The Melbourne Cricket Ground’s new curator, Michael Salvatore, answered pre-match questions like a suspect waiting for his lawyer. How had his pitch preparation gone? Good. Was he happy with the grass cover? Yep. Did he expect the Test match to last five days? Yeah-nah, he said, breaking out into polysyllables.
Salvatore’s MCG was indeed a yeah-nah kind of wicket. Nah, it failed to release the sparkle and truth of last week’s game at the WACA, or the ball movement of Adelaide by night. Nah, it produced the attritional, somewhat desperate cricket that has become the norm ever since the wicket square of the MCG became a drop-in centre.
But sometimes bad wickets can be good wickets in that they widen the differences of skill and technique, highlighting the light and the shade in the game. So yeah, Salvatore’s pitch allowed the best to shine, and yeah, it punished lesser mortals, and yeah, it produced a nice day of Boxing Day cricket, even if it was only nice in certain hands.
These stodgy wickets give the best a chance to show why they are the best, and David Warner and Steve Smith played the game at a different level. Warner’s century and Smith’s unbeaten 65 were not their prettiest innings, but they gained value by their contrast with the struggles happening at the other end.
Salvatore had promised to leave grass on the wicket, but had not specified whether it would be dead or alive. Seeing the golden carpet, Glenn Maxwell tweeted before a ball was bowled that Australia might not lose a wicket all day. Pride cometh before a fall (of wickets), and Warner very nearly skewed his second ball to gully. It might have been a road, but it soon turned out to be an uneven one. In a determined mood, Warner defended stoutly and took his off-side runs when they were on offer. His partner Cameron Bancroft struggled to adapt to the slow, spongy bounce and batted long enough to create a lasting impression, not entirely favourable. Before lunch, the pair put on a hundred, but four runs of every five were Warner’s, a fair measure of the difference between the wheat and the chaff.
When Bancroft’s place was taken by Usman Khawaja???, two games continued to be played: that of Warner, and that of the other guy. After lunch, Warner began spinning his bat in his hands as he watched his shots go to fielders, practising, grooving, but growing increasingly agitated. His weakness is the ball rising into his liver, and England had not bowled there enough. After lunch they made adaptations of their own, and Warner’s temporary nemesis was England’s debutant Tom Curran, a name to conjure with, for surfing fans at least. Curran cramped Warner between pull and jab, and between 99 and 100. With a rising delivery Curran suckered Warner into his get-out bunt to mid-on. Alas, Curran’s first Test wicket was a yeah-nah moment. Warner walked off, but a no-ball call produced a radical cutback. Cricket is a game of millimetres, no matter which end of the pitch. Warner came back, took a single, and celebrated with a big yeah to England’s collective nah. Within minutes we had seen all of the five stages of grieving: denial and anger (from Warner), bargaining (the third umpire), depression (England) and finally acceptance (the scoreboard).
Warner was soon gone for a timely 103, followed by Khawaja for a time-consuming 17. Their wickets fell to James Anderson and Stuart Broad. This was Broad’s first dismissal in 414 effortful deliveries from one end of Australia to the other. He had been greeted with the usual booing, though a press box wag remarked that those were just the England fans. Since Perth, both Broad and Anderson have begun bowling like the old dog on a walk who begins to pull on the leash when he knows he has turned for home. Their version of pulling on the leash is to bowl the length of the canny old pro, too short to be threatening but not short enough to cop a pasting. It has been conservative, time-serving bowling and has severely limited their captain’s options, throwing him back upon the ineffective Moeen Ali and the willing but workmanlike Curran and Chris Woakes.
England’s attack improved as they worked this wicket out, but their approach was professional rather than penetrative, and they were eventually blunted by the eternal Smith. Batting with a sore hand kept things interesting for the Australian captain, and as the afternoon wore on he was building another significant innings, as different in texture from Perth as Perth was from Brisbane. His ability to adjust between yeah and nah, between attack and caution, has become as remarkable as all his other abilities.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.