Ashes 2017: MCG's placid surface depriving 4th Test of any contest is why we should despise such wickets

The fourth Ashes Test at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) was mostly a boring affair, made so by a "drop in" pitch made for easy batting and remained so throughout.

Garfield Robinson, January 01, 2018

The fourth Ashes Test at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) was mostly a boring affair, made so by a "drop in" pitch made for easy batting and remained so throughout. Bowlers were only able to capture 24 wickets. As proceedings petered out to a tame draw, the batsmen in attendance in the middle, Steve Smith and Mitchell Marsh, were untroubled. On the last day of the game batting appeared to be even more straightforward than it was on the first day.

Such surfaces do no favours to Test cricket, already struggling to ward off the encroachments of the very alluring Twenty20 format. And if Test cricket were to die at some point in the future, it would be games such as this MCG Test that would have hastened its demise.

The placid MCG surface might deprive Alastair Cook of some credit for his magnificent 244 not out. Reuters

The placid MCG surface might deprive Alastair Cook of some credit for his magnificent 244 not out. Reuters

In this batsman-friendly era, in which they have been gifted myriad advantages, batsmen ought not to be further coddled by making what ought to be a challenging occupation so cushy. It was "as flat a wicket as you'll ever see," remarked England captain Joe Root.

Australian captain Smith, despite having saved his side with a second-innings century, wasn't smitten with the surface either: "I think it just needs to do something. It hasn't changed over five days and I'd say if we were playing for the next couple of days it probably wouldn't change at all either. It's got to find a way to have some pace and bounce, or take some spin, or do something."

The overly placid surface is inimical to good cricket. Allowing batsmen to pad their averages while bowlers struggle hard for very little reward does nothing for the game as a contest.

Given a choice between viewing a game on a batting paradise or one that renders batting difficult, fans should choose the latter every time. Far from diminishing the quality of the game, sporting tracks often breathe life into them. Instead of engaging in run-scoring festivals, batsmen are forced to plumb the limits of their abilities to survive and to score runs.

Difficult surfaces also make for more unpredictable encounters. And while this is not to suggest that minefields be deliberately prepared — that would be taking things much too far — unpredictability adds excitement and suspense to a sporting event.

The wicket that brings the bowler back into the game, as opposed to having them serve a mere cannon fodder, is good for the game. Viewers might not see the ball climb into the stands as often, and batsmen may not be able to pile up mountains of runs, but games played on sporting wickets are frequently far more fascinating, even when they turn out to be low-scoring affairs.

Compare this MCG game, for example, with the first two Tests of Australia's visit to India early in 2017. The visitors smashed the home team by 333 runs in the first Test in Pune, only for India to strike back in the second in Bengaluru to win by 75 runs.

There was turn available at both venues, and batsmen were only able to play with any measure of fluency on rare occasions. And yet, nobody in their right mind would argue that the two games were anything but highly gripping, highly entertaining affairs.

Though it was always the case, these two games provided ample evidence that a good game of cricket need not feature a flurry of run-scoring. The action was spellbinding from start to finish. In fact, a number of fans and pundits, and even a few participating players, publicly listed the games as two of the more cherished in their experience. Those bruising battles had left the audience, like Pavlov's dogs, salivating for what was to come.

The Pune and Bengaluru contests were largely facilitated by the less than perfect pitches on which both teams fought. The matches were played on surfaces often termed "Raging Turners," but matches on green, seaming tracks are frequently as enthralling.

Trailing 0-3 in the series, England became a better team at the MCG. Mitchell Starc's absence helped, of course, as did Pat Cummins' illness on the second day. But England's bowlers were clearly an improved bunch, especially Stuart Broad, who appeared to be in better rhythm than he was previously.

Alastair Cook was also an improved batsman. After struggling for form in the first three Tests, he appeared to be better balanced at the MCG. His movements were more decisive. He was more forthright and more adventurous. His unbeaten 244 was a testament to the high quality of his batting skills, and a remarkable capacity to focus for long periods.

But the lifelessness of the surface somewhat diminished the stature the innings. It will always be a monumental achievement and there will be no asterisk beside his score in the record books denoting that it was made on a featherbed. Those who know of the context, however, will probably not rate this innings as highly, perhaps, as his 180 at the Eden Gardens in December 2012, an innings that led to a outstanding Test and series victory over India.

The friendly batting conditions also meant that Smith and Marsh were not excessively bothered in warding off the English bowlers as the game drew to a close.

Chasing runs to avoid defeat on the last day of a Test is supposed to be difficult. The surface is supposed to deteriorate; the bounce should be less predictable; it should turn more. Nothing of the sort occurred at the MCG and the game suffered as a result.

The teams now travel to Sydney for the last Test. Hopefully the surface there is nowhere as good and as durable.

Updated Date: Dec 31, 2017





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