MCG curator plays down pitch-switch
The MCG's curator Cameron Hodgkins has denied reports that he was asked to prepare a lively surface for the forthcoming Boxing Day Test, to aid Australia's bid to regain the Ashes in the wake of their emphatic victory at the WACA last week.
Speaking in the build-up to the match, Hodgkins told reporters that the decision to switch to a pitch with a better grass covering was a personal one that he took before the result of the third Test was known. But, he added, there was little chance of any of Melbourne's drop-in wickets providing anything approaching the sort of pace and bounce that so troubled England's batsmen in Perth.
"No, not at all," said Hodgkins, when asked if he had been under orders to ramp up the life in the surface. "A few people would like to believe that was the situation, but the last time I spoke to someone from Cricket Australia was in the middle of winter. It's entirely a personal thing and it was something I did two weeks ago, so it wasn't on the spur of anything that happened in the last week or so."
Having batted with consummate ease in their previous two innings of the series, in which they amassed a total of 1137 runs for six wickets at Brisbane and Adelaide, England's campaign hit the buffers at the WACA, where they were bowled out for 187 and 123 to lose by 267 runs. With Australia tempted to persist with the four-man pace attack that did the damage in that match, the prospect of a greentop would play into their hands, especially with them needing to force another victory to regain the Ashes that they lost in England in 2009.
However, Hodgkins tempered expectations by pointing out that the MCG does not have a great reputation as a bowler's paradise. "I would think on the WACA's worst day they would still be faster and bouncier than anything we normally turn out," he said. "We're quite slow on the first day normally and it probably causes the most difficulty for batsmen who want to get on with it, so patience is normally a fairly key ingredient here. If you don't have that then you can be four or five down early on and the game over."
England's batsmen were given the hurry-up by Mitchell Johnson and his team-mates in Perth, but the idea of a surface that rewards time at the crease will be welcomed by any number of the top order, in particular Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott, who compiled a triple-century stand in the first Test at Brisbane, and Paul Collingwood, whose place is under scrutiny following a poor run of form, but who invariably saves his best for times of crisis.
According to the curator, one factor that is unlikely to come into play is swing - at least, not the extravagant degrees of swing that Johnson extracted in the first innings at Perth, where he was aided by a strong breeze and by a succession of batsmen who had not expected him to be so effective, including Kevin Pietersen, who admitted on Wednesday that he had simply not lined him up properly.
In the enclosed environment of the MCG, the winds - in Hodgkins' words - tend to "slingshot" off the stands so that a northerly wind ends up assisting the pacemen from the Southern End, but in general the pitch is of the type where success comes from aiming at the stumps. Reverse swing, which has been a factor at the venue in the past, has also been in scant supply this summer due to the heavy rains that have kept the surfaces from developing their usual abrasive characteristic.
"Victoria do tend to bowl first here, because it's an easy pitch to bat on, but it should be one of those tosses where it doesn't really matter," said Hodgkins. "The MCG wickets have never really been accused of being fast and bouncy, so it's more something that will offer something up front, then get quite flat towards the end of the match."
That could make it difficult for either team to take 20 wickets, and Australia need to win either in Melbourne or Sydney to regain the urn. But Australia's wicketkeeper Brad Haddin said the conditions were not a concern, despite their success on a vastly different pitch at the WACA.
"The beauty of Test cricket and playing in different countries, and even in Australia on different grounds, is the uniqueness of all the different wickets," Haddin said. "You've got to adapt to wherever you play. That's the beauty of Test cricket. Whatever pitch the MCG produces, it's always going to be a good one and it's always going to be a good spectacle for the crowd."