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The guardians of the Gabba

The Mitchells have kept the Brisbane pitch in the family for over 30 years

Peter English

November 21, 2010

Comments: 14 | Text size: A | A

Kevin Mitchell snr and Kevin Mitchell jnr in the middle of the Gabba, Brisbane, September 3, 2010
The Mitchells out in the middle at the Gabba © CricInfo
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The Gabba pitch has been the Mitchell family business for more than three decades, and the latest offspring is causing excitement and fear ahead of Thursday's opening Ashes Test. Brisbane's stereotype is a swing-bowling paradise but the generalisation doesn't often apply for more than the first couple of sessions in five-day affairs. This time it might be different, threatening old-fashioned thrills for the bowlers and unfamiliar spills for batsmen who have grown up on undeviating wickets.

Seam, swing, bounce and speed are the perfect storm for bowlers and the attributes have rumbled during an unusually wet Brisbane spring. Only 31 overs were possible in one four-day game in October and the past two fixtures have been no fun for the batsmen. The Sri Lankans were knocked over for 115 in an ODI that came a week after the local Queenslanders, who say they are used to surfaces "with branches growing on them", were dismissed for 75 and 96 in the Sheffield Shield.

Showers have been predicted in the lead-up to Thursday's Test and the curator, Kevin Mitchell jnr, is likely to bring forward the intensive phase of his preparation in case there are too many disruptions. The lack of sunshine being forecast will create a ripple of nerves for the groundstaff and run-makers.

"If that's the case over the final days and it's humid and cloudy for the match, it could be a little bit more lively than usual," Mitchell jnr told ESPNcricinfo. "Our wickets are definitely quick and pacy, which is what we are trying to do. If the conditions overhead are in favour of the bowlers, you can get a double whammy: swing in the air and cut off the pitch, and bounce and pace as well."

Under Mitchell jnr's watch, which began when he took over from his father, Kevin snr, in 1991, the Gabba has overtaken the WACA as the quickest pitch in the country. The surface gives character to a ground built on a swamp in the late 1800s, and one that has grown into a modern stadium. For a Test the pitch is usually green on the opening morning, providing the bowlers with a chance, before it loses its colour and supports the batsmen. Towards the end it suits the spinners, who enjoy the extra bounce even if the ball isn't turning.

When the wicket is topped up by Queensland's summer rain and thunderstorms the usual order becomes mixed up. Two years ago, when Australia were hosting New Zealand, the covers were blown off during a mini-cyclone the night before the game and one set of sails in the grandstand were ripped. Mitchell jnr went into the ground at 1.20am and saw the heavy sandbags had been blown away and water was on the square, but couldn't believe his luck - there were only two puddles on the side of the Test pitch.

"It was not a problem," he said. "You could have started on time, but we started 30 minutes late." Australia were bowled out for 214 on the opening day, but it was enough to stay well ahead of New Zealand. New South Wales won outright on their visit north last month by scoring 262 in the first innings. When it's hot and dry, 400 is not enough in a Brisbane first innings, but when it's damp or humid a total of 200 can make a side feel rich.

 
 
Under Mitchell jnr's watch, which began when he took over from his father, Kevin snr, in 1991, the Gabba has overtaken the WACA as the quickest pitch in the country
 

Mitchell snr's last game in charge was water-damaged, but not weather-affected. It was the Ashes Test of 1990-91, a three-day affair because someone had put a hose under the covers before the match. "Half was green, half was brown," Mitchell snr said. "It was a shock. Half of it was a wet wicket. It was someone being smart."

Australia won by 10 wickets in a match in which the highest score was England's 192 on the opening day. The tourists haven't always been disadvantaged by the Queensland weather. An ear-splitting, stand-wobbling electrical storm made their life easier on the final day in 1998-99. England were 6 for 179, with all their specialist batsmen gone, when the sky almost literally opened up after tea.

Mitchell snr, now 75, grew up near the Gabba, collecting bottles at the ground for pocket money as a child, and watching Don Bradman play there in the 1940s. He returned by accident in the 1970s, filling in to help a friend while taking a break from his carpentry business. Soon the main job became vacant and he said he'd do it for the season. "Then I'm off," he said. "I'd spent 15 years in the army, and being out there on the ground was like being in jail."

His son visited from Mt Isa in 1987, planning a short stay - and still hasn't left. The pair's most famous partnership came during a one-dayer between Australia and New Zealand in 1987-88. Mitchell jnr spotted dark storm clouds to the west of the ground and crossed the road to pull his dad from the pub, where he was feasting on mudcrabs. Within a couple of minutes Mitchell snr was racing on to the field - the sun was still out and the sky was blue - to tell the shocked umpires and players that "it's going to rain like buggery". He ripped out the stumps, stuck the covers on, and the heavens quickly opened. The unconventional intervention saved the game, which Australia won.

If something unorthodox is needed over the next week Mitchell jnr will be well prepared. Having learned off his father, and developed his own techniques, he and his beautiful pitch will be ready. Rain, hail or shine.

Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo

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Posted by grug76 on (November 22, 2010, 21:54 GMT)

@Woody111 - couldn't agree more... any sport thrives on competition and there need to be more pitches like the gabba that provide a genuine contest between bat and ball... given the hierarchy's desire to see results in test cricket, surely pitches should have more life, it's just a shame that they're more obsessed with money and wanting tests to last five days...

Posted by anikbrad on (November 22, 2010, 11:36 GMT)

TEST CRICKET WRE CALLED TO AS THEY WERE TEST OF TECHNIQUE, GRITT, CHARECTER, QUALITY ETC OF THE PLAYERS. ODI AND T20 ARE NOT TEST OF CHARECTER TO TEST. SO ON THE FIRST DAY TEAM GETTING OUT ON 150 OR TEAM REACHING 150/8 TO WIN ON THE LAST INNS IS NOT BAD AT ALL. THE GURDIANS OF CRICKET IS HELL BOUND TO MAKE TEST CRICKET A 5 DAY GAME. THE ICC MUST UNDERSTAND TO GET TEST CRICKET ALIVE THEY MUST BELIEVE THAT ITS NOT 5 DAY MATCH AND PEOPLE COMES TO SEE BATTING FOR 5 BORING DAYS IF ITS TEST CRICKET-THE MORONS THINKS SO IT; MAY FINISH IN 3 DAYS NO PROBLEM. NOW SEE THE NUMBER OF TEST CRICKET VIEWERS HAVE DWINDLED. I AM A MINORITY ON THE VERGE OF DEATH. TO MAKE CRICKET ALIVE ICC MUST REWARD COUNTRIES WITH MORE RESULTS GROUNDS AND FINE ALL DRAW MATCHES TO THE RESPECTIVE BOARD AND GROUNDSMAN. THE CHANGE WILL BE DRAMATIC INDIA, SRILANKA AND WI MAY REVIVE AGAING AND THE ALL GOUNDS WIL ONLY HAVE BOUNCE, GRASS SEAM OR SPIN. THIS IS THE NEED OF THE HOUR. HAIL BRISBANE. BRING BACK, SABIANA, DURBAN.

Posted by TheCam on (November 22, 2010, 3:36 GMT)

GlinnMgraw, there is another Mitchell in line, Kevin jnr's son Shane. I think he's recently completed his apprentiship in green-keeping at the Gabba so hopefully he follows in this prestegious line!

Posted by Woody111 on (November 22, 2010, 2:36 GMT)

Thank God for the GABBA! Watching the Sydney pitch last year against Pakistan was like watching real test cricket again. You know Adelaide will be a road for 4 days and the MCG wicket is the worst in the country. At least the GABBA provides something for quick bowlers now the WACA is a shadow of its former self. Hopefully the curators at the SCG ignore the stupid criticism from last summer and put up a bit of a green top again. If at least 2 of the 5 pitches offer something to the bowlers we'll definitely see a great Ashes series. There's nothing wrong with the team batting first getting rolled for 170. It's called test cricket for a reason!

Posted by adis26 on (November 22, 2010, 0:15 GMT)

I can't wait for the Ashes, so much history, killer hype and most of lost, the opportunity to see England at its best ever in Australia facing what would make or break Ponting's future, nothing of course to take away from the legend that he is.

Posted by landl47 on (November 21, 2010, 22:18 GMT)

Cloudy, showers, the ball swinging and seaming- now where does that remind me of? Oh yes- England. And haven't we heard the Aussie fans whinging for the last year that England can only win in England? Of course, the slaughter of Australia A has already shown that to be wrong, when England's suspect batting got 523 runs with no significant contribution from Strauss and KP and England's reserve bowlers shot the Aussies out for 230 and 301. But there's no doubt that if the conditions favor swing and seam the 'few decent bowlers' (that would the 4 England bowlers, Gilly4ever) will relish their opportunity. And how do the Aussies bat in English conditions? Oh, yes- 80 all out in their last test against Pakistan. Last year England won over Australia at Lords for the first time in 75 years. Since then, England have got better and Australia have got worse. I think another Aussie myth is about to be shattered.

Posted by knowledge_eater on (November 21, 2010, 19:55 GMT)

But if you don't ball proper line and length on this pitch you are doomed.

Posted by Ozcricketwriter on (November 21, 2010, 12:05 GMT)

Curiously, the All-Star match, played tonight, it was high scoring. 191 vs 186 off 20 overs each. Perhaps all of these predictions of a low scoring test match might be wrong...

Posted by Ozcricketwriter on (November 21, 2010, 11:03 GMT)

It does look like a mistake to play Doherty but they promised him his debut in Brisbane. I'd prefer to see all pace at the Gabba and Doherty to debut in Adelaide for the 2nd test, but hey. Australia will be favourites for the 1st test, but this is also England's opportunity to get on top. If England can win, unlikely though it might be, then they can set up the series. Australia's batsmen will need to see off the few decent England bowlers and bat on, while they will need to keep the foot on the neck of the English batsmen. Do that and Australia should win.

Posted by   on (November 21, 2010, 9:59 GMT)

from whatever little i have seen at the gabba i simply love the venue. good bowlers take wickets and good batsmen score runs. there is something in it for both departments. it has all the ingredients of a good test match. no wonder a test here is the curtain raiser for an eagerly anticipated series. i just cant wait till the ashes starts.

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