MCG pitch battle spotlights issue for Australia

When Steven Smith posted no fewer than three covers for Alastair Cook midway through day three at the MCG, he provided a succinct statement as to the lifelessness of the pitch prepared for the showpiece match of Australia's cricketing summer. Admirable as Cook's innings was for offering proof that his career is far from over, it was achieved on a pitch that presented very little risk of nicking off to slips the bouncing ball - the manner in which so many of his innings this series had ended.

Cook's innings took him past Brian Lara on the list of Test run-makers. After he made his 375 at the Recreation Ground in Antigua in 1994, Lara commented on how much he would have liked to roll up the pitch and carry it around everywhere with him. Being a drop-in, this MCG surface could actually travel wherever Cook wanted it to, but in terms of entertainment, and balance between bat and ball, it would be better used as a portion of the current project to widen the Tullamarine freeway linking Melbourne to its airport.

The MCG has long been a wonder of Test cricket, offering up massive and diverse crowds to watch the long form of the game at the traditional holiday time of year. If Boxing Day's roll-up of 88,172 narrowly failed to reach a new mark for the highest-ever day's crowd at a Test, follow-ups of 67,882 and 61,839 provided further reminders of how this multipurpose colosseum can attract some of the best and brightest gatherings not only in cricket but all of sport.

But Melbournians have seldom had the benefit of watching cricket played on a surface to match the quality of their attendances. For decades the demands of football in the winter presented problems for both the pitches and the outfield, culminating in a period in the 1980s when the surface was universally considered the worst in the country. Among the many elements of nostalgia inherent in this week's anniversary celebrations for the 1977 Centenary Test is how the players involved have contrasted the excellent Bill Watt pitch prepared for that game with the poor fare that followed it.

Drop-ins were gradually introduced to the square from 1996 onwards, replacing the unreliability of the past with a far more consistent brand of mediocrity. Unless it starts with green grass on the top and moisture underneath to allow seamers and spinners some early traction, the MCG surface simply does not deteriorate fast enough to offer enough of a challenge over the course of four or five days.

"I would like fast, bouncy tracks that go through, day in and day out, that'd be lovely. We don't get it when we're at home" Darren Lehmann

This strip's turgid nature, then, has been entirely unsurprising from the moment Australia's captain Steven Smith remarked on Christmas Day that it "looked ready to go three days ago". It rather underlined the fact that in an otherwise thriving environment for the game down under, pitches are becoming an increasing sore point. The fact of the matter is that apart from Adelaide Oval's success in converting from a traditional square to a drop-in collection with a new but still distinct character, all of Australia's international venues currently have conditional caveats against them.

James Sutherland, the Cricket Australia chief executive, set out his idea of the standard for international pitches in Australia when speaking on ABC Radio earlier in the Test: "I think the broad statement is pitches are incredibly important to the future of Test cricket, we need to provide an entertaining contest, we need to provide a balance between bat and ball and I think broadly we've seen that in the three Test matches so far this summer."

Of the four pitches prepared so far this season, Adelaide's stands out alongside Perth in terms of providing the sort of balance Sutherland spoke of. Brisbane, talked up as breathing fire in the lead-up to the series opener, was too sluggish by half until the match was well into its journey, necessitating the sort of grinding innings Smith constructed to wear down England's bowlers. The WACA Ground's pace and bounce were a welcome sight after some years of disappointing pitches, but it was also a parting shot, as all major matches move to the new Perth Stadium from later this season - early signs are that its drop-in surface is still some way short of the desired standard.

Australia's coach Darren Lehmann offered the following assessment: "Brisbane was too slow day one and day two, would've liked more bounce in that track, but it certainly quickened up and once we get quick and bouncy tracks we see what we can do. Adelaide was a really good track for day/night Test cricket and Perth was quick and bouncy. So you'd like a bit more bounce and pace in a lot of them, it's a big weapon of ours.

"At the end of the day you've got to chop and change don't you. Sydney I presume will be a traditional Sydney track, so you get a well-rounded cricket venture around the country with five Test matches. We would've liked a little more bounce in the [MCG] track if we're perfectly honest, I think both sides would've, Jimmy [Anderson] said the same thing. It doesn't break up here so it's going to be good for five days, so it's going to be tough work. We've got to bat well in the second innings."

One of the curiosities of Australian pitches is how Adelaide Oval and its curator Damian Hough have succeeded in matching a far higher, more precise standard than all other venues are held to. The reason for this was finding a balance between the need for a fair Test match pitch but also to protect the somewhat less durable pink Kookaburra ball used in day/night matches - a complex process that has involved Hough, Cricket Australia, Channel Nine and the Australian Cricketers Association. This season Hough produced a strip that offered seam by day and swing by night, before there was just enough variable bounce towards the end for Josh Hazlewood to exploit fully and thus seal the match.

Yet in other cities, the mere expectation of a pitch offering a modicum of bounce in addition to whatever local characteristics might be evident has been beyond many. Take for example the surface prepared at North Sydney Oval for the women's day/night Ashes Test earlier this season - a dull as dishwater pitch that was about as suited to the format as a traditional Christmas dinner is to a 38C Australian summer. Likewise the Gabba's slowness this season, or the road-like pitches commonly seen at the WACA Ground in recent years, or the MCG this week.

"They play a lot more footy here at the MCG," Lehmann said of the contrast between the Adelaide and Melbourne drop-ins. "But it's just the way they compact them and the soil they use. Adelaide they've just got it right, they've got great form with the day/night Test basically, keep the grass a little bit longer, so the difference here [is it's] a little bit flatter, hoped it would break up and it may still break up, we'll wait and see with how it plays day four and five. I accept that [multipurpose venues] but I also would like fast, bouncy tracks that go through, day in and day out, that'd be lovely. We don't get it when we're at home, which is just the way it is."

Given how much CA has worked at maximising audiences for the game through adroit broadcasting deals and shrewd investment in the Big Bash League, it remains mystifying as to how venues as august as the MCG and SCG cannot get their conditions right. In Melbourne the competing interests of football and cricket have long been contentious, but no more so than they are now at the recast Adelaide Oval. In Sydney, the Trust and Cricket New South Wales have endured a testy relationship, epitomised by the abandonment of a Sheffield Shield match due to a muddy infield the umpires deemed unsafe in 2015.

Priorities for the SCG seem to extend not much further than the January Test and a handful of BBL games, but even then the pitch is not always of great quality. In the corresponding Ashes match four seasons ago, the match was over in little more than two and a half days, moving Lehmann to offer the following salty assessment: "Words will get me in trouble here. It's disappointing, a three-day Test match. The SCG I remember was always a good wicket and spun obviously days four and five. Hopefully we can get back to that at some stage. I certainly got surprised by the state of the wicket here and to finish in three days is disappointing - for the crowd more so than anyone else."

Another window into how Australian grounds can do with more and better investment was shown by the damp patch that briefly endangered the conclusion of the Perth Test when water leaked under the two layers of covers commonly used in this part of the world. While the Australian climate is far less worrisome for pitch preparation than England's, many visitors remained surprised at how basic the precautions were.

Perhaps there is an element of generational change to all this: Hough is a younger curator than either the SCG's Tom Parker (who retires this season) or the Gabba's Kevin Mitchell Jnr (who finished up after the Brisbane Test). The previous MCG curator David Sandurski has moved to Brisbane to replace Mitchell, while the WACA Ground's Matthew Page is MCG-bound. But in catering successfully to a mass audience in contrast to the increasingly boutique scale of the English game, CA and the state associations would do well to ensure that pitches and playing conditions are not left behind.