The marquee match of Australia’s home summer schedule – the annual day Boxing Day Test in Melbourne – could be stripped from the MCG if there are repeats of this year’s sub-standard pitch that has been formally rated as ‘poor’ by the International Cricket Council.
In the wake of the drawn fourth Magellan Ashes Test that attracted criticism from both competing teams, commentators and administrators, the ICC acted upon a report from their Chief Referee Ranjan Madugalle (who officiated at the match) to deliver the verdict which is unprecedented for an international venue in Australia.
Had the Test finished two days later, the nation’s most famous cricket ground would have been slapped with three demerit points as part of a new ‘name and shame’ system from the ICC that came into effect on Monday.
From January 1, international grounds that produce inferior pitches will incur two demerit points if deemed ‘below average’ by the match referee, three points for pitches rated ‘poor’ and five points for those classified as ‘unfit’.
Furthermore, any venue that accumulates five demerit points over a rolling five-year period will be banned from hosting any international matches for 12 months while a ground that racks up 10 demerit points will have its right to stage Tests and limited-overs fixtures stripped for two years.
If such a ban were imposed on the MCG it would cover all international matches include the Boxing Day Test, an annual tradition for more than 20 years at a ground which hosted cricket’s historic first Test match in 1877.
And which holds the record for the highest single-day Test attendance of 91,112 set during the 2013-14 Ashes summer.
As it stands, Cricket Australia now has 14 days to respond to the ICC’s harsh critique of the lifeless MCG Test pitch before a sanction – which could range from a formal warning to a fine of up $US15,000, as well as a directive for action to address the pitch’s shortcomings - is announced.
It is expected, based on historic precedent, that given the ‘poor’ rating is the first for an Australia Test venue the MCG will be issued with a warning rather than a financial penalty.
Should the MCG produce another harshly rated pitch during the next five years, that fine could be increased to a maximum of $US30,000.
Cricket Australia Chief Executive Officer James Sutherland expressed disappointment with the character of the Boxing Day Test pitch and the assessment that it subsequently attracted, and added that CA would work closely with the ground’s administrators to avoid a repeat.
“We were disappointed that the traditional characteristics of the MCG Pitch did not come to the fore during the Boxing Day Test,” Sutherland said today.
“We work closely with all our venues to encourage the best possible international cricket playing environment.
“We are looking for the right balance between bat and ball, and pitch and ground conditions in keeping with the venue’s traditional characteristics.
“Such a rating is extremely disappointing for all involved.
“We’ll be taking on board advice from the ICC, players and relevant experts to work with the Melbourne Cricket Club to ensure this rating is not repeated.”
The most recent Ashes fixture drew a five-day aggregate of 262,616 people, but the game ended in a draw when both captains agreed a result could not be achieved on a slow, flat pitch that showed no sign of changing in character or appearance throughout the entirety of the match.
It yielded just 24 wickets over the course of five days, but also produced slow scoring due to the lack of pace and carry it exhibited from day one.
According to the criteria employed by ICC match referees as part of their mandatory end-of-match reports, any pitch that offers excessive seam movement, extravagant assistance to spin bowlers or overt unevenness in bounce during any stage of a match can be rated as ‘poor’.
But that assessment can also apply to a pitch that “displays little or no seam movement or turn at any stage in the match together with no significant bounce or carry, thereby depriving the bowlers of a fair contest between bat and ball”
“The bounce of the MCG pitch was medium, but slow in pace and got slower as the match progressed,” Madugalle said in a statement issued by the ICC todfay.
“The nature of the pitch did not change over the five days and there was no natural deterioration. As such, the pitch did not allow an even contest between the bat and the ball as it neither favoured the batsmen too much nor it gave the bowlers sufficient opportunity to take wickets.”
The Melbourne Cricket Club, which is responsible for the preparation and maintenance of the ground’s playing surface and facilities, announced it will conduct a review into the preparation of future wickets and will canvass input from a wide range of sources.
"We are disappointed with the pitch that we produced for the Boxing Day Test,” the MCC said in a statement issued on Tuesday evening.
"We recognise that the surface did not contain the bounce, pace or subsequent deterioration that we expected, and was not conducive to a balanced contest between bat and ball.
