Ashes: Here's why Kevin Mitchell Jr knows Gabba strip best, writes Ian Chappell
Mitchell Jr predicted the pitch would be on the slow side during the opening day and provide a little seam movement for the fast bowlers. This was in contrast to the vocal storm, suggesting there would be a fast, bouncy surface
One of the big changes in Test cricket in the era of media saturation has been the amount of talking/predicting done by the competitors in the lead up to a series. Never is this more evident than in an Ashes series and one of the big talking points leading into the 2017-18 version of Australia versus England, was discussion surrounding the venue. The Gabbatoir, as it is now commonly referred to by locals in the hope that this will lead to the slaughtering of England, was the focal point of much of what really amounted to trash talking.
Kevin Mitchell Jr poses with Australian captain Steve Smith during Day Two of the Brisbane Test on Friday. Mitchell Jr has been preparing the Gabba pitch for the last 27 years. Pic/Getty Images
The Gabba has become an Australian fortress to the point where the home side hasn't been beaten at the ground since 1988, the last remnants of the West Indies dominant period. Throughout the bulk of this remarkably successful period one man, Kevin Mitchell Jr, has been in charge of the surface at the Gabbatoir. In his 27 years preparing the Gabba, Mitchell has been a reliable source of information regarding the pitch. A fine curator, Mitchell predicted the pitch would be on the slow side on the opening day and provide a little seam movement for the faster bowlers. This was in contrast to the vocal storm in the lead up to the match suggesting this fast, bouncy surface would revive memories of Mitchell Johnson's blistering pace that lead to England's unsightly demise in 2013-14.
The contrast was so great that it was Nathan Lyon, the now self-confident off-spinner, who provided as many headaches for the England batsmen as any of the trio of fast men. This was further confirmation that Shane Warne's “if it seams, it spins” theory was more than just a cleverly calculated comment to aid his regular bamboozling of batsmen.
The fact that the early conjecture regarding the surface proved illusory, is evidence that batsmen should “play what comes down, rather than what is expected to arrive.” Or as it used to be more simply stated, “play each ball on its merits.”
The slower than expected Gabba pitch also re-enforced the need for a balanced attack in order to cover all eventualities. This is why Lyon has become such a valuable member of Steve Smith's outfit and will play a crucial role in this Ashes contest. The lack of an all-rounder in the middle-order to provide some relief overs for the front-line Australian pace men means it's crucial that Lyon isn't dominated by the England batsmen. On the early evidence at the Gabba it's clear that not only won't Lyon be dominated, he's likely to seriously trouble a few of the more leaden-footed England batsmen.
The vast improvement in Lyon's self-belief can be put down to his “Indian experience”. Ever since Lyon bowled Australia to victory over India in a highly exciting and emotional contest at the Adelaide Oval in 2014-15, his stocks have been on the rise. He followed that career-changing 12-wicket performance with a couple of valuable contributions in India in 2016-17, which have helped him become a more complete spinner.
The slowness of the Gabba pitch on the opening day also bucked a recent trend of home teams receiving specially prepared surfaces that suit their needs. In Australia the curator has more autonomy than in other parts of the world and any requests to provide a particular surface are likely to be met with a curt; “Get stuffed.” I believe international pitch preparation should be the sole domain of one person - the curator or groundsman. The better ones I've encountered have as much pride in their performance as players and they aim to prepare a surface that provides good cricket and a result late on the final day. Mitchell has regularly done that throughout his illustrious career by providing pitches that give every player an opportunity to shine. His is a great example of why the best Test matches are played on surfaces that give some encouragement to the bowlers.
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