November 7, 2012

The two Gabbas

Chris Hartley
Brisbane's Test pitch is a different animal from the ones used in Shield games. An insider explains why

It's no secret that Matthew Hayden was a hard-edged and tough combatant. Barrel-chested and left-handed, he rarely veered away from a stoush. Nevertheless, I do recall one day the big man's steely facade seemed a fraction softer than usual.

In a rare Sheffield Shield outing towards the end of his Test career, Hayden had a rude shock. Looking at what the other ten of us thought was a pretty good Gabba batting strip, with less grass than usual, my ears pricked up when "Matt the Bat" barked about the branches growing off it. How quickly he had forgotten the green monster he had conquered for 1000-run seasons as a youngster in the early '90s.

Now Haydos may have been exaggerating slightly, but what this little anecdote highlights is that Gabba Test matches do tend to be played on flatter pitches than first-class fixtures there. And although a growing chorus sings for Test wickets to be juiced up, odds are the first Test at the Gabba this summer against the South Africans will be played on a flatter deck, prepared to last five days.

Like many other world-renowned venues, the Gabba has a distinct set of characteristics that make it a unique surface for playing cricket on. Perhaps its origins as a swampland would foretell that one day it would be a sticky wicket, but since its inaugural match, in 1896, it has generally been considered a fast bowler's paradise, with a healthy grass covering.

That first match - between teams representing Parliament and the Press - ended in a low-scoring tie, and the Gabba would eventually play host to the first tied Test match, the famous 1960 contest between West Indies and Australia. On the domestic front, Queensland attained full playing status in the Sheffield Shield in 1926, but they would not play their first Shield game at the Gabba until November 1931, with the Brisbane Exhibition Ground being used till then instead. That first Shield match was played against NSW.

Having played the majority of my first-class career at the Gabba, enjoying its distinctive qualities from both in front of the stumps with willow and behind with keeping gloves, I genuinely believe it is the best all-round pitch in Australia. Both batsmen and bowlers have opportunities to exploit its variations, and because of the degree of acuteness of these variances, it is indeed a severe test.

The most obvious advantage is initially with the bowlers, who can tap into the pace and bounce, and with a well-positioned seam get sideways movement from the green-tinged grass on the surface. If there is cloud overhead and humidity, then swing is also prevalent and batting becomes hell.

But batsmen can flourish too. This has to be the case; otherwise Australian cricket may not have seen the dominance of Hayden, the ease of Martin Love, the heroics of Ken "Slasher" Mackay, or the strokeplay of Peter Burge. Love offered a pretty simple formula for combating the Gabba that, not surprisingly, stuck to cricket's basics.

Inexperienced bowlers can miss their areas, bowling back of a length and salivating at balls whizzing through past a batsman's chest. Better bowlers will pitch fuller, where driving on the up to seaming deliveries is fraught with danger

Day one and the wicket is typically tacky, a bit slow and with plenty of grass. The key is a vertical bat, playing late and straight, and not fishing at the ball when it inevitably seams. Inexperienced bowlers can miss their areas, bowling back of a length and salivating at balls whizzing through past a batsman's chest before thwacking into the keeper's gloves. This is an often unrewarded method. Better bowlers will pitch fuller, where driving on the up to seaming deliveries is fraught with danger.

On day two, the wicket will have hardened slightly, so it will be quicker, with steeper bounce. These are the days you love keeping to fast outswing bowlers. By the afternoon, particularly if the sun has been out all day, it has started to flatten.

The third and fourth days tend to be the best to bat on, when the grass has started to die and the tackiness is all but gone. The heat of the Queensland sun has baked the wicket and now allows batsmen more time and comfort. This is a typical first-class wicket, but of course the weather, and specifically rain versus sun, in the lead-up determines what type of pitch you get.

The other factor in the type of wicket produced is the wicket-block orientation. The Gabba block is hardest in the middle and this is where curator Kevin Mitchell junior's two best wickets are situated. We might play one or two games a year on them but generally they are reserved for the Tests as they have the most even grass covering, firmness and levelness. This is, in the main, the reason why the pitch for a Brisbane Test match is less sporting than that for a Brisbane Shield match.

The Gabba is about to witness a high-octane showdown between some of the best fast bowlers in the world. Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander to take on a line-up that may include Peter Siddle, Ben Hilfenhaus, James Pattinson and Mitchell Starc. Pattinson is my pick for the series as Australia's most vital quick.

At 22, he bowls very fast outswing, and just last month I was on the receiving end as he dismantled the Bulls' batting line up with a career-best 6 for 32 in a Shield match. His spell on day three was the fastest I've faced in a number of years, and many of the Bulls batsmen agreed that he was bowling with serious heat. His aggression and enthusiasm are obvious, and I feel he could be the chief destroyer for the baggy green if unleashed in Brisbane. Let's hope Patto goes head to head with the South Africans on a fast, bouncy - and grassy - Test match wicket, of the kind Hayden once grumbled about.

Chris Hartley is the Queensland Bulls wicketkeeper and vice-captain