Australian cricket has been embarrassed by the ICC rating the MCG drop-in pitch for the Boxing Day Ashes Test as "poor" following a dull draw in which only 24 wickets were taken over five days.
It is the first time an Australian international pitch has been rated poor and it has come soon after the drop-in surface for the women's Ashes Test at North Sydney Oval in November was labelled "below average" for also failing to provide conditions conducive to playing attractive cricket. Cricket Australia has 14 days in which to provide a response to the ICC.
"We were disappointed that the traditional characteristics of the MCG pitch did not come to the fore during the Boxing Day Test," CA chief executive James Sutherland said. "We work closely with all our venues to encourage the best possible international cricket playing environment.
"We are looking for the right balance between bat and ball, and pitch and ground conditions in keeping with the venue's traditional characteristics. Such a rating is extremely disappointing for all involved. We'll be taking on board advice from the ICC, players and relevant experts to work with the Melbourne Cricket Club to ensure this rating is not repeated."
While the Melbourne Cricket Club has already indicated its intention to review the process by which the MCG strip turned out to provide such little assistance for both batsmen and bowlers, the match referee Ranjan Madugalle did not shrink from calling them out for producing a substandard pitch for on which to play arguably the highest profile Test match of the year.
"The bounce of the MCG pitch was medium, but slow in pace and got slower as the match progressed," Madugalle said. "The nature of the pitch did not change over the five days and there was no natural deterioration. As such, the pitch did not allow an even contest between the bat and the ball as it neither favoured the batsmen too much nor it gave the bowlers sufficient opportunity to take wickets."
Melbourne Tests have been played on drop-in pitches since the dawn of the 21st century, and have typically needed to start with dampness under the surface to ensure early assistance for bowlers before the drying process offers up enough variable pace and bounce to challenge batsmen - they are commonly best for batsmen late in the game.
However, this pitch was prepared against a backdrop of change, with the former curator David Sandurski moving north to Brisbane before his replacement Matthew Page was due to arrive. That left preparation in the hands of the arena operations manager Michael Salvatore, who erred on the side of caution in terms of the amount of grass left on the pitch and also in the rolling of it. Following the conclusion of the Test, the MCC chief executive Stuart Fox said all elements of the event would be reviewed.
"While this Test pitch did produce a good contest, it has not contained the bounce and pace that we expected. As the game progressed, the surface did not deteriorate nor bring the level of unpredictability that was anticipated," Fox said. "We review all elements of our performance at the conclusion of every event, and the quality of the pitch is no exception.
"We will take on board feedback from the players, umpires and cricket bodies, as well as our own observations. Our new head curator, Matthew Page, will take on pitch preparation duties in the coming weeks and we look forward to his input. Overall, we remain confident and determined to produce portable wickets that generate entertaining Test cricket. Portable pitches have been used at the MCG for more than 20 years and drawn Tests have been a rarity in that time."
The pitch was criticised by players and coaches on both sides virtually before the Test had begun. Australian captain Steven Smith said on match eve that it had looked ready to play on "three days ago". After day one, England swing bowler James Anderson remarked: "You'd think that the 90,000 that turned up today don't want to see 244 for 3. I know it wasn't exciting to watch, it wasn't exciting to play in when it's that attritional cricket, but there's not a lot we can do about it. That's the pitch that we've got for the next five days and we have to deal with it."
At the end of the game, Smith spoke for players on both sides in remarking on how featureless the pitch had been. "It's got to find a way to have some pace and bounce or take some spin or do something," he said. "We saw some reverse swing but the ball just gets so soft so quickly because the surface is quite hard. It gets soft, doesn't carry through and it's really difficult to get people out. I just don't think it's good for anyone."
James Sutherland, the CA chief executive, has said that the character of pitches is vital to the health of Test cricket in particular, while the team performance manager Pat Howard has been glimpsed in lengthy conversation with both the incoming MCG curator Page after the Melbourne Test ended and with the SCG groundstaff ahead of the New Year's Test in Sydney. "Pitches are incredibly important to the future of Test cricket," Sutherland had told ABC Radio. "We need to provide an entertaining contest, we need to provide a balance between bat and ball."
The SCG's pitch is part of a natural wicket block rather than a drop-in surface, and the Cricket New South Wales chairman John Warn spoke out strongly against any possibility of the ground being modified in that way this week. "I'm here to represent our players. We're here to produce Australian players and that job is made harder if they're playing on pitches like you saw in Melbourne," Warn told the Sydney Morning Herald. "We would never want to see that in Sydney. It's not good for Test cricket. I've made it very clear to the [SCG] Trust and to the government that we do not want to ever see a drop-in pitch at the SCG.
"We want it to be a pitch that has its own character, which historically has been spin. We've seen one or two spinners in every Australian team and touring team and we want to see that continue. We think it would be a sad blight on NSW and Australian cricket if the SCG, the Trust and the government, contemplated moving down this path in the future."
The longtime SCG curator Tom Parker retired at the start of the season and the Trust has restructured management of the turf. Justin Groves, formerly employed at Adelaide Oval, is the new ground manager, while Adam Lewis has been appointed as the SCG curator reporting in to him.