that offered no movement or bounce for bowlers, but so slow that batsmen couldn’t time shots.

In essence, you couldn’t score runs but you couldn’t lose your wicket either. Those two things are relatively important to keeping a game moving.

Instead, the large crowds that showed up got to watch two slow and dull bat-a-thons, as Steve Smith and Alastair Cook took it in turns to do the thing they most enjoy – stay in the middle forever.

The MCG got a formal slapdown from the International Cricket Council (ICC), whose match referee gave the pitch an official “poor” rating.

Only a couple of days later, a new system of ICC demerit points for venues came into force. Had the MCG been given the three-point penalty for a “poor” rating, there would have been a five-year probation period hanging over the ground. Another poor pitch in that time would have brought a year’s ban from hosting internationals.

Nor was that the worst punishment.

The MCC Members Pavilion lost most of its verve when it had to update its giant honour board for the highest score by a visiting batsman.

Now, instead of huge painted letters reading “RICHARDS” calling to mind the sashaying style of Sir Viv, we’ll have decades of young cricket fans reminded of a robotic forward defence by “COOK”.

Alistair Cook MCG
His name is on the board – Alastair Cook at the MCG in 2017. Photo: Getty

So there’s a lot of attention on what the grand old ground and its custodians can produce this year.

Head curator Matt Page crossed the Nullarbor from the Western Australian Cricket Association just after the Boxing Day debacle a year ago to take up the Melbourne job.

In Perth, he had been overseeing the drop-in pitches for the new stadium, which received excellent reviews after its debut Test last week.

He arrived to consternation but has set about trying to fix it. And if you want a sense of how important pitches can be, he became the third head curator this season to be put up for a press conference before the game.

“We sat down at the end of last year and spoke about where we were at and where we wanted to go,” he said on Sunday.

“From that, we developed a plan. We’ve put seven pitches in this year instead of the traditional 10, in an attempt to get some more natural wear and tear in the square and get the pitches to deteriorate as the game goes on.

“We’ve also put some sand down under the pitches to try and create a more natural environment for them to sit in.

“We’ve had three Shield matches. The big plan for us was to play around with a few things and get it right for Boxing Day.”

A draw would be a great result for the series, leaving it poised at 1-1 heading into the final Test in Sydney. The series result is huge for both teams.

India has never won a series in Australia, and this year has blown opportunities in South Africa and England, despite winning a Test in both countries. The ragged home batting order, meanwhile, lacks Test class and experience.

But Page and company definitely don’t want a stalemate. 

A result, either way, would go some way to vindicating their efforts.

In between the courses of Christmas dinner, they have had some last-minute opportunities to manage the preparation, and keep one eye on the weather.

From now, it will be over to another group of Australians under pressure.

“We’re just trying to get the best surface we can,” the curator said. “And if we do that, it comes down to the players.”

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