The preparations for the first-ever Test match at Perth, held during the 1970-71 Ashes, were a communal affair that united the entire state of Western Australia. Money was provided by national and local governments, but the majority of cash raised to fund the renovation of the WACA was raised by public subscriptions, raffles and, in one instance, the sale of a racehorse for $18,000.
England’s preparations for the last Ashes Test to be played at the ground have been rather less uplifting. Despite the Ben Stokes situation and the fallout from Jonny Bairstow’s laddishly silly headbutt of Cameron Bancroft, some members of the team decided to hit the town in Perth for a night out ahead of this week’s Third Test. Ben Duckett, who is touring with the England Lions squad, joined them and — in the very same bar where Bancroft got a faceful of wicket-keeper — ended up pouring beer over James Anderson’s head after an argument.
The incident allegedly happened on the night of a team meeting on team discipline, which is not a brilliant look for the players. Yet having the meeting itself on the very evening the Bairstow Buttgate curfew was lifted seems oddly timed from a management point of view. The ECB Director of Cricket, Andrew Strauss, essentially told a group of schoolboys not to eat sweets on the day he reopened the tuck shop.
Duckett found himself hit with a stinging £1,500 fine, which seemed incredibly harsh to everyone except perhaps Ravindra Jadeja, who would probably pay considerably more to throw cold liquid over his Pushgate nemesis. The young Northants batsman has also been told he must stay out in Australia for the duration of the Lions tour as a specialist drinks carrier, a job which in light of events he seems particularly unsuited for. Yet, however misguided the players may have been, the sight of men in suits at the helm of English cricket trying to remedy cack-handedness with heavy-handedness is one all too familiar.
A far nicer image for the last 47 years of Test cricket has been that hallowed ground in Perth, where England must at least avoid defeat to keep the series alive. The WACA’s imposing floodgates leer over the pitch like futuristic, concrete vipers, but the venue is soon to become the past. In the distance looms the 60,000-capacity Optus Stadium, the Perth venue where England will play the next time they are on an Ashes tour.
It will be a disappointment to many to see a ground that has hosted marquee Tests for nearly half a century resigned to Cricket Australia’s second tier, but the neon pink splendour of the new Adelaide Oval has shown how modernity done well can enhance the game.
This has not been a great Ashes for alliteration, with Damien Fleming’s commentary horror “Avenue of Apprehension” even more of a blight on the ears than some of Graeme Swann’s impersonations of regional accents.
The “WACA wicket” remain two words to rouse the senses, however, and the surface was once so lightning it could give the hurry-up to the most laconic of batsmen. Even Viv Richards was jolted out of his gum-chewing bubble by the combination of two of Western Australia’s finest ever creations: Dennis Lillee and the Perth square.
In recent times the pitch has not had quite the zip it once did, with four of the eight highest ever innings totals at the ground coming in the last five years, with the surface for the 2015 Test versus New Zealand coming in for particular criticism. This reduction in pace has nevertheless not seen a reduction in dominance for Australia in Ashes matches: Won nine, lost one, drawn three will be a record much repeated in the run-up to the first ball, with England’s sole victory coming in 1978 in a match where the hosts were hamstrung by many of the side opting to play in Kerry Packer’s World Series.
On such a lightning surface, the hosts were still not to be sniffed at with Rodney Hogg, a revelation in his first Test series, taking ten wickets in the match and striking centurion David Gower in the throat with a crisp bit of leathery violence.
Another blonde batsman experiencing discomfort has been Australian captain Steve Smith, who admitted he had to take a sleeping pill in the aftermath of his decision not to enforce the follow on during the second Test. His side won the battle comfortably, but England’s bowlers at least inflicted a flesh wound in bowling the hosts for 138, albeit under a floodlit glaze that temporarily turned Adelaide in December into Headingley in late April.
Inexplicably lax in the hosts’ first innings, James Anderson was so on fire during Australia’s second that Duckett could perhaps claim he was undertaking an act of public safety by dousing him in beer. England’s attack leader managed 3-61 in Australia’s first innings in 2010, but the blustery wind of the Fremantle doctor is not necessarily good news for a bowler who thrives on control. Though at least he will hopefully make better use of it than Andrew Flintoff, who as captain in 2006 asked Monty Panesar to bowl to Adam Gilchrist with the breeze heading towards the midwicket boundary. The rest really was history.
Counterintuitive as it sounds, England have good reason to hope the Perth groundsman will prepare a pitch to honour the hyperspeed history of the surface rather than its more docile recent past. They may justifiably fear Australia’s attack — now with Josh Hazlewood bowling not just exquisite line and length but exocets — but their best hope is perhaps a quickfire, low-scoring bloodbath of batsman on both sides.
If the pitch plays anything like those in Brisbane or (daylight) Adelaide, Australia have shown that at crucial junctures they have the 10-15% extra of star quality, judgment, sticking power or spinning-power prowess to win comfortably. Regarding the pace of the pitch, the omens are not good. Mitchell Marsh has been added to the squad and, while the sight of two Marsh brothers in the Australia line-up might once have been a cause for English celebration, at present Shaun is an indispensable linchpin of his nation and his younger sibling there because the wicket is thought to be slow enough to necessitate a fifth bowler.
With perhaps this in mind, Geoffrey Boycott, recently under fire for both his commentary and, rather more bizarrely, his playing-days’ commitment, suggested England must try for a draw. But it seems a forlorn hope they have the batting to drag any game out to a full five days. If they were to do so, or even win, now really would be the time for English cricket’s present day iconic and obdurate opener to revert to type.
Alastair Cook has very little to prove to anyone and has one landmark tour to Australia in 2010-11 to hold up to anyone accusing him of failure because of the two (and nearly a half) modest trips which bracket it. The 2006-07 Ashes may not have been his most productive but it was his daunting first. Within it, he made a second innings 116 at the WACA against Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne, Brett Lee and Stuart Clark, a quartet to trump even the vaunted one Australia have at their disposal right now.
Cook was once accused of staring at his shoes as an off-field farce unfolded around him. England need their square-jawed, square areas hero to recall his successes against the very best and get his chin up if another on-field one is to be avoided. As he heads into his 150th Test he could do worse that rewatch that Perth ton he made in his twelfth. Mitchell Marsh is known as “The Glue” for sticking the Aussie attack together, with his donkey work spells allowing the quickfire bursts of Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc to rotate around him. England would love to have their own far more prestigious batting cement hold firm.
Other tourist issues linger further down the order. Before the Battle of Bristol, it looked like England’s fulcrum of Ben Stokes, Bairstow, Moeen Ali and Chris Woakes might be one of the few areas where they could thwart Australia’s charge.
Now, with this quartet snipped and shuffled to accommodate the Stokes-shaped chasm, Bairstow has been left scrabbling around with the tail as Australia’s quicks steam in. England must surely find a way to move him up a bit, a problem that the management would have had more time to consider had they spent less time fretting over his forehead. Even if he remains at seven, England’s ‘keeper must at least try to put some Australian-style faith in his lower order partners, as his fear of their inability is presently as much of a threat to his own batting as Australia’s attack.
On the matter of confidence, though, an afternoon in Manchester could be said to have been just as damaging to England’s lower order batting — and at times strike bowling — as that night in Bristol. No one can doubt the horror of what Stuart Broad experienced in having his nose broken by Varun Aaron in 2014, and it is unfortunate those around him have never found a way to help him fully overcome the psychological element, despite efforts to do so.
The success of England’s lower order in the last couple of years hid the loss of Broad’s once flamboyant and dangerous batting. Now the fulcrum has been broken up, the secret is exposed in open view. Seeing Broad hopping round nervously as Cummins and Starc use him as target practice, it is hard not to believe these little reminders of his fallibility have no effect on when he walks out to open the bowling usually not long after.
The horse put up for auction to raise funds for the WACA in 1970 was called La Loire, presumably in honour of the majestic stretch of water that runs through France. Unless Cook, Anderson and Broad can collectively conjure up performances reminiscent of their thoroughbred status, England’s already slim Ashes hopes will soon be drowned on the banks of the Swan River, in the valedictory shadow of those no longer futuristic concrete vipers.