It was a Second World War veteran and prisoner of war in Crete, Roy Abbott, who envenomed the WACA. When the venue was accorded Test status in 1970, the cricket association wanted it to stand out. There was a bit of territorial prestige on the line too, of forging an identity. Perth was a perennial laggard behind cities like Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney, whether it was in the belated construction of the rail-line, airport or getting Test status. The city was a stopover, where visiting teams merely disembarked, played a couple of games before heading to the more urbane Sydney and Melbourne for the serious business.
So the then curator hatched an idea, to make it the fastest and bounciest track in the world. He suggested the use of soil from the banks of Harvey-Waroona, some 120 km from Perth, rather than the more convenient banks of the Swan river. “The logic was that since the Swan was closer to the sea, it had more sodium content, and sodium-rich soil doesn’t hold firm underneath, which’s true,” explains Abbott’s latest successor Nathan Saville.
Local old-timers believe it was his war background that made him contemplate such a different method to grab the cricketing world’s eyeballs. “So, the old man wanted to recreate a war-like theatre here. He’s used to bloodshed at war so maybe liked to see blood and broken nose. He is as much as a myth as the ground itself,” says Stephen Seale, an elderly ground attendant.
Like, he used to sleep on the pitch, like he made even his daughter and wife do the chores, he had nightmares of someone burning the pitch, wouldn’t heed to the team management or the captain, never watched a match, quit citing displeasure at the World Series Cup, used to mow the grass with his herd of sheep. The stories, of course, are exaggerated with each retelling, but only embellish the myth of WACA.
Listening to all these stories made Saville, a New South Welshman, nervous when he inherited the historic slice of land from Matt Page, WACA’s last Test curator, last year. “There’s a story ingrained in every blade of grass, there is a story in every signboard and wall. Everybody has a story to tell you. It’s a park of nostalgia,” he says, his eyes rolling all around the stadium.
To his left is the legendary Lillie-Marsh Stand, staring afar the famous Prindiville stand, behind him are imposing floodlights staring down on the crisp, green outfield like a sentinel of time and the old scoreboard, built in 1954 and then shifted in the ‘80s, where on non-match days sit the names of Western Australia’s team of the 20th century.
Some of them proudly adorn various signposts of the rumbling arena. Apart from Lillee and Marsh, John Inverarity has a stand named after him. Kim Hughes has a dressing room and Justin Langer has an elevated platform called Langer’s Loft, besides reminders near every drinking water-taps: “You’re drinking the same water as Langer and Co have.”
Several parts of the stadium are derelict, the paint peeling off and doors creaky. Even the practice strip for the Indian and Australian players barely had the frightening pace or bounce of the past.
Though the ground still fetches the soil from the same riverbed, some of the characteristics have changed, resulting in the strip losing some of its fiendish pace and trampolining bounce. Explains Saville: “It’s a bit like the weather, the characteristics keep changing, and indeed climate has a great impact on the nature of the soil too. This year, it has been very pleasant and not too hot. So this batch of soil could be really good, some say it’s the best we have got in years and the same soil is used at the Optus too.”
This means, Optus, like the WACA of the old, could be mean, fast and brutish. The two ODIs played here give a fair indication of its inherent behaviour — 36 wickets fell and the average score was 205. In the second match, South Africa skittled out Australia for 150-odd runs. Saville then rolls his eye over to Langer’s Loft and beyond, where gleams the sparking new stadium: “That’s the future of WACA.”
But WACA’s story doesn’t end where Optus’s begins. The myth of WACA will keep blowing like the Doctor, through scanty You-tubed footage of Curtly Ambrose ripping through Australia in easily the most frightening spell in cricket, or Michael Holding’s 6-21, or Jeff Thomson’s bouncer flying over Rod Marsh and the ropes, or more recently Ryan Harris trimming the off-bail of Alastair Cook, besides the local folklore.
Like Seale’s description of what he says is the most fiery exhibition of fast bowling he has seen. Of a tails-up Lillee, after Western Australia were bowled out for a meagre 77, skinning Queensland, who were bundled out for 50-odd runs. “They had Viv Richards and Lillee made him look like a Grade-B batsman. He was blowing furiously like the Doctor.”
