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Teams recalibrate plans as early-season conditions turn MCG into pace paradise

Pre-tournament expectations from the venue have taken a beating after an India-Pakistan clash that was all about pace, bounce and swing

Alex Malcolm
Haris Rauf found much to like about the MCG deck on which Pakistan played their tournament-opener against India  •  Getty Images

Haris Rauf found much to like about the MCG deck on which Pakistan played their tournament-opener against India  •  Getty Images

Shan Masood had never played at the MCG until Sunday night against India. Part of his preparation for the famous ground was reading ESPNcricinfo's piece on how to play at each of the venues hosting this T20 World Cup.
But what he read, which included expert observations from Melbourne Stars coach David Hussey, and what he faced were two entirely different things.
"It was completely different to the article I read from Cricinfo on the MCG," Masood said after the match. "The MCG had the highest economy rate, so I thought yes, we're in for a belter of a wicket. But there was grass, it was lively, it was fresh and as a batter, you don't expect that in T20 cricket, but once you're in the arena, you have to figure a way out."
Welcome to the MCG in October. The numbers Masood referred to were from men's T20s since the start of 2020. Those numbers said fast bowlers had been more expensive at the MCG than anywhere else in Australia over the last two years and spin had been the handbrake.
But the caveat is that none of the 25 matches played in that timeframe were played in October. None were played in November. Only two were played in December. The rest were played in January and February, the warmest months of the year in Melbourne, and after the Boxing Day Test.
Test cricket has been the priority each year for curator Matt Page ever since he took over the job following the MCG pitch's nadir of 2017-18. The drop-ins have been rebuilt and the preparation has been completely overhauled.
Leaving grass on has been his new mantra prior to Boxing Day. But once the Test is over, Page shaves the grass off to produce great run-scoring pitches in the BBL.
This time last year Page was preparing a track for Sheffield Shield cricket. It had 12mm of grass on it and five batters were hit in the head on one of the liveliest MCG tracks in recent memory.
Now he is trying to prepare world-class T20 tracks in one of the wettest Octobers Melbourne has seen in recent times.
Herein lies the challenge for the four sides that will play there for the first time in this tournament on Wednesday. No one quite knows what to expect or how to play on a surface with more grass than normal. If Sunday's India-Pakistan epic is any guide, swing, seam, pace and bounce will rule the roost while spin and slower balls, normally a staple at the MCG for bowling teams, could be completely neutralised.
Afghanistan's captain Mohammad Nabi has plenty of recent BBL experience at the venue, having played three games in the last three years for Melbourne Renegades. But he has never seen an MCG pitch so green.
"Yes, at that time in Big Bash, it was drier," Nabi said on Tuesday. "The ball swings early on for one or two overs, but after that it will be a little bit slower, [some] help for spinners, and the ball won't swing that much.
"But here the pitch is new and also a little bit green, as well, and also the weather is cold."
It will be a huge challenge for Afghanistan against New Zealand's high-quality attack, who made a mess of Australia on a good batting track at the SCG last Saturday night. Trent Boult, who will play for Stars this summer in the BBL, is licking his lips having seen what Arshdeep Singh was able to produce against Pakistan.
"I believe we're on a new strip again," Boult said. "It did look like there was a bit of pace and bounce in the surface which is always exciting as a fast bowler."
Both Afghanistan and New Zealand will have the benefit of watching what unfolds in the game prior to theirs, with Ireland facing England first up in the afternoon.
Spare a thought for Ireland. Having handled West Indies with aplomb, they were undone by Sri Lanka's well-rounded attack on a fresh Hobart pitch. They now have to face the likes of Chris Woakes, Ben Stokes, Sam Curran and Mark Wood on a pitch that could offer as much swing and seam as Bellerive and a lot more pace and bounce. Ireland's coach Heinrich Malan noted what a huge challenge it would be given their inexperience in the conditions. But they had learned from the Hobart experience and from watching India-Pakistan about how to approach their batting.
"I guess if you look at T20 cricket, especially in Australia, the powerplay is important, but the powerplay is not the be-all and end-all," Malan said. "It's what happens in that middle block. I guess it's scoring runs but not getting out in the powerplay, which then allows you to move through that middle block."
England's captain Jos Buttler revealed that the unknown of the conditions had reinforced the need to be adaptable.
"Work out what's happening really quickly," Buttler said. "In Perth, it felt like the ball was swinging around. [Fazalhaq] Farooqi was getting it to move both ways, and it felt like you have to change your approach initially and give some respect to those conditions and play accordingly.
"On another day, the pitch will feel great, and there won't be any swing, and then you change your plan."
Ironically, England's best experience to draw upon this week might be the Boxing Day Test last year where three of England's T20I top six played and Wood bowled a handful of frightening spells in a match that lasted two-and-a-half days.
India's captain Rohit Sharma explained that the MCG track had played like a Test-match pitch on Sunday.
"The first four or five overs was brilliant to watch, honestly," Rohit said. "For a little while it felt like a Test match because of the way the ball was moving around and the carry in the pitch, as well. It was a good cricketing pitch."
As of 3pm on Tuesday, with the stinging sun shining on a 23-degree Melbourne afternoon with 77% humidity and clouds looming, the full square covers were already on the MCG playing surface.
Like everything else in this World Cup so far, Wednesday at the MCG will be another case of expecting the unexpected.

Alex Malcolm is an Associate Editor at ESPNcricinfo