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'Game probably 36 hours too soon for the pitch'

Greg Chappell recalls the events of the Centenary Test, played 40 years ago at the MCG

Daniel Brettig
Daniel Brettig
The Queen (in sunglasses and hat) also attended the historic match along with several former England and Australian cricketing greats  •  Getty Images

The Queen (in sunglasses and hat) also attended the historic match along with several former England and Australian cricketing greats  •  Getty Images

Greg Chappell never worked harder for runs in Australia. Day one of the Centenary Test, the 40th anniversary of which is being marked at the MCG this week, was heavy with cloud overhead, moisture underfoot, and a sense of the occasion's uniqueness in every player's mind.
If there had been any sense of routine about a match tacked on to the end of the Australian season to mark 100 years since the very first Test in 1877, it was soon washed away by the presence of so many of the game's greatest Australian and English combatants, all of whom rubbed shoulders with the teams led by Chappell and Tony Greig at the Hilton Hotel (now the Pullman) a few hundred metres up the hill from the MCG.
"I think both teams turned up thinking it was just going to be another Test match, maybe a little ho-hum because it was a one-off thing," Chappell recalled. "But once we arrived in Melbourne it was pretty obvious that it was actually quite a historic moment and there was a lot of gravitas around the game.
"Seeing some of the old players arriving in Melbourne and going to functions before the Test match, hearing speeches from Sir Donald Bradman and others, and meeting some of these names that I grew up reading about or listening to on the radio was quite amazing. By the time the Test match started, we were aware that it was something a little bit special.
"It was the first real promotion of a Test match that I'd been involved in. My first Test in Perth was pretty special to Perth, there was a build-up to that in the media, but this one was very different to a normal Test match, no doubt about that."
The clang of a specially minted coin on the surface suggested this was going to be a fair pitch for both sides, and Chappell admits he had considered batting first. But once Greig called correctly and sent the Australians in, it was soon apparent that the day would be one for bowlers. "The game probably came about 36 hours too soon for the pitch," Chappell said. "From memory it was a bit cloudy around the lead-up to the game and he [curator Bill Watt] might have just got his timing out a little bit."
Australian worries about the surface were to be compounded when Rick McCosker misjudged a short ball from Bob Willis and was struck an awful blow to the jaw, made doubly maddening when the ball then dropped onto the stumps. McCosker's re-emergence later in the match, to add a critical 54 runs with the wicketkeeper, Rod Marsh, was to become part of its legend.
"It was a double blow, insult to injury, because not only did he get hit but his wicket was broken as well, so he was out and knocked out," Chappell said. "It was a pretty gruesome-looking sight when he came in, but mind you, it wasn't a pretty sight when he went out to bat in the second innings with the head swathed in bandages and totally distorted by the bruising and swelling.
"I'm sure the Englishmen would've been very surprised when they saw him walk out to bat. I never considered asking him to bat. He came and told me he wanted to. I wasn't convinced it was a great idea, but he was firmly of the conviction that he was capable, that he should do it, and as the game turned out, we were grateful that he did."
Batting No. 4 behind Gary Cosier, Chappell slogged through six minutes short of four hours for 40, as a crowd of more than 61,000 spectators kept atypically quiet. Greig rotated his seamers handily, and when the swift left-arm spin of Derek Underwood was introduced, he gave away barely one run an over.
"Greigy kept the seamers going for a long time," Chappell said, "but in those conditions, with a little bit of moisture in the pitch, Underwood was as dangerous as anyone, very hard to score from. I never had to work harder for runs in Australia."
A final Australian total of 138 seemed paltry, but the response of Dennis Lillee and Max Walker was to deliver an unexpected first-innings lead. From there, the pitch dried and flattened out, bringing about a very different second act in the drama and a surface of the sort of quality Chappell never saw again in Melbourne.
"Melbourne was always a very different wicket from anywhere else," Chappell said. "By day three and four of a Shield game, you knew you didn't play back to anything, no matter how short it was. You had to try to get forward to it, because they'd tend to stay down a bit and crack a bit, so the ball would deviate off the surface, but it was always a very firm surface.
"By the time I came back to the MCG, it was a dustbowl, there was very little grass on the square, the titular groundsman really had no experience. Ian Johnson as secretary of the MCC wanted to have control of the preparation of the wickets and it just went from bad to worse. I played every year until 1984 and never saw another decent wicket in that time. It was disappointing because as your showcase ground, we could've been scoring 300s in one-day cricket but we were only getting low 200s because the wicket was just such hard work."
Both the change in the pitch and the arrival of more limited-overs games came about following the two years Chappell and others spent with Kerry Packer's breakaway World Series Cricket. Though much has been written and said about clandestine meetings around the Centenary Test and even the sight of Austin Robertson handing out sign-on cheques to players in the dressing room in the guise of "theatre tickets", Chappell was not yet sure whether the concept would get off the ground.
"I'd had an initial approach but I'd told them I wasn't interested in talking about it until they were much further down the track and all the players they wanted to talk to had been spoken to," Chappell said. "I really wasn't consciously aware of it at all. I wasn't convinced at that stage that it would even happen. From my point of view it was so far back of mind it was out of my mind."
Much like the impression created by that damp first-day pitch would be overturned before the Centenary Test had played out, Chappell's expectations of World Series Cricket were to be utterly confounded.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig