Myth And Reality in a Unique Cauldron
I’ve been lucky, really lucky. I have seen some fantastic cricket at the WACA.
- I saw Greg Chappell, in his first Test, and Perth’s first Test, score a scintillating century against an England attack that included one of my boyhood idols, John Snow;
- I witnessed the end of an extraordinary innings of 356 by Barry Richards for South Australia against a Western Australian attack that included McKenzie, Lillee and Tony Lock. (Unfortunately, the first 325 he made on day one, which was a Friday, so we had to watch it by clandestine radio at work);
- I saw Dennis Lillee take a breathtaking 8-29 off 7.1 overs for Australia against the World in 1971. Surely no other single haul could boast as exalted a collection of scalps as Garfield Sobers, Clive Lloyd, Sunil Gavaskar, Tony Greig and Farokh Engineer.
- I was on my feet when Doug Walters smashed a six in the last over of the day to bring up 103, and his century in the final session against England in 1974;
- I winced when a pasty faced 41 year old, Michael Colin Cowdrey, rushed out from the English Winter, was bombarded by Lillee and Thomson at their most ferocious;
- I was in awe as Roy Fredericks and Clive Lloyd pulverised Lillee, Thomson and Max Walker for 300 between them before Andy Roberts destroyed Australia with 7-54;
- I saw another 41 year old, Bobby Simpson, graft 176 to help Australia to a pulsating 2 wicket victory against India, with 22 balls to spare;
- I watched as Botham took 11 wickets in a losing cause in the match where Lillee had his silliest moment, with the aluminium bat;
and so on….
I even got to see some great football matches there, when the West Coast Eagles used it. It was a great place for watching football, but I guess it didn’t hold enough spectators, and God knows what the curator thought of the way they ploughed up the square. I even saw a very ordinary Rolling Stones gig there in 1973 – NOT a good concert venue!
In the Beginning……
Perth was SO proud of itself when it got its first test in 1970. With a population of just 750,000 (now 2m), Perth has sometimes been described as a city with a well balanced approach to life, as a result of having equally large chips on both shoulders. Here was a chance to prove that Perth was the equal of any other Australian city! $400,000 was raised, partly by public subscription, to improve facilities, and they constructed, not very well, the “Test Stand”, later to be renamed, very appropriately, after John Inverarity. It was basically a concrete edifice, where many of the seats were still in the sun for a lot of the day, but it was a “proper” stand nonetheless. There was something of a carnival atmosphere around this very special occasion, and Perth went on an orgy of self congratulation. Crowds totaled 84,142, almost twice the crowd in Brisbane, and gate receipts were three times those of Brisbane at $106,748. (that’s an average of $1.27 per head, or $14 in today’s terms!) And everyone was extraordinarily pleased with themselves. Never mind that the pitch was dead, leading to a predictable draw – it at least enabled the celebration to last a full six days (remember the good old rest days?)!
For all the new fangled development, though, the WACA retained a very real character and charm. Those of us coming from the city would approach (and still do) through the beautiful tranquility of Queens Gardens, and enter into an arena where the predominant colour was green. There were plenty of grassy banks, and the terraced benches were on grass rather than concrete. Between what is now the Lillee-Marsh Stand and the scoreboard, there were plenty of terraced wooden benches under corrugated iron roofing, which provided a great view and plenty of shade on a hot day, at an excellent price. On many a day I recall my young children happily playing in the dirt, consuming the sandwiches and cordial we took in, with the occasional, reasonably priced, ice cream. A good cheap day out, it was. The beer prices were affordable, perhaps too affordable, judging by the state of some of the barrackers, but there was always a friendly, good natured atmosphere about it all. I LOVED those days, before work and family responsibilities dragged me away and left it all a distant memory.
….and in the End
Perth has changed. Cricket has changed. WE have changed. And, by God, how the WACA has changed!
Apart from the historic scoreboard, and the badly-aligned Inverarity Stand, not much remains of the “old” WACA, least of all its friendly, welcoming atmosphere. Despite a few token patches of grass, it’s basically a concrete and plastic heat sink. Gone is the charm and easy-going mood, and the cheap shaded seats. I considered going to this last test against New Zealand, I really did. But the prospect of sitting in sweaty plastic seats (give me wooden benches any day) in the very hot sun, with no shade, paying high admission prices, and queuing to pay a ridiculous amount for mediocre food and half strength beer was not attractive. Sitting cool in my comfy armchair, in front of a muted TV, listening to Jim Maxwell, Dirk Nannes and Geoff Lemon on the ABC, while furiously exchanging indignant tweets about every event in the game – that was a much more attractive option. Not the same as being there, I know, but I have become soft and stingy in my old age, and what I saved was enough to buy a good meal AND a great hat from the inimitable and wonderful Guerilla Cricket! I really would have loved to have been there for Kane Williamson‘s sublime century, but I don’t regret my decision!
