England beware: Perth has teeth again

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The Independent Online

For twenty years or so, the Waca was the quickest, bounciest pitch in the world. Batsmen used to break out into cold sweats simply thinking about it, which considering the temperatures here at Test match time (36C) took some doing.

Then, as cricket pitches do, it grew weary. It became like most other tracks round the world. The ball still bounced a bit but it did so slowly. To make it different again, it needed some tender loving care. That has come in the shape of Cameron Sutherland, a bright, enthusiastic, young groundsman.

It has been a slow process involving the relaying, indeed the remaking of the block – known in England as the square – and the introduction of a new type of grass. There are real hopes that come tomorrow Perth will be more like its old self again.

Not lightning quick but with enough bounce and carry to persuade the tall fast bowler that it might be worth turning up in the morning. The pitch will not break up but cracks will appear as the match goes on.

The Waca itself is the sort of stadium only a mother could love. It took ages for Western Australia to be granted a Test match and the first took place in 1970-71. It was the second match of the series, nobody knew what to expect and England, under the canny Ray Illingworth, had a plan that they were going to give the Aussies nowt until they saw their chance later in the series.

Only six of the 327 matches have been drawn since. England have won once in 11 attempts, in 1978-79 when they were playing Australia seconds (because their first team had all gone to World Series Cricket) and David Gower scored the first of nine Ashes hundreds. They have lost the last five, the narrowest margin being seven wickets.

But the ground has remained unalluring. It has the merit of being near the centre of the city and the disadvantage of looking like a city-centre development. There are plans to change this but the stands are utilitarian and even the grassy banks look like they could be made of concrete.

Four years ago and indeed eight years ago the ground was the scene of unbridled celebration because Australia had won the Ashes by the end of the match. Indeed, it took them fewer than 11 days of Test cricket spread over three matches in the 2002-03 series (or strictly speaking 2002, because it had not managed to scrape into the new year).

It is different this time. England have a chance of securing the Ashes if they win the match. Victory would put them 2-0 up with two Tests to play and since they hold the Ashes they would keep them whatever happened in Melbourne and Sydney.

The Aussies are painfully aware of this. As Phillip Hughes, their recalled opener, said yesterday: "We know we've got to win this. If we don't the series has gone."

One image above all abides from four years ago. It is not of Adam Gilchrist scoring his 102 from 59 balls and repeatedly striking Monty Panesar back over his head with the aid of the "Fremantle Doctor" – poor old Monty bowling into the wind, one of the greatest strikers the world has seen hitting with it on his home pitch. It is of Gilchrist in the middle later, with his family and friends drinking in the moment on the ground where he had learned his trade. What a happy, touching scene it made and at that moment, whichever side you were on, the Waca looked like the loveliest ground in the world.