November 21, 2010

The guardians of the Gabba

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

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