Ashes 2013/14 third Test: Is Waca on the way out?

Fast bowlers’ dream patch is Australia’s only cricket-only oval and as such is struggling financially
  • @stephenbrenkley

The Waca is the last cricket ground in Australia. That is a patent untruth, of course, since there remain customised ovals studded around the unlikeliest outback places. But it is the only big-time cricket field still going.

All its eastern cousins – Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide – are a hostage to the fortune that Aussie Rules footy can bring. As a marketing force, a brand, or rather a rebrand whose style matters much more than its substance, the Australian Football League (AFL) is the rival of the English Premier League.

The Waca is charmingly shabby, in dire need of rather more than a coat of paint. But rather like Western Australia itself, the stadium stands alone. That may not be for much longer. Unless it can fund a proposed redevelopment with a block of luxury apartments, it may no longer stage big cricket matches, and if it no longer stages big cricket matches the small ones may have to go as well.

Its reputation is solidly built on being the fastest, bounciest, scariest pitch on earth. There have been some rousing contests there, not least when West Indies were in their pomp and their fast bowlers, from Andy Roberts to Curtly Ambrose via Malcolm Marshall, Michael Holding and Patrick Patterson, all enjoyed themselves thoroughly. That reputation has diminished slightly since its pomp during the 1980s and early 1990s but it seems about to be restored.

Christina Matthews, the Waca’s chief executive, said: “We have a meeting on 19 December which looks at all the conditions that need to be in place for us to go ahead with our project before the World Cup next year [in Australia and New Zealand in February and March 2015]. We’re a little bit short at the moment but sales have been going well since we started marketing again a few weeks ago.”

Perth has been a boom town for the past 10 years, fuelled by huge sales of iron ore to China. The population has increased by almost a quarter. The Gardens development, the block of apartments overlooking the Waca, which was meant to pay for the revamp, has suffered from a slight downturn in the economy at precisely the wrong time.

A former Australia women’s international, Matthews added: “One of the great things is that it is a cricket-owned ground, but in terms of content it makes it difficult. You want to be operating all year round for commercial reasons but also for the infrastructure, which needs to be operating all the time.”

Big-time Aussie Rules was played at the Waca until 2000 but the two AFL teams moved out to their own stadiums, leaving cricket to fight a lone battle. Matthews hopes to secure an alliance with an AFL feeder league, the WA Football League. But cricket, unlike at other ovals, will remain the driving force.

The cause has not been helped by the loss of a Test match next year, for the first time in four decades. Because the World Cup is being staged in Australia, only four Test matches are being played – all of them awarded to the east coast grounds.

Matthews said: “There is no doubt that when they decided not to have a Test match here next year it was disappointing for a couple of reasons. We’re the only cricket-owned ground in the country and we have a cricket membership of 8,000 people.

“All the money that is made at this ground goes back into this game, which is not the case at places like The Gabba. So that was the disappointing aspect for us and we’ll just keep working with Cricket Australia on how to bring the best cricket games to WA.”

She insists it is a one-off and that Cricket Australia has guaranteed international cricket at the ground until 2020.

But CA is also known to be unhappy about the small capacity at the Waca, 24,500, because it has said so.

The stadium was opened in 1895, with its first Test match in 1970 (a draw between Australia and England, with the tourists’ opener Brian Luckhurst scoring the ground’s first hundred). Matthews is now under pressure in her own backyard.

A new 60,000-seater sports stadium is being built in the Burswood area of the city and the Western Australia state government’s sports minister, Terry Waldron, said this week that he expected all major cricket matches to be played there. It was not what Matthews wanted to hear and, as she pointed out, that is five years away and a lot can happen in five years.

Matthews said: “There’s no doubt that the pitch and the outfield are iconic. We are upgrading things so that people have a better experience than just sitting in a hot seat watching the game.

“We’re really focused on making it more like an English ground so the experience of coming here is what people are after. We can only do our best and see how we go.”

She will know that English grounds such as Trent Bridge, Old Trafford and Headingley had to rebuild to survive. The Waca has no option.

Bairstow shows his Test credentials

Jonny Bairstow scored a century to help the England Performance XI to chase down a target of 347 against Western Australia Second XI in Perth.

Bairstow and Gary Ballance were made available from the Ashes squad for the fixture. The Yorkshireman, who was promoted to open the batting, responded with 123. He shared a stand of 144 with James Vince (69) as the visitors reached 348 for 6 to win their final tour match with two overs to spare.

Meanwhile, the England seamer Kate Cross, who has been called up for the Ashes in the new year, hopes a successful defence will strengthen the case for England players to be awarded central contracts.

In May, Cricket Australia agreed to pay its women cricketers Aus$70,000 (£40,000) a year. “Technically they’re full-time, and we’re not quite there with the ECB yet, but it’s going in the right direction,” the 22-year-old told BBC Radio Manchester.