Christmas is about tradition. For some, it’s about the ritual of church; for others, it’s about setting off on familiar journeys, undertaken only once a year, but every year; for a select few, it’s about cauliflower. Everyone, to some degree, has their set of traditions for the festive period.
However, a worrying new tradition has been the wringing of hands over the Boxing Day Test. The Melbourne Cricket Ground has developed a worrying reputation for producing slow, attritional cricket, a reputation it can’t really deny. In the past four years, it’s seen just 12% false shots, the lowest for any Australian venue. The surface has varied, from spongy and dull all the way through to rock hard and dull. It has often produced tedious cricket. Today, frustratingly, was just that.
Neither batsman nor bowler could get moving. The 70,000 people at the MCG saw just 11% of deliveries bowled either drawing an edge or a miss, and a scoring rate of less than 2.5rpo. The combined lateral movement (that is to say, swing and seam) that Australia’s seamers found on Day One was 1.04°, the second lowest figure they have managed in the first innings of a Test match since 2012. In that time, they’ve toured the UAE, Bangladesh, and numerous other countries where the ball moving through the air or off the pitch is a rare sight indeed, but this trumped them all. The collective skill of that celebrated pace trio, Cummins, Starc and Hazlewood, couldn’t get the pitch to say a single word back to them. The best in the business were blunted.
The effect was that, denied their usual weapons, Australia had to go in alternative directions. Tim Paine turned to Nathan Lyon before an hour had passed, the off-spinner brought on to bowl the earliest spell of spin bowling in an MCG Test since records began. The seamers began to search for alternative plans, and deserve a certain degree of credit for doing so; they realised quickly that bowling full wasn’t a wise idea (across the day, full balls went at 5.09rpo, compared to 1.76rpo for all other balls), and so pulled their lengths back. In the first 30 overs, 32% of deliveries were pitched up, but that dropped to 19% for the rest of the day. Across the day as a whole, 47% of Starc’s deliveries were short balls. It’s rather instructive that the only time in his career that he’s bowled more short deliveries in the first innings of a Test was in the UAE earlier this year. These were not ‘Australian’ conditions, and Australia were having to adapt accordingly.
These pitches tend to attract criticism because they produce attritional cricket, a spectacle that some could describe as dull. The criticism tends to focus on the fan experience. However, it is worth contemplating what impact this has on the men in the middle.
Australia’s best bowler today was Pat Cummins. He was admirable in his application, digging the ball in time and time again regardless of the lack of response. It’s typical really; Cummins doesn’t have the furious random whirl of Starc, nor the reassuring metronome of Hazlewood. Instead, he is a bowler of considerable skill and intelligence, but most notably one of serious versatility. Today, he realised that he had to bowl stump to stump, and keep the batsmen playing, and he executed the plan well. His bowling was relentlessly accurate. 46% of Cummins’ deliveries today pitched on a good line and length; that’s the highest figure he’s ever recorded in a Test innings. His average speed was 142.16kph – only once in his career has he averaged more than 143kph. This was Cummins bowling as quick as ever, but with more accuracy than he’s previously managed.
There was also no desire to give the Indians any width. 5.5% of Cummins’ deliveries were wide outside the off-stump, the third lowest figure he’s managed throughout his career. This was an accurate, sharp spell of bowling that attempted to throw the pressure back on the batsmen, ignoring the conditions and focusing on what was unrelated to the pitch – the speed out of the hand, and where the ball was bowled. Cummins controlled the controllables, adapted his game, and succeeded.
Versatility can be a negative though. It can be a blight on your career development, asked to perform an ever wider array of roles without getting the chance to hone and refine your skills in one. To be versatile, to be effectively versatile and not get spread too thinly, is damned hard. People take liberties.
Australia need to be careful. Three years ago, a dead pitch at Perth almost forced Mitchell Johnson into retirement halfway through an over. The MCG will take a lot of stick for this surface, and it’s deserved, but the effects on these bowlers will last longer than the brief window of column-criticism that will come. Pat Cummins has already lost too many years to injury, years where the cricketing public was deprived of watching a bowler with the potential to be among the world’s best. He has the skill and willingness to bowl like he did today, on pitches like this, but he may not have the physical capability to do it for very long. Never mind the spectacle, never mind The Brand of cricket in Australia. Pitches like this will exhaust their bowlers, shorten careers, and damage the game.
This is why the booing of Mitchell Marsh wasn’t just rather rude, but ill-informed. Apart from the fact that Peter Handscomb was almost unselectable in his current form, Australia knew what was waiting for them at the G. They knew this pitch was sluggish and slow, as if having overindulged on second-helpings of turkey. Having a fifth bowler was essential on this track – even with one, there was a danger of Tim Paine having to overbowl his pace trio. Marsh was the pragmatic choice on a day where pragmatism was an absolute necessity.
In their 89 overs today, Australia’s attack were a cat without claws pawing away at a mouse, intended aggression softened into something almost comedic. Through no fault of their own, they were docile, and unthreatening. India did play with care and precision (though it is tough to gauge exactly how tough it was to survive), and we should always restate the caveat that you can’t truly judge a pitch until both teams have batted on it. However, there is little evidence to refute the idea that despite all the pre-game hype, this was another ‘traditional’ Melbourne pitch – and that’s one Christmas ritual that we’d rather ended this year.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.