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By Bharath Ramaraj
Since the time Test cricket has been played at the Western Australia Cricket Association (WACA) ground in Perth, the sport’s lovers have envisaged the magical upsurge of compelling energy of a thoroughbred fast bowler thundering into the crease with fluid and long strides to send quivering batsmen on a silent prayer. With noses being re-arranged or pulped, a cut or two on the face, helmets getting tonked a few times and occasionally, a stretcher being used to carry the injured player, it can get nasty for the batsman’s tribe. Yet, it can be said that there is more attached to WACA than just a merciless fast bowling machinery making life of the batsmen seem like hell.
If we turn the pages in the history of the WACA ground, professional cricket was first played on a turf wicket way back in 1894. Unfortunately, lack of connectivity meant that Test cricket wasn’t played until the year 1970. Despite trans-continental railway coming into place , it took days to travel to Perth. It was only after flights were introduced that WACA became a part of the Australian Test cricket community.
In fact, the WACA ground was many times used as a multipurpose stadium for Australian Football League (AFL, soccer and other sports. The stadium was upgraded in the 1980′s and 90′s. AFL has shifted their base from WACA, which in turn has led to a financial crisis for the association. It has resulted in the association reducing the dimensions of the playing area and grass hills have slowly but surely replaced the seats.
Conditions at WACA
WACA is renowned for being a quick and bouncy wicket. Wicketkeepers even take some of the deliveries well over their head. Naturally, fast bowlers have ruled the roost at WACA. In the 1980s and early 1990s, a surfeit of West Indies’s quickies from Colin Croft, Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Malcolm Marshall, Joel Garner to Patrick Patterson, Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh, Ian Bishop and company gave nightmares and sleepless nightmares to Australian batsmen. No wonder West Indies went onto win five times in a row at the WACA.
The tall West Indies’ quickies didn’t just use the steep bounce on offer to a good effect, but also hit those craters that would open up at the ground. They did that in 1993 when West Indies walloped Australia in the final Test of the Frank Worrell Trophy. In 1997, the towering giants from West Indies including Ambrose, Walsh and Bishop deliberately pitched on those cracks that had opened up and Australian batsmen were reduced to nothing less than sitting ducks. The writer rubbed his eyes several times when Greg Blewett of Australia in the second innings got a delivery that pitched on a length, shot through the deck and shattered his stumps.
If that wasn’t enough, Mark Waugh got one that bounced awkwardly from the cracks and he could only glove it to the wicketkeeper Courtney Browne off Walsh. His twin brother, Steve Waugh too became a victim of a nasty delivery from Walsh. Those cracks became such a menace for batsmen that even the unheralded Victorian Simon Cook roasted New Zealand on the final day of the first Test of the series at WACA played in 1997. One felt bad for the plucky Kiwis, as they had played reasonably well for the first four days of the match. It took a gladiator-like intensity from the technically brilliant Martin Crowe to help New Zealand to draw the game against Australia in 1993. He took them to safety by virtually playing on one leg, as he was down with a serious knee injury.
At the same-time, those batsmen who are good at playing horizontal bat-shots have enjoyed the true bounce and pace, at least for the first few days of a Test match at WACA. Roy Fredericks of West Indies hooked his way to an incandescent hundred against Australia in 1975-76, Sachin Tendulkar’s glorious artwork of batsmanship saw him essay a century at the age of 19 in 1992, a young Ricky Ponting took on Shoaib Akthar, Wasim Akram and company to the cleaners with his breathtaking stroke-play in 1999 and many more.
Justin Langer, who played for Western Australia for a long-time and made mountains of runs for Australia too at the venue talked about the true nature of the pitch to BBC Sport, ”The thing about batting here is that, while it can be a batsman’s paradise, the margin for error is a lot smaller than at other grounds.”
“If you nick it, it usually carries to the slips, so you have to be very careful driving. You have to be selective when you go for it. Make sure you’re in a perfect position or you’re gone behind the wicket.
“If you’re going to drive, you need to strike the ball as under your eyes as possible. If the ball gets outside your eye-line, because of the bounce and big carry through behind, you can get yourself in trouble. You’re flirting with danger.
“Technically you need to be quite correct, because if you’re loose the extra bounce will find you out. You have to keep it all nice and tight.”
By the dawn of the new century the wicket tended to flatten out. In 2005, South Africa’s Jacques Rudolph took his side to realms of safety by batting the entire duration of last day’s play against Australia. Such a feat was unthinkable during the 1990s. In 2008, South Africa scaled stratospheric heights by chasing down a mammoth total of over 400 to script a famous victory.
One of the unique features of WACA ground is that how ‘Fremantle doctor’ (a strong wind that bowls from the west) can come into play to alter the result of a match. Over the years, in particular swing bowlers from Australia have taken advantage of it to the maximum effect. The breeze which occurs in the South-West coastal areas of Western Australia also brings some relief during the summer season.
The swing-king Terry Alderman was a master at bowling into the wind and making the ball to hoop and curve around the corners by holding it up in the strong breeze. Ian Bradshaw, the swing-merchant, did the same when he took a 10-for against Victoria back in 1967. In the 1950s, Ray Strauss bowled banana-bending swinging deliveries by using the breeze. However, the gutsy wind also tires out swing bowlers, especially those who aren’t used to it.
Former Middlesex bowler Simon Hughes told BBC sport, “It can blow you off-balance as you come into your delivery stride, and that messes up your timing. And bowling is all about timing.
“You have to make it work for you. If the wind is coming across you from leg to off, you might bowl more bouncers because if a batsman plays a pull-shot the ball can get held up and then get caught.
“Other swing bowlers will enjoy bowling into the wind, because it holds the ball up and so allows it to swing a little more.”
“But bowling into it will tire you out. Not only are you fighting your way through it when you bowl, but it pushes you back to your mark much faster, so your recovery between deliveries is shorter.”
In 2007, RP Singh and Irfan Pathan took the help of Australian legend Dennis Lillee and helped India to win a historic Test match at WACA.
On the other end of the spectrum, those tall-hit-the-deck towering giants from Caribbean bowled with the wind behind them. When Ambrose bowled that wondrous spell of seven for one to blow away Australia in 1993, he did it by bowling with the wind behind him.
Even the off-spinners have used the wind, bowling from south-west to good effect as the flight of the delivery holds up in the breeze. Occasionally, there is even a chance of easterly wind blowing in the morning. So in spite of the dimensions of the ground having been changed, it is important to know about the intricacies of the ‘Fremantle doctor.’
Australia’s enviable record at WACA
It would be a herculean task for the English set-up to comeback from the wallow of mediocrity they find themselves in the ongoing Ashes series. To make it worse, Australia have an enviable record at WACA. In the 1990s, they won seven out of the ten matches they played. The only two losses during that period came against the pillaging West Indies side.
Even in the last decade, Australia won seven out of ten Tests they played at WACA. Since then, the most memorable of those victories coming in 2010 when Mitchell Johnson blew away a strong English batting line-up with a heart-stirring spell in 2010. Last year though, Australia lost their match to South Africa at WACA.
England can perhaps look at Boyd Rankin as an option for the WACA Test. The spearhead of the pace attack James Anderson has been slightly below par in the series and needs to step up to the plate. Most of the batsmen have been in woeful form too. Above-all, they need to show an unflinching desire to succeed and a tunnel-visioned focus to have any chance of retaining the Ashes.
(Bharath Ramaraj, an MBA in marketing, eats, drinks and sleeps cricket. He has played at school and college-level, and now channelises his passion for the game by writing about it)
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