Sydney - Mostly green and often downtrodden, the humble
grass on which the highly-anticipated Australia-India Tests will be played
doesn't normally attract as many headlines as superstars Virat Kohli and
Yet the turf on Australia's ovals can play a critical role
in determining the outcome of the highly-anticipated four-Test series, which
begins in Adelaide on Thursday, and is often the subject of fierce debate among
players, pundits and fans.
It all serves to turn up the heat on the curators - the
behind-the-scenes gods of the field - who delve into the depths of
horticultural science to engineer the ground carefully for each format of the
Adam Lewis joined the exclusive club when he became just the
ninth curator of the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG) a year ago, taking over from
Tom Parker who retired after two decades.
Matt Page assumed the prestigious role at the Melbourne
Cricket Ground (MCG) late last year after five years at Perth's WACA Ground.
Both are aware of the public's high expectations after
predecessors came under fire for their pitches.
"You've got to have pretty strong shoulders,"
"You notice with cricket, everyone has an opinion. You
can't please everybody. Just as long as I can provide a good even surface for
both sides, then I'm happy with that."
Satisfying teams and fans can be a difficult task.
The world-famous MCG was slammed by critics and received an
official "poor" rating from the International Cricket Council - the
first time for an Australian pitch - after the Ashes Boxing Day Test almost a
The governing body said it did not change over the five days
of the match against England, giving neither batsmen nor bowlers a chance to
seize control of the match, which ended in a tedious draw.
The outcry reflected just how important the pitch is to
players, fans and administrators who have invested time - and lots of money -
to watch a dramatic contest.
Despite the immense pressure, the curators are focused on
the root of their jobs - nurturing the plants and trying to get the best out of
them every time.
The 170-year-old SCG, alongside Brisbane's The Gabba, is
only one of two major Australian grounds left using a traditional pitch, which
remains in the ground and is adjusted for different sports and seasons.
The grass and soil are measured and analysed to make sure
they are healthy and have the right amount of compaction and moisture.
Most attention is focused on the pitch - a 20.12-metre long
and 3.05-metre wide patch of very short grass bounded between the wickets.
Faster pitches are prepared for the shorter formats. For
Tests, there's more grass cover on day one and two, with the pitch drying out
over the next few days.
"With a cricket wicket, we're actually almost killing
the grass. We're drawing all the water from the soil, we're taking all the moisture
out of the leaf, we're basically taking that plant all the way to the nth
degree," Lewis said.
"And then we're trying to bring it back to life again
to regrow. So it's totally different to other sports, preparation-wise."
In addition, Sydney has a reputation for being a spinner's
paradise due to its Bulli soil, which has a different cracking pattern to other
soils and dries out quicker.
By contrast, the MCG uses a drop-in pitch that is tended to
and repaired at a nearby nursery before being transported to the ground ahead
of a match.
Not everyone is a drop-in fan. Purists warn such pitches -
which some grounds now favour so they can host multiple sports - remove the
characteristics of different fields that made matches more unpredictable, and
"With the drop-in pitch, there's more of the sameness
about things from city to city, and place to place," Australian cricket
historian Bernard Whimpress said.
"Which makes me sort of think, why don't they just
forget about the drop-in pitch and put in artificial turf or something."
This year, all eyes will be on the drop-in pitch at Perth's
new Optus Stadium, which will host its first-ever Test as part of the
Australia-India series in mid-December.
The plans for each setting are so meticulous that "you
can lose a lot of sleep by worrying about it", said Justin Groves, who was
brought in by the SCG from Adelaide Oval as grounds manager to fine-tune the
But he added: "At the end of the day, Mother Nature is
what makes what happens, in the outfield as well."
The weather has already made its mark this season. Ahead of
the Test series, the Australia-India T20 internationals in Brisbane and
Melbourne were rain-affected.
India's pre-Test preparations at the SCG last week were then
hit by a once-in-a-century storm.
Even so, the excitement building up around the Tests - with
millions expected to tune in to watch powerhouse India take on Australia - is
shared by the curators.
Page nominates Boxing Day Test as the biggest event on his
calendar since he started in Melbourne.
"I'm really looking forward to preparing the
pitch," he said, adding that he's not daunted by the scrutiny his deck is
set to be under.
"I'm pretty relaxed about it all. You rock up and you
do the best job that you can... and if you don't get it right, you'll take
something out of it that you can then use in your next pitch."