Yes, there’s been plenty of redevelopment of the WACA in the last 45 years, but what’s there now for me, the ordinary fan? From my perspective, it seems as if the great bulk of the comfort and shade is there for members, corporate sponsors and those with deep pockets. There is a very important word in there: SHADE. If you haven’t come to Perth, let me tell you something about it. It get HOT, very hot. And it’s been getting hotter! It’s two weeks until Summer is meant to start, and last week, for the NZ Test, it was 39° (a century in the old money). That’s nuts!
Meanwhile, we are getting increasingly addicted to our own comfort. In 1970, air conditioned cars were a rarity. These days, I doubt if you can buy a new car without air conditioning. The same in homes. Generally, the heat is not something we are forced to endure any more, especially without shade. UNLESS you go to the outer at the WACA. For some unknown reason, the WACA has failed to spend even a modest amount to provide shade for us plebs. I heard their CEO trying to justify their actions the other day, and my interpretation of what she said was somewhere between “I don’t give a shit”, and “toughen up or pay more”. No wonder the WACA is doomed!
…and that Pitch????
Of course, until last week, there were many bemoaning the loss of the “famous” WACA wicket, with the planned move to the outrageously extravagant Perth Stadium in a couple of years. Like so much in life, memories can be somewhat selective about what the “good old days” actually gave us!
But first, let me look at a few figures:
- Of the 42 Tests played in Perth, 8 were drawn (only 1, an amazing heartstopper against NZ, was close). There were 12 innings victories, and 10 victories by 150 runs or more. Only 2 came anywhere near to close – a 35 run victory and a 2 wicket victory. 12 were over in 4 days, and a remarkable 8 took just 3 days. It’s not a ground of tight finishes. More often than not, one side will completely dominate the other.
- Four of the eight fastest test centuries ever made were at the WACA (Gilchrist, Warner, Gayle and Fredericks). No other ground features more than once in the top 20.
- The WACA was the scene of Australia’s best post war bowling performance (McGrath 8-24) and best ever batting performance (Hayden 380)
So, it’s true that a lot has happened in a short time at the WACA. With just 42 of the almost 2,200 tests played, it’s certainly over-represented in the record books. The outfield was usually lightening fast (though I do recall an occasion when the top dressing made it almost beach-like), so anything snicked through the slips would be at the boundary in a trice.
But it’s also true that, despite all the hype, a lot didn’t happen. That very first test, 45 years ago, saw just 1,224 runs for the loss of 29 wickets, at only 2.4 per 6 ball over (they were 8 ball overs back then). In 1971, I remember, with considerable discomfort, the sight of Bill Lawry taking over 7 hours to grind out 116 against a WA attack of Lillee, McKenzie and Massie. Regrettably, that was the day I had chosen to introduce my new wife to the joys of Shield cricket – she managed to read 7 chapters of her book, and never returned! In 1978, a dour Geoff Boycott managed just 63 runs in a full day’s play. In 1985, five days yielded just 925 runs at just 2.1 runs per over. And finally, of course, there was the road produced for the NZ match last week , which was always destined to produce a draw.
So, it’s not so much a matter of the WACA wicket not being what it used to be, but rather it not being what it sometimes used to be. Frankly, there’s probably a better chance of getting a decent drop-in pitch at the new stadium than there is of the WACA producing the “pace and bounce” we were promised a couple of weeks ago.
So in saying farewell to the WACA, I’m not so much sad as appreciative of what it offered before it tried, rather unsuccessfully, to grow up into a “real” stadium. It’s just not cut out for that, so I just say thanks for the chance to experience something that I will always remember with fondness.
…one last thing… PLEASE WA Cricket Association, don’t try to hold the “smaller” Tests at the WACA. Once the new stadium is available, put all the Tests there – the last thing we want is another fiasco like last week. I would go to the stadium, but not the WACA, and I’m sure I’m not alone. Oh, and stop charging ridiculous entry prices! (Have a look at this great piece by Geoff Lemon)