(Photo: Getty Images)
By Chris Stocks
It was entirely fitting that the opening day of the final Ashes Test at the WACA was played under blue skies and in scorching heat.
This is a part of the world where the climate is harsh and for England, who have won here only once, the results are usually even harsher.
This ground is certainly not a thing of beauty. The 70-metre-high concrete floodlight pylons, installed in 1986 and, as is mandatory, must always be referred to as ‘iconic’, are ugly.
The rest of the WACA, a mix of concrete, corrugated iron and grass banks, is much the same.
However, this is a proper cricket venue – unique, atmospheric and boisterous.
To think England will never play another Test here again is sad, even if their dismal record – which before this match read played 13, won one, drawn three and lost nine – will not be missed.
The WACA will still host Test cricket but from next year the big three drawcards of India, South Africa and England will play Australia at the new 60,000-capacity Perth Stadium, which lies just across the Swan River within sight of the old ground.
Australia captain Steve Smith, speaking on the eve of the third Ashes Test, said: “It’s been a pretty special ground for a long period of time and we’ve always liked playing here. It’ll be nice to end things on a really good note for us here.”
If the new stadium represents progress, it will miss key components of what makes the WACA so special. The pitch at this venue has been derided as relatively slow and flat over the past few years after once being regarded as the fastest and bounciest in the world.
Although the Perth Stadium, which hosts its first international during England’s ODI series against Australia next month, will try and recreate ‘typical’ WACA surfaces, the fact it will have drop-in pitches means they will never truly be the same.
The other unique feature of the WACA – the Fremantle Doctor – will also be absent from Perth Stadium, namely because the famous westerly breeze that provides relief from the heat and assistance to seam bowlers will be unable to penetrate the bowl that is the new ground.
So, while there will undoubtedly be an upgrade in comfort at the new stadium, there will also be a distinct loss of character.
Walking around the WACA on day one, it was impossible to dismiss what a great place this is to watch cricket. Flanked by two grass banks on either side of the pitch, are the hotch-potch collection of stands – the Inverarity, Prindiville and Lillee-Marsh.
Shade here is a luxury afforded to the few, not the many. But as people busily apply the free industrial-strength sunscreen to protect themselves from the blazing heat, make their way around the concourse that encircles the whole venue or simply watch the cricket, there is a buzz and a background din that is unique to the WACA.
The smell too – suntan lotion, beer, burgers and heat coming off concrete – is also unlike any other venue in the world.
Despite the fact cricket has been played here since 1890 – the first pitch laid by an English gardener named William Henry Wise – Perth is actually a relatively new international venue. The first Test here was only played back in 1970, when England were the visitors.
It has changed a lot since then – the last redevelopment coming in 2002 – but as Geoffrey Boycott, who played in that maiden Test recalls, it was an eyesore back then, too.
“It looked like a desert,” he said. “There were no stands, but the pitch was good and quick. The ground itself wasn’t pleasing on the eye.”
Test cricket came so late to Perth chiefly because the logistics of staging a match here before the advent of air travel was simply too challenging. Western Australia has always been out on a limb from the rest of the country.
Yet they are right in step with the global move away from traditional sports venues and towards characterless, identikit stadiums.
It is sad but at least this series has provided people with one last chance to witness Ashes cricket at a proper cricket ground.
The WACA is by no means perfect. But its many imperfections are, in truth, what makes this such a special place.
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