Dropping in at the MCG December 23, 2003

The fastest pitch in Australia

For a about a week now, the pitch at the Melbourne Cricket Ground has been the subject of such intense scrutiny and speculation that had it made of less sterner stuff, it would have started cracking by now

The pace and bounce at the MCG will suit Anil Kumble, says its curator
© Getty Images

For about a week now, the pitch at the Melbourne Cricket Ground has been the subject of such intense scrutiny and speculation that had it been made of less stern stuff, it would have started cracking by now. Australia are looking for deliverance from it, and India regard it with a hint of suspicion, for the very thought of a drop-in pitch brings back horrible memories of New Zealand, where portable pitches turned every ball delivered by a quick bowler into a potential cannonball. Not surprisingly, Tony Ware, the 41-year-old curator of the MCG, has found himself besieged by the media.

"I am going to have a word with the Indian team this afternoon," he says affably, "I will tell them that they will be all right on this pitch. Just because they had a bad experience in New Zealand does not mean that it will be the same here. In New Zealand, they contract pitch-making to an outside agency. We do it all ourselves, with our own technology, with our own expertise. We know what we want and how to get what we want."

The strip that will be used for the Boxing Day Test is one of the central ones in a square that has six portable pitches. It is more brown in colour than the one at the Gabba, but has a fair amount of semi-dry grass, which Ware says will be taken off before the Test and rolled. It's been raining in Melbourne for the last couple of days, the outfield is damp and the square isn't as dry as Ware would have liked three days before the Test. The clouds have dispersed today and the sun has made a welcome appearance and Ware is hoping that it stays that way.

"I like good cricket," he says, "It's no fun if sides get bowled out for 100 on the first morning. India shouldn't worry too much, they will be okay here."

But Ware promises pace and bounce. "The MCG is probably the fastest pitch in Australia today," he says. "I don't know why other states don't produce quick wickets any more. The ones at Brisbane and Adelaide were really slow, and sometimes those kind of pitches are good for batting. On this pitch, there will be some encouragement for the quick bowlers, but it will be good for batting on all days."

If Sourav Ganguly was looking for a hint, here it is: "I usually leave a little moisture in the pitch, so it will not be at its quickest on the first day," Ware says. "It will quicken up towards the end of day one and perhaps will be at its quickest on day two."

Ask Ware if there will be any turn and he isn't too encouraging, but he says that spinners can succeed here if they learn to adapt. The soil here does not crumble enough for the balls to turn a lot, he says. "It might crack a little but it stays hard right till the end. If bowlers create footmarks, it might get a little rough, but it will never yield sharp turn." But the pace and bounce here will help the spinners: "Stuart MacGill was turning it square on the last day at Adelaide, but because the pitch was so slow, it was easy to adjust to the turn."

Anil Kumble, says Ware, will enjoy bowling at the MCG. "At Adelaide, the Australian batsmen played him comfortably on the front foot. That might not be the case here, because the ball will hurry and it will bounce."

The MCG decided to adopt portable pitches because, despite its name, it is not only a cricket ground. It is the home of Aussie Rules football, and in the winter it hosts 44 football matches, which take a heavy toll of the surface. "It really gets muddy and the grass cover goes off and the wickets get badly damaged," says Ware. "It came to a point where we couldn't accept it any more. We had developed portable technology, and in 1999 we decided to take the squares off before the winter."

The Test against India at the end of 1999 was the last one played on the permanent centre at the MCG, and Sachin Tendulkar scored a century then. Ware says that Tendulkar should not expect anything different this time, because the profile of the pitch hasn't changed. "It's the same black soil, the same depth, the same grass and, in fact, it has been tended better.

"Sachin will enjoy batting here."

Sambit Bal, the editor of Wisden Asia Cricket magazine and Wisden Cricinfo in India, will be following the Indian team throughout this Test series.