The Doctor obviously is the Fremantle Doctor, the most mythicised natural phenomenon in sport. The unsuspecting locals can’t get around it though. “The only place where it’s looked negatively at is on the ground. We call it the Doctor for a reason, because it relieves us from the heat, and cures us of skin diseases,” says Seale. Another myth, as one would say.
But the biggest myth of them all is that WACA was always a batsman’s graveyard. Lillee himself chips in: “That was the most forgetful day I had. Roy (Fredericks) made me look like a minion. He hit me all over the place like nobody ever had in my life. I felt so demoralised that day.”
That day was November 12, 1975, when WACA was still envenomed. And the belligerent Fredericks plundered Lillie, Thomson and Gary Gilmour for 169 off 145 balls. Lillee’s dismal figures read: 20-0-123-2. It was also where Adam Gilchrist rattled out a 57-ball hundred, where Matthew Hayden strung the then world record of 380, Michael Slater shellacked 219 against Sri Lanka, and some of the Indian bowlers would remember where David Warner murdered them for 180.
Agrees long-timer Brad Hogg: “You get your eye in and it was a great place to bat. Of course, we had different types of pitches over the years, but it was great for fast bowlers and batsmen,” he says. He doesn’t say spinners because, WACA, despite the ravine-like cracks, never assisted them too much. “It was especially hard when the wind blew to get the drift and direction. And the cracks were more of a psychological put-off for batsmen,” he says. Suffice to say that WACA is the only stadium in Australia where Shane Warne couldn’t pick a five-for in Tests.
It has not always been a pleasant place for the spectators either. The harsh sun not only burned their skins but scorched them, and Perth has one of the highest skin cancer incidents in the world. There, in fact, was a plan to renovate and build new stands, but the romantics of the ground turned cynical. “They said it will take out the charm and romance of the stadium. They didn’t take into account the spectators’ comfort, which was paramount. As always, we were behind Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide,” says Seale.
But the Optus Stadium — despite the delays, cost blowouts and fixing an $70m bridge linking pedestrians to the new venue — offers not only shade from the stringent sun but also a hike in capacity.
Whereas WACA could squeeze in only 23,000-odd, Optus can accommodate 60,000. Among its features are two of the biggest screens in the country, nearly 1,500 TV screens, super-sized seats and clear visibility irrespective of the seat. During its inauguration, former WA skipper Inverarity said in his speech: “It’s evolution. There’s a new stadium and why wouldn’t you play big audience matches there? I feel less concerned than some. The WACA was my life for many years but I think the stadium will be right for the comfort of fans.”
It’s same for the latest Western Australian in the national team, Marcus Harris. “It would have been great to have played at the WACA where it has always been. I remember the first match here, five minutes after I came in, Glenn McGrath took a hat-trick, against the West Indies, I think. Hopefully, I can create some memories for young kids coming to games at the new stadium.” A new stadium, and a whole set of myth waiting to be spun.
What’s the future of the WACA? Will it be mowed down or revamped into a boutique stadium or community centre? Typically, the cricket association is deliberating on the possibilities. The plan, apparently, is to get more public involved, while at the same time hosting Sheffield Shield, domestic one-day, women’s 50-over games and the Women’s Big Bash League.
President Christina Mathews recently gave a blueprint for the future. “We’ll look to build high performance facilities, an indoor centre that can be used when it’s raining, recovery facilities, swimming pool, that all the cricket community can use. At the moment, we’re restricted because of the facilities we’ve got here and the overlay of international cricket. So it’s going to be a brilliant facility for the cricket community and the broader community. We’re open to sharing those facilities with other sports.” Financially crunched as they’re after the Optus Stadium that cost nearly 2 billion dollars. this move, she reckons, will also help the association get more access to the federal fund. Already, they’ve sold three parcels of land to raise $25 million.
But like the romantics, she agrees: “The WACA is irreplaceable.” But the truth is that it’s no longer indispensable. The Optus is shining brightly and symbolically shading over the WACA, even its imposing floodlights. But the WACA has its myths and stories to keep lighting it up for several generations.