The nation’s venerable rota of Test arenas greets two newcomers this summer in Perth and Canberra. How will they play? Matt Cleary investigates.
Matt Cleary checks out the Test turf in Canberra and Perth.
The accepted wisdom around Australia’s disparate cricket wickets goes roughly like this: the SCG turns, the WACA has bounce, the Gabba’s a fair strip. Adelaide is “paradise” for batting (in the day-time) while Bellerive under woolly skies offers seamers plenty. And the dear old MCG – once a minefield made of Merri Creek soil – has known drop-in wickets since 1996, and they’ve been firm and fast and fair.
It’s not always thus, of course. Perth’s been a road, Adelaide a green-top. Yet, by and large, cricket fans know what’s coming. This summer, though, two anomalies: Perth Stadium and Manuka Oval will host India and Sri Lanka in Test match cricket. And how the strips play, wear and tear will be under so many microscopes.
“You basically can’t get out on Manuka,” according to one former Test opener. “Make it an even contest – blindfold the batsman. The closest would be the old Adelaide Oval before they dug it up, minus the ball turning. Only danger is reverse swing.”
Another first-class bat reckons Manuka could suit Sri Lanka. “It’s very dry, generally, and lacks pace and bounce. I’d say the Sri Lankans would feel more at home at Manuka than any other venue in Australia. The conditions would be closer to Colombo than Perth.”
Head curator Brad van Dam says the Manuka
Oval wicket has been lauded as a pure surface for batting because of the high-profile shortform fixtures it’s hosted. One-day wickets are brought up to favour the bat. Test match strips demand greater equality. “We’ll try to bring up a fair wicket to showcase all of the players’ skills,” says van Dam. “We want a great pitch for the great players.”
Canberra in February can be baking hot. It’s a dry, “bush” heat. Van Dam will water the Oberon soil and mow the Legend couch depending on the conditions. Then he’ll take the covers off and see what happens. He’s confident the wicket will stand up.
“Manuka’s been around for 80 years but really only in the limelight the last five. But now it’s a go-to venue for Cricket Australia. We’re classified as one of the ‘big’ grounds. We won’t get a Test match every year – the bigger, established venues have a lot of history. But hopefully we’re always in the running.”
Van Dam has been ten years in Canberra after six years under Tom Parker at the SCG. He rates Chris Gayle’s World Cup double-hundred and Brett Lee’s final over of the 2014-15 Big Bash League final – on a hat-trick, scores tied, run out bungled, Scorchers win – as highlights. But a Test match is something else again. It’s a huge feather in ACT Cricket’s cap.
“The local government’s put money into it. We’ve hosted a Shield final, Big Bash final, ODIs. It’s been a real case of ‘If we build it they they will come’.”
While Canberra’s elevation to Test venue has been steady, Perth Stadium’s birth – in place of the storied WACA ground – was more problematic. Legendary WA great Dennis Lillee resigned as the association’s president. Letters to the local newspaper rained in. There were fears the new wicket would not replicate the WACA ground’s famous bounce.
But the folk at the WACA have done their best. In consultation with many experts and Cricket Australia, a prototype wicket was made from the same combination of soil and grass as that at the WACA ground. State players tested it in match conditions. When it came up trumps, they made four more like it and stored them in a nursery at the northern end. Then they dug a big square hole and dropped them all in. The stadium has since hosted one Big Bash match and one ODI. Stadium chief executive Mike McKenna says all the testing indicates that the new strips should be fast with good bounce and carry. Just like the WACA.
“It’ll start with a tinge of green grass, be hard and fast, and not too spin-friendly,” he says. “If it’s sunny, like most wickets it’ll crack later in the match, though it won’t be as pronounced as at the WACA ground. You couldn’t lose a bat in it. Could you lose a key? Possibly!”
“YOU BASICALLY CAN’T GET OUT ON MANUKA. MAKE IT AN EVEN CONTEST – BLINDFOLD THE BATSMAN.”
Steve Smith took a close-up look at Perth Stadium’s strip – will it play like the WACA?
Manuka Oval: ready for its Test debut.