It was not Sachin Tendulkar who made the WACA famous. But en route to what is acclaimed as his finest hundred — among 99 other three-figure scores — he did make the ground famous in the subcontinent. Thereafter, a norm formed itself that for any batsman from the subcontinent to establish or ascertain his worthiness, he had to not only pass the Australia barrier but also surmount the wicked bounce and pace, besides the snarling intimidators and the sapping heat the old WACA afforded. And lest we forget, the Fremantle Doctor, perhaps the most globally known local weather phenomenon. To emerge unscathed, both in mind and body, was a gold-standard of sorts, an examination of technique and temperament every budding cricketer aspired to come out successfully.
That Sunil Gavaskar and Tendulkar are the only Indians to have whittled out Test hundreds puts this in perspective. “It’s always very challenging to play here, probably most difficult condition any batsman will come through. It’s a real test for batsmen,” confided VVS Laxman, whose best moment under the Perth sun was the 79 he made in the second innings in that fortress-breaching effort in 2008.
As historic as it gets, Rohit Sharma became the first Indian to notch up an ODI hundred here, though recent WACA surfaces have been defanged of its heyday caprice and its halo diminished. In the end, it came for a losing cause, but that doesn’t deflect the relevance of the knock, another glowing proof that Rohit has lifted his game to a further level, justifying his much-hyped gifts. And it could still turn out to be a defining knock of his career, though it might sound heretical for a man who already has two ODI double hundreds to his name.
In several ways, Rohit’s approach was different, as he shelved his abrasive instincts in patches, though it proved a little counter-intuitive in the final summing up of the contest. The track required some more intent — no wonder ODI cricket on flat tracks does seem a bit dull these days. What’s the fun in watching men play stickcricket in the actual world?
Should this team with experienced batsmen know better? Should Rohit, who is used to starting a touch sedate — normally he reaches his fifty from say around 65-70, and here too he was on 50 in 63 balls — change his game? But wouldn’t that tinker around with what has worked for him so far? These aren’t easy decisions. Sometimes it comes from an individual. At other times, it has to be pushed top-down, but that can only happen if they are convinced about the need for such a change.
Last name on honours’ board
His methods will polarise opinions, but the fact remains his will be the last Indian name on the Perth honours’ board. For, Western Australian Cricket Association has decided to bury the WACA legacy and construct a new ground at Burswood, bigger (60,000-seater) and more spectator-friendly as modern standards demand, a pragmatic decision perhaps borne out by the lure of the lucre than preserving a grand tradition. Also, un-roofed as most part of this stadium is, the spectators had little reprieve from the heat in summers. A lame logic, as the WACA was uncovered since its inception, and still has spectators teeming in.
So hereafter, the tier-one teams — India, South Africa and England — will play at the new ground, built at an estimated cost of $1.2 billion, scheduled to be fully functional in a couple of years’ time. The WACA will host only Sheffield matches and international matches not involving the marquee sides.
But the Indian audience, though they were more often that not flogged here, would have warm memories of the WACA. Maybe not Gavaskar’s 127, coming at a time when cricket wasn’t yet a rage in the country, against a World Series-defected Australia. But certainly Tendulkar’s 114, the 2008 Test, and even that low-scoring thriller against the West Indies in 1992, would stoke up pleasant memories. “There have been great contests here. I hope the new ground has similar kind of pitches,” Laxman hoped.
Rolled into the hard-baked WACA baize are stories, and more stories. There’s the legend of Jeff Thomson’s bouncer that thudded onto the sight-screen on one bounce. There’s Roy Fredericks eviscerating the collective menace of Dennis Lillee and Thomson. There’s Javed Miandad enraging Lillee to kick him. There’s Curtly Ambrose grimacing and scything through the dazed Australian batsmen. Or Andy Roberts in 1975, his fellow collaborator Michael Holding in 1984, or his successor Ian Bishop a decade later. Or to pick from recent vignettes, Mitchell Johnson shellacking the English batsmen or Mitchell Starc raking up 160.4 kmph, the fastest recorded delivery in Tests, against New Zealand.
It must have been sheer happenstance than Johnson — who attended the match today — played his farewell Test at the WACA, but it was nonetheless fitting, in that he was insanely prolific here, nabbing 45 wickets at 22.77 and stirring fear in batsmen. Hence, his affection for the track is understandable. “Most teams would say the same thing, it’s a great place to play cricket. I’m sad, but there’s not much we can do about it as players except to go out there and try to enjoy the games. It’s disappointing but at the same time there’s a new stadium that’s being built and that is going to hopefully bring more people to the game,” Johnson had said.
But in the last decade or so, the ground had copped criticism for losing its fabled sting. The last Test here produced 1672 runs for just 28 wickets, while producing the second and third highest scores here. On Tuesday, nearly more than 600 runs were racked up, three batsmen scored hundreds, leaving Mahendra Singh Dhoni surprised. “It was a slightly unusual wicket. Perth is not a place where you get very high-scoring games. The average score tends to be 250-270 runs. But this was a very good wicket (for batting). Definitely, there was a bit of pace for the bowlers, which meant the batsmen can play the shots. But it was not like a quick Perth wicket. it was slightly slower than a normal Perth wicket,” he said.
It might be that we may never see a true WACA flier again. A new yardstick has to be set and fresher narratives to be weaved in. The stories, though, will live on, acquiring perhaps more warmth.