“Ricky Ponting and I were just laughing our heads off, because we could have got a single every ball given how far Moin Khan, the wicketkeeper, was standing back”
These were the very words of Justin Langer after a rampaging Shoaib Akhtar stormed in on the fastest ground on the planet – the WACA in Perth – in 2004.
The Australians could afford to laugh. WACA was their playground, a graveyard they had constructed to murder visiting teams, especially England.
England and the WACA hold a grudge. They haven’t won at the iconic venue since 1978, losing seven games unintermittedly. No other stadium in the World has sucked the breath out of England teams as the WACA.
Over a period of 46 years, they have played 13 games at the venue, losing nine. But it isn’t the stats that are scary. It is the mental disintegration that England have endured at the WACA that forever remains etched in memory.
The WACA is a fireplace. Temperatures here sore to the mid-40s and the stadium has hardly progressed since the 1970s. Compared to the state of the art facilities in other stadiums in the country, WACA is dead. The sheer heat in the place and lack of shade for stands make it a nightmare for the crowds. Add to that the hard clay wicket and the warm afternoon breeze called the “Fremantle Doctor”; visiting teams sweat profusely here and not least because of the intensity with which Australia walk out in their fort.
The third Test of the Ashes would be its 44th and last Test match. Future games at Perth would be played across the Swan River where a modern, well equipped, refurbished, 60,000 capacity stadium has come up.
In a way, it is a relief for England cricket. They have suffered enough at the venue. In 2010, Mitchell Johnson and Ryan Harris ran through their batting line-up to take 18 wickets between them. In 2013, Johnson took six and decimated England who were already on the verge of breaking down. Then there is all the history of the Lillee – Thomson serial killers.
But is the great WACA as intimidating as the Australians make it out to be?
“Never underestimate how important that sea breeze is because when you’re batting from the far end and there’s a fast bowler running from behind it, it’s quite intimidating”, Western Australia coach Justin Langer tells.
His words force you to ask, “Really?”
WACA is a talked up ground. One whose reputation has come from media hype and spiced up facts. The yesteryears were fantastic for fast bowlers but soil being relaid twice – in 2000 and 2008 – has seen the pitch lose its magic touch.
The last few years have seen WACA turn from a fast bowler’s haven to a batsman’s dream track. For instance, South Africa chased down a mammoth 414 in the final innings of a Test in 2008, not least because they had the chutzpah of AB de Villiers but also because the WACA wicket was a plain, flat road.
In 2012 and 2016 South Africa returned to crush the myth of the WACA. They scored 500 in the third innings on both occasions and disdainfully thumped the Aussies. With that vanished the aura of the venue which had, for years, been Australian bowler’s patio.
Part of England’s failures at the venue can be attributed to a mental block.
“It’s a mental thing,” says Kevin Pietersen. “They think it’s the fastest wicket in the world – it’s not anymore.”
There are two ways of looking at it.
In a first way, you hear stories about the browbeating spell of that tall, daunting West Indian, Curtly Ambrose and his scary 7/1 spell at the WACA. You also get to hear about Dennis Lillee and his partner in crime, Jeff Thomson, splitting England batsman David Lloyd’s protective gear in 1974.
In the second, you are more sensible and choose to ignore the hype built over the years and focus on the present. You see how Matthew Hayden slammed a record 380, Adam Gilchrist a 57 ball ton in 2006, Ross Taylor a fabulous 290 in 2015, David Warner a 253, Hashim Amla a 196, AB de Villiers a 169….the list is endless.
Only an England team, focussed more on their 82-page diet comprising of 194 dishes, would ignore the fact that WACA has turned into a batsman’s paradise. James Anderson was plundered for 28 runs in an over by the belligerent George Bailey in 2013. Swann was meted out similar treatment – he went for 36 in two overs. Alastair Cook merely poked at a Ryan Harris cracker in 2010 to be bowled for a golden duck, his first in Test cricket. England were digging their own hole at the ground every single time. They had lost even before they walked out to compete.
The WACA is a myth; an age-old story that your grandmother tells you so often that you eventually believe in it, however, farce it may sound. The “pace and bounce of Perth” is all you hear the moment you land in Australia as a visiting team. That it has become an oasis for teams in the vast deserts that the other grounds in Australia are, go unnoticed, especially if you are from England.
How else would a team lose so terribly at this museum for batsmen? In their last seven Test Tests at the ground, England have not just lost, they have surrendered clemently, not fighting, not resisting, just allowing the Aussies to bully and torture them.
The margins are humungous – by nine wickets, by 329 runs, by seven wickets, by an innings and 48 runs, by 206 runs, by 267 runs, by 150 runs.
If it is a mere mental block, shouldn’t they at least have fared better in the losses? The sorry answer is a big, fat NO. England and mental blocks have a history which we do not even need to dig here. It dates back to 1998 when they were bowled out for 112 within two sessions on day one at the WACA.
Langer, for one, enjoyed batting at the ground and he has a tip for the visitors.
“You need to leave a lot of balls and if you leave well then you can have great success. Fast bowlers usually come here and get carried away. They have heard about the WACA so they bowl it far too short. It flies through to the keeper and the bowler thinks ‘Ah …’, and the batter thinks, ‘Come on, keep on doing it baby.’”
It has lived its myth. The lifespan has come to a closure and no team would be happier than England. The WACA will forever remain a nightmare for them. But they have one final chance to make a U-turn of fortunes on a ground they have traditionally lost before the start of the match.
This batting paradise might just be what the English need after their humiliating losses in the first two games of the ongoing series. Their main men – Alastair Cook and Joe Root – haven’t joined the party yet although Root did dig it out at Adelaide even as his teammates deserted him. The rock solid clay, trustable bounce and quick outfield might just be what Cook needs to find his groove.
Then we have the younger group of batsmen – the Stonemans and the Vinces – who are unaffected by the scars of the past and would look to play each ball on merit. That’s all batsmen need to do at Perth. Trust the bounce, get bat on ball and the outfield takes care of the rest. It’s that simple.
The England bowling attack is also well suited to the track at the WACA. Since Broad and Anderson naturally bowl a fuller length, the bounce here is unlikely to get them carried away. Besides, both have a fair idea of what to expect from the pitch and England can only hope they take their mind and eyes off the rumour mills.
The stage is set for England’s redemption in the series. At the WACA, they are expected to fold unobtrusively, but the complacent Aussies might just be in for a rude surprise if England have learnt their lessons. WACA’s farewell could be England’s farewell from the series or a resuscitation story for the ages? Tune in on your television if you haven’t already booked your tickets for Perth.