"The club is readily taking on board all feedback from the players, umpires and cricket bodies, as well as conducting our own review.
"We will be working rigorously to improve our performance and are confident and determined to produce portable wickets that generate entertaining cricket in 2018 and beyond."
Fox also pointed out earlier this week that the MCG has hosted only two drawn Tests since drop-in pitches were installed at the multi-use stadium almost 20 years ago (Australia against India in 2014-15, and the recent Ashes match).
But the four first-class matches staged at the venue so far this summer have all failed to yield a result as bowlers struggled to find any assistance from the surface, prompting calls for changes to the soil composition used in the pitches that are grown in concrete troughs before being laid in the wicket block.
In announcing the new ‘name and shame’ regime under which match referee ratings are published on the ICC’s website, the Council’s Chief Executive David Richardson explained it was based on the belief that there should be consequences for venues that produce inadequate or unsatisfactory pitch and/or outfield conditions.
The changes were ratified by the ICC Board last February following recommendations from the ICC’s influential Cricket Committee (which includes Australia’s Bupa Support Team men’s coach Darren Lehmann) and the ICC Chief Executives’ Committee of which Sutherland is a member.
"I think everybody accepts that if we want to have entertaining products, exciting matches, an attractive form of cricket, then the pitches need to be good and there needs to be a good balance between bat and ball, particularly in Test matches," Richardson said at the time.
"For that reason, we have tried to focus on the member countries, or the venues that are producing these pitches for international cricket, (make them) more accountable.
“We will be incentivising them by saying: 'If you produce a good pitch, then go to the ICC website and you will see the result of the grade the match referee has given you and you will be rewarded in that way for producing good pitches.
“On the other hand, if you produce a below average or a poor, unfit pitch, then unfortunately you might be shamed.”
The MCG is the first international cricket venue in Australia to have its pitch rated as ‘poor’ by an ICC match referee.
The most recent Test venue to have its pitch declared ‘poor’ was the Maharashtra Cricket Association Stadium at Pune in India, which earned the assessment after the Test between India and Australia last February ended with a record win for Australia inside three days.
The pitch for the Women’s T20 International between Australia and England at North Sydney on November 17 was deemed below average, the lowest rating previously afforded to a venue in Australia under the new system that was announced last year.
2017-18 International Fixtures
Magellan Ashes Series
Australia Test squad: Steve Smith (c), David Warner (vc), Cameron Bancroft, Usman Khawaja, Peter Handscomb, Shaun Marsh, Mitchell Marsh, Tim Paine (wk), Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins, Nathan Lyon, Josh Hazlewood, Jackson Bird, Ashton Agar.
England Test squad: Joe Root (c), James Anderson (vc), Moeen Ali, Jonny Bairstow, Jake Ball, Gary Ballance, Stuart Broad, Alastair Cook, Mason Crane, Tom Curran, Ben Foakes, Dawid Malan, Craig Overton, Ben Stokes, Mark Stoneman, James Vince, Chris Woakes.
First Test Australia won by 10 wickets. Scorecard
Second Test Australia won by 120 runs (Day-Night). Scorecard
Third Test Australia won by an innings and 41 runs. Scorecard
Fourth Test MCG, drawn. Scorecard
Fifth Test SCG, January 4-8 (Pink Test). Tickets
Gillette ODI Series v England
First ODI MCG, January 14. Tickets
Second ODI Gabba, January 19. Tickets
Third ODI SCG, January 21. Tickets
Fourth ODI Adelaide Oval, January 26. Tickets
Fifth ODI Perth Stadium, January 28. Tickets
Prime Minister's XI
PM's XI v England Manuka Oval, February 2. Tickets
Gillette T20 trans-Tasman Tri-Series
First T20I Australia v NZ, SCG, February 3. Tickets
Second T20I – Australia v England, Blundstone Arena, February 7. Tickets
Third T20I – Australia v England, MCG, February 10. Tickets
Fourth T20I – NZ v England, Wellington, February 14
Fifth T20I – NZ v Australia, Eden Park, February 16
Sixth T20I – NZ v England, Seddon Park, February 18
Final – TBC, Eden Park, February 21