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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on November 8, 2012, 2:11 GMT

    Sabina Park is just as good as the Gabba in my book. almost always gives a result & helps both pace & spin while the batsmen get runs if they are prepared to work for them cant ask for more

  • Andrew on November 8, 2012, 1:29 GMT

    @S.Jagernath on (November 07 2012, 05:44 AM GMT) - the slowest WACA pitch ever was prepared for India! You fail to understand that pitches have lifespans. The WACA was deteriorating & losing its old charm & got re-laid a decade or so ago - it is only just getting its old fire back. That was a comment lacking spine! @Vishnu27 on (November 07 2012, 10:18 AM GMT) - well said matey! A part of me wishes we laid roads for the WIndies in the 80s & early 90s! @jb633 on (November 08 2012, 00:59 AM GMT) - your observations are correct (at least IMO), but those two Tests were hampered with higher than normal rainfall & cooler than normal temprature. The pitch didn't bake or detoriorate & stayed a road. Similar thing happenned last year v NZ - although there was still lateral movement as it was cloudy for most of that match (from memory). This pitch should be better - not much rain, but again been unseasonally cool - so much for global warming!!!!

  • Jon on November 8, 2012, 0:59 GMT

    I agree that the Gabba was the best test match pitch in the world but I am not so sure any more. I cannot comment about their state in shield cricket but in test matches they seem to have lost the spice we used to see in days 4 and 5. When England last played their and New Zeland for that matter we didn't see the deterioration we used to. It could just be true of the last couple of test matches so I am looking forward to seeing how this one plays.

  • Paul on November 7, 2012, 21:26 GMT

    Nice work, Chris. A great summary of why the Gabba is the best Test pitch in the world. The only thing missing was the role of spin and a fifth day summary. I remember Shane Warne saying it was his favourite wicket, so it definitely has something for the spinners. I look forward to reading more of your work. I would like to say I look forward to seeing you in the baggy green, but I've despaired of the selectors' picking the best keeper for the top role.

  • Rayner on November 7, 2012, 16:51 GMT

    Really nice article, well written. I wonder if we will see more?

    Vishnu27 - I agree, obsurd!

  • Kiran on November 7, 2012, 16:40 GMT

    Great article. Can we have this for all the grounds in Australia. I want to know more about WACA and Adelaide Oval.

  • Dummy4 on November 7, 2012, 14:54 GMT

    Some nice insights into the wicket! Really enojoyed this and likewise Chris Rogers' article from a few weeks ago. Its nice to get thoughts on the game and conditions from current players.

  • aby on November 7, 2012, 14:52 GMT

    Good article!. It is ok to say a batsman or a bowler is weak on green or flat or a turning pitch. But it is nonsense if you 'devalue' their talents/performances saying that was on a flat pitch for eg. So what?, I mean is that wrong? I thought a player performance on any pitch should be appreciative,otherwise icc wud have given lesser points on diff pitches! Do we devalue bowlers the same way?nop. Other than rare players, everyone would play good/bad on diff pitches. Having said all this, I have seen (just like many of u) a lot of matches over the years and AUSTRALIA has the most complete set of packages as far as pitches go(perth,sydney,melbourne etc etc).Other countries are coming up but australia were right up there from a long time ago.

  • sfsdf on November 7, 2012, 14:29 GMT

    The pitches were flat for the Indian series Jagernath, don't you recall clarke belting a 300 followed by a 200?

    Not even the don could score 500+ runs without being dismissed on greentops...

    The pitches were typical aussie pitches india were just outplayed in every department.

  • Simon on November 7, 2012, 12:29 GMT

    S.J : That is because WA decided to try and return to the fast bouncy pitches Perth was renowned for. The soil for the pitch has returned to like original. Unfortunately S.A bowlers look more capable of exploiting it. The best test matches have generally been in Melbourne. Hartley is good, just not as good as others; yet.

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