It Used to Move

Because of the pitches prepared for the 2014/15 Test series against India and the growing popularity of the 20/20 game, cricket has a brand new name.  From now on it shall be known as batting.


I’m getting older and I’m starting to worry.  Because it used to move more.  Now, despite all the technology available, movement is rare.  I can use books, DVDs, television and the ABC broadcast but it still isn’t moving much.


Can you remember when it used to move, no matter where you were?  And you’d talk to your mates about movement and watch expectantly and get off on the balls moving off the muff on the surface.


That dangerous muff was gone.  The pitches were presented bare but there were too many roots holding it together, preventing the cracks from opening.  Without the muff the bowlers love so much, the pitches were predictable, consistent surfaces.


There was no sweet spot beneath a soft covering, a spot that makes the ball move and the crowd go ooh and the batsman wander down the pitch and pound that spot with his bat, hoping it will move for him instead of the bowler.


The muff has been mown, shaved and scraped from the pitches.  It resulted in a taxing, torrid Test series against India.


I love a five day Test, but these flat pitches offered the bowlers nothing.  There was bounce, but it was predictable bounce without sideways movement.  There’s been virtually no spin because the pitches didn’t crack up.


It seemed the same flat, bare pitch was transported around the country.  Given Australian conditions aren’t conducive to swing unless it’s overcast and there’s moisture in the air, the pitches really favoured the batsmen.


Steve Smith scored 769 runs at an average of 128.16.  Virat Kohli scored 692 runs at 86.50.  They didn’t look like getting out because the pitches were so bare the ball didn’t look like moving.


The bowlers got belted.  Mohammed Shami took 15 wickets at 35.80.  Ravi Ashwin got 12 at 48.66 and Umesh Yadav took 11 at 49.81.


The Australian’s were better, but not enough to bowl India out in Melbourne and Sydney.  Josh Hazelwood took 12 wickets at 29.33.  Ryan Harris got 10 at 33.40.  Nathan Lyon’s 23 wickets cost 34.82 while Mitchell Johnson gathered 13 at 35.53.


They are grim figures, and well done to Nathan Lyon, despite not bowling Australia to victory in Sydney.


It would be interesting to find out why the pitches were so bare.  Perhaps it’s because India usually struggle on Australia’s fast, seaming pitches.


Maybe it was because last year’s SCG Test against England finished on day three.  There’s a hundred reasons why England lost so badly.  The grassy pitch was just one of them but it became a mitigating factor.


Back in 2011, Australia got rolled by New Zealand on a green top at Bellerive in Tasmania. New Zealand scored 150 in the first innings.  Australia responded with 134.  New Zealand set Australia 240 to win and the Aussies were bowled out on day four, losing by seven runs.


The pitch had a green tinge.  The ball was swinging and seaming.  Batting was difficult.  Only three half centuries were scored, and David Warner hit the only century.


Bowling was a dream.  Doug Bracewell took nine wickets for New Zealand.  James Pattinson took eight for Australia.


It was enthralling, tough cricket.


In the aftermath, the pitch, which had produced a great match, was criticised as being too green, too much muff.  The criticism was justified, to a point.  It is rare for two teams to get bowled out in the first innings for 150 or less.


I didn’t care.  At the time I was on a road trip through South Australia with my pregnant partner.  The Test, where something exciting almost happened every ball, made our long drives enjoyable.


Perhaps the pitch had too much grass, but it still went into day four.  The criticism was most likely prompted because Australia lost.  Because our batsmen couldn’t adjust to grass on the pitch, like they’d never played on muff like that.  Like they prefer the pitch bare.


The ball was moving as though the seam was an inch high.  But the movement and the seaming conditions gave people a reminder of what our pitches have been in the past.


The Gabba wicket was once renowned for being a green top.  The SCG used to have green patches in the danger zone, where Shane Warne would land the ball.  The WACA wicket was a grassy trampoline.


The MCG was green because of the weather.  In the seventies and eighties, captains used to send the opposition in to take advantage of the grass.


Grass makes things more interesting.  It makes the game more tense.  Batsmen have to fight to hit 30 but the bowlers still need to get the ball in the right spot.


Against India, Australia dropped 17 catches.  Had those chances been held, they might’ve won four-nil and no one would care about the state of the pitches.  Fielding ineptitude is not the fault of the bowlers or the curators or Cricket Australia.


Through grim determination, the bowlers created enough chances on flat, barren pitches.


But throughout the series, Mitchell Johnson and Steve Smith have criticised the pitches as being too batsman friendly.


