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News Analysis

Pitch (hopefully) perfect: MCG's 'massive journey' from Ashes nadir

Last year's Test surface was very good after life has been injected into the drop-in wickets

Alex Malcolm
Alex Malcolm
Groundstaff make their final preparations to the Boxing Day pitch, Melbourne, December 23, 2021

Groundstaff make their final preparations to the Boxing Day pitch  •  Getty Images

England would give anything for one of their batters to replicate Alastair Cook's 244 not out at the MCG this week. But the chances of that happening on the new and improved surface appear as remote as they do on form.
The Ashes Test four years ago was the nadir of MCG's drop-in pitches. Cook batted for 10-and-a-half hours and just 24 wickets fell in five days. England captain Joe Root labelled it "as flat a wicket as you'll ever see" while his opposite number Steven Smith said, "I just don't think it's good for anyone." The ICC gave it a rating of "poor".
There wasn't a single outright result in a first-class match played at the ground in the 2017-18 season and it led to an overhaul of the drop-in pitch preparation under Matt Page, who took over as head curator after the Ashes debacle.
What Page has been able to do since then has been notable in terms of realigning the balance between bat and ball. The removal of the concrete base underneath the drop-in trays was the first major step, while some new trays were built with different clay content. He then experimented with new ways and means of preparing the playing strips.
There was the occasional hiccup, with the abandonment of a Sheffield Shield match in December 2019. But the last two Test pitches have produced far more exciting cricket, with the match between Australia and India last year completed well inside four days.
"We've been on a massive journey the last three years," Page said on Wednesday. "For us, it's all about improving and getting better at what we do.
"We've changed our techniques. We've left a lot more grass on the pitches. We've been gradually improving. It's probably shown in the results we've produced. We're pretty happy with where we're at.
"If we can produce something like we did last year we'd be very happy with that. A bit of seam movement upfront for the quick guys. A little bit there for the batters as the game goes on and a little bit of spin towards the end."
The only Sheffield Shield game at the MCG this year had 12mm of grass on it and the players raved about the performance of the surface. Victoria beat New South Wales in a match that went into the last hour of the final day. Five players were hit in the head by fast bowlers due to some steep bounce, with Victoria's Jon Holland subbed out of the game with concussion after being hit by NSW quick Liam Hatcher.
Victoria pace bowler Scott Boland, who has been called into Australia's Test squad, starred with five wickets in the fourth innings and 8 for 89 for the match. His overall first-class record arguably doesn't get the credit it deserves given some of the surfaces he has had to bowl on at the MCG over the last 10 years but he was delighted with how the Shield pitch played.
"The last few years have been different to what it was before that," Boland said during that match. "There's a bit more grass on it now, much better carry, especially for day two. Sometimes you rock up here and it looks like a one-day wicket.
"I think Pagey and the ground staff are doing a great job to bring a bit of life back to the 'G and get some results because we had a few years there where we just played draw after draw out here. It's nice to rock up to the ground and have the opportunity to take 20 wickets."
As lively as it was for the bowlers, the better batters prospered if they showed enough skill. New South Wales opener Daniel Hughes made half-centuries in both innings and thought it was one of the best MCG pitches he had ever played on, while Victoria batter and Australia A captain Nic Maddinson made a superb 128 on day one in the face of some outstanding bowling from Hatcher, Sean Abbott and Nathan Lyon.
"I think it was a really good surface," Maddinson said. "It felt like it was a contest throughout the entire day. Even when the ball was old, and you'd think you were in on 60 or 70, it still felt like every ball was a challenge. The bowlers were always in it, especially the seamers throughout the day, and Nathan Lyon's bounce was really hard to score off."
Even Lyon, with more knowledge than most on the art of producing a great pitch, was impressed by what he saw having taken three wickets in the first innings and none in the second.
"I actually thought the MCG wicket was pretty good," Lyon said. "There was a lot more contest between bat and ball. It offered some spin early but if you're good enough the bowlers got the ball to seam around a little bit. I think it was a pretty good template for the Test match, hopefully."
Page is hoping to roll out something similar for Boxing Day, with the dull, dour drop-in of 2017 a distant memory.

Alex Malcolm is an Associate Editor at ESPNcricinfo