Melbourne pitch under fire as Steve Smith thwarts England

Australia captain Steve Smith, right, and Mitchell Marsh walk off after the fourth Test ended in a draw. Picture: Michael Dodge/Getty
Australia captain Steve Smith, right, and Mitchell Marsh walk off after the fourth Test ended in a draw. Picture: Michael Dodge/Getty
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A “stinker” of a surface in Melbourne was painted as the villain of the Boxing Day Test as England had to settle for a stalemate against Australia.

Joe Root’s men were confounded by the brilliant batting of Steve Smith, whose unbeaten 102 helped to close out the draw with ease. Australia lost just two wickets on the final day to reach 263 for four declared after conceding a first-innings deficit of 164.

A lifeless pitch at the MCG had plenty to do with the dull draw too, though, with minimal pace and bounce and none of the deterioration over five days which so often creates great cricket drama.

Former England captain Michael Vaughan was among several experts who did not mince their words and wrote on Twitter: “Let’s be honest – this pitch is a stinker for Test cricket.”

The tourists’ current captain had a longer and closer look, of course, and he too was hardly complimentary, describing it as “very unresponsive” in comments which prompted MCG authorities to announce a review of preparation methods.

Likewise Australia captain Smith was also critical of the surface. “I don’t think it’s good for anyone,” he said. “I think it just needs to do something.

“It hasn’t changed over five days, and if we were playing for the next couple of days it probably wouldn’t have changed at all either.

“It’s got to find a way to have some pace and bounce, or take some spin or do something.

“I don’t mind if [pitches] are flat as such, but they just need to have some pace and carry in them. This wicket just has none of that.

“Obviously we saw a reasonable amount of reverse swing throughout the game but the ball just gets so soft so quickly because the surface is quite hard itself. It gets soft and doesn’t carry through and it’s really difficult to get people out.”

Asked if the pitch was suitable for such a showpiece occasion, England skipper Root said: “It’s not an exact science ... [but] as a player you turn up and all you can do is respond to what’s there in front of you.”

He added: “We did everything we could on a very flat wicket that was not offering the bowlers very much at all.”

The Melbourne Cricket Club (MCC) responded to the complaints with a statement saying it had been using drop-in pitches for 20 years and while it was rare for matches to end in draws, it would carry out a full review.

“While this Test pitch did produce a good contest, it has not contained the pace and bounce that we expected,” MCC chief executive Stuart Fox said. “As the game progressed, the surface did not deteriorate nor bring the level of unpredictability that was anticipated. We review all elements of our performance at the conclusion of every event, and the quality of the pitch is no exception.

“We will take on board feedback from the players, umpires and cricket bodies, as well as our own observations. Our new head curator, Matthew Page, will take on pitch preparation duties in the coming weeks and we look forward to his input.

“Overall, we remain confident and determined to produce portable wickets that generate entertaining Test cricket. Portable pitches have been used at the MCG for more than 20 years and drawn Tests have been a rarity in that time.”

Root, meanwhile, is still hoping England can find a way to stop the prolific Smith racking up even more Ashes records this winter.

The world’s No 1 batsman has taken his series aggregate to a remarkable 604 runs at an average of 151 with his third century in four matches as the hosts retained their 3-0 lead.

Smith has faced 1,258 balls – or almost 210 overs – and been out only four times since the series began in Brisbane last month.

But asked if England must still believe they can dismiss him, Root said: “We have done.

“Especially when it moves, we are more than capable of doing it.

“We’ve got to make sure we keep trying every option – and if it is a good surface to bat on, keep trusting what we do.”

It is nonetheless ominous that Smith retains an appetite to add to his Bradman-esque returns, and was disappointed he eventually had to stop batting.

He had just half-a-smile on his face as he said: “It was a shame we had to call it off in the last hour there ... I could have had that other hour out there!

“I feel like my game is in really good order – I’m adapting to each of the bowlers, changing my plans to them and, how[ever] they’re trying to get me out, I’m making sure I’m in front of the game as much as possible.”