It can’t be a fault of the technology.  Ever since the inception of Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket in 1977, pitches have been prepared in concrete trays in hothouses.  Christopher Forsyth, in his wonderful book The Great Cricket Hijack, described the preparation of the drop-in pitches with precarious detail, highlighting all the issues curator John Maley had.


Maley had to grow pitches in concrete trays four feet off the ground, under lights in hothouses.  It had never been done before.  The pitches had to be rolled and transported.  High salinity caused mayhem in Perth.  Cold weather set Maley back weeks in Melbourne.  No one knew how they would behave.


Maley was a pioneer and doesn’t get the credit he deserves for the work he did with soil and grass.


In the past decade, Cricket Australia has spent millions perfecting drop-in pitches.  Maley’s hurried work has been researched and improved to the point of perfection.


So there is no reason why drop-in pitches and those produced naturally can’t provide a more equal contest between bat and ball.


I love five day Tests and I love batsmen hitting hundreds.  But I also love seeing teams get bowled out twice.  Low scores make great Tests too.


And in my brief cricket career as a junior, I thought I was a seamer.  But the ball never seamed off matting or Astroturf.  At gentle pace, I relied on accuracy and occasional swing.  So I like seeing the ball move around.


It’s all about movement.  As I get older, I remember what that used to be like…


About Matt Watson

My name is Matt Watson, avid AFL, cricket and boxing fan. Since 2005 I’ve been employed as a journalist, but I’ve been writing about sport for more than a decade. In that time I’ve interviewed legends of sport and the unsung heroes who so often don’t command the headlines. The Ramble, as you will find among the pages of this website, is an exhaustive, unbiased, non-commercial analysis of sport and life. I believe there is always more to the story. If you love sport like I do, you will love the Ramble…


  1. Where has all the muff gone? I remember back in the 70’s when muff was everywhere. Did the muff munchers devour it all? I ask myself these questions every day.
    Good one Matt.

  2. Even in T20 bowler friendly pitches have produced more enthralling games.

    Can’t imagine India serving up such visitor friendly pitches as we did. I guess it was good for ratings and gate takings.

    Nice one Matt.

  3. Phillip Dimitriadis says

    Great stuff Matt, Interesting you mention Packer and the drop ins in 1977. The 1977 Centenary Test was a great match, not because of its date, but because the bowlers tested the batsmen in the first innings and the batsmen tested the bowlers in the second. Ain’t that what TEST Cricket is all about?

  4. matt watson says

    I grew up on muff. I used to look at it in awe. As a kid I wanted to play on it.
    Didn’t take long to get used to the bare stuff.
    Nowadays, even the warehouse wickets at Marchant Park are a little bare…

  5. matt watson says

    JD – home style pitches have been a feature of Test cricket for more than a hundred years.
    I’d hate Australia to become known as a country of open roads…

    Phillip, I was too young for the Centenary Test but I’ve read about it and watched the footage. The Centenary Test was a classic. I love your analogy – the bowlers tested the batsmen in the first innings and the batsmen tested the bowlers in the second.
    The last Test series was all batsmen…

  6. Thanks Matt. The cynic in me says follow the money. TV networks want 5 days of cricket (over 2 million people were watching the test on Ch 9 – not bad for daytime TV) and state cricket associations want to provide value for their members that make up 2/3 of the test crowds. A bit like the theory that car manufacturers run ads not to encourage people to buy their cars as much as reassure those that already have.

  7. Yep, Matt, no doubt they got it wrong this year. It was all about getting the games into the 5th day for Channel 9. I love my Test matches when fast bowlers are empowered by a wicket, not enfeebled. There was way, way too much enfeebling this year for the good of the game.

  8. matt watson says

    I’m sure five day Tests make more money than three day Tests. But the fans don’t care. Sure we lose a couple of days, but there’s a result at least. I’d rather win or lose than watch a game where a draw is the favoured option by lunch on the first day.

    T-Bone, love the analogy, empowered by a wicket, not enfeebled….

  9. Luke Reynolds says

    More double entendre’s than a 1970’s AC/DC song! Great work Matt. Very ordinary pitches this Test series. Hope there’s more muff on them next Summer.

  10. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Thanks Matt do we blame the feminist movement there has been as much grass left on the decks this season as in society in general . Seriously really poor wickets not giving a fair contest between bat and ball this season and the toss is way too important . Spot on re Maley he did a magnificent job he should be used as a adviser anything to get some bounce , pace and a contest between bat and ball can only be good for the game in general

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