It’s not a long walk from either team hotel to the WACA. For the Australians, they have one hill to climb, and then are pretty much at the ground. For England it’s even closer. It would be an idyllic walk through the heavenly Queen’s Gardens.
But if you’re a player, you don’t walk to a Test cricket ground. You’re driven. You just arrive to play some cricket. The WACA isn’t like other grounds. Perth, like Chennai and Dubai, seems to be closer to the sun than other places. It feels like you are part of some alien child’s magnifying-glass torture experiment. The Fremantle doctor seems like a myth most of the time, lazily mentioned by commentators from their air conditioned booths. People think tall bowlers are picked here because of the bounce, but it’s mostly so the batsmen have some shade.
The ground is a throw back to the old Australia; hard, but fair. The footpaths are stained as you walk in. Weird liquids drip on you in old buildings. The toilets are concreted bunkers that smell like a short ball from Mitchell Johnson. The temporary stand near the scoreboard had temporary chairs, and was banned years ago by the Geneva convention. Even the grass banks are too hot for human use on days like this. The entire place was built to test the spectators as much as the players. If there was a Caribbean-style pool at the WACA, it would boil people.
On the field you have the WACA pitch. Which carry by carry, crack by crack is trying to get back to its glory days. One ball from Peter Siddle just jumped away. Johnson’s deliveries tended to punch Brad Haddin’s hands. It’s the same pitch on which Rod Marsh kept wicket with steak in his gloves. Today, that very steak would have cooked after minutes.
Then there are the cracks. Before the Test, the WACA looks virginal, by the end of day two it looks like it’s turning tricks to pay for its habit. The ball has barely kissed anything at the moment. But everyone has seen the Youtube clip of Curtly Ambrose sending a ball under Greg Blewett’s stumps, or even worse, the second XI game where David Warner and Daniel Smith were almost killed.
England chose this surface, and this ground, to play their must-win innings. They did that through constant bad play. Kill or be killed is sort of perfect here. With Kevin Pietersen and Alastair Cook at the crease, it was jumper-punch Test cricket.
Pietersen refused to play a shot. Pietersen refused to run silly singles. Pietersen was stopped from scoring. Cook played Cook. Had a bell rung every time he used the middle of the bat, you would’ve heard it once an hour. The inside of his bat had a magnet, the outside of his bat was in full squirting mode. It wasn’t the non-sweating, lizard god Cook of 2010-11, it was the battling captain trying to save his team.
They toughed, grinded, stuck and ducked. Balls barely missed the outside edge. Near chances veered off the open face through gaps. Catches almost carried. Run-outs seemed only a pause away. Mis-hits dangled in the air. Late swing provided strange noises from fielders. There was saliva dribbling off the chins of the slips.
But they kept fighting. The showman and the office manager. The men who beat India. The players who can change a session, day or Test. The two men who will soon be first and second on England’s all-time scoring list.
Against them was a swarm of bowlers suited to the surface. Johnson eats batsmen here. Ryan Harris finds a good length and strangles it. Siddle, who will run in to bowl through razor wire. And Watson’s gentle-looking dangerous swing.
Clarke used them like it was a T20 game. Changing them at will. Keeping them all fresh, seemingly all the time. To mock England more, the pitch gave seam movement, and the hard cloudless sky still allowed some swing. When the sun, pitch and opposition weren’t enough, Clarke egged the crowd to get behind Johnson as he ran in. Forty-three degrees, 15,000 screaming fans and Mitch’s moustache. It’s a lot to take in.
KP and Cook survived. One playing against muscle memory, the other playing a teeth grinder. It seemed like England had finally won a big battle. Cook was set, KP was in. Maybe the hollow sounding “We’re gonna win 3-2” chants were right.
Then Nathan Lyon came on. It should have been a break, instead it was the end of the partnership. If you are wondering why so many stupid-looking shots are played at the WACA, it’s because you don’t understand the sun, the ground and the pitch. Cook didn’t play the cut shot badly through stupidity or hubris, he did it because of everything that went before it. Not the humiliation at the Gabba or the crushing loss in Adelaide, but 212 minutes of standing out there and playing this in-form, carnivorous side in this mood, in this climate.
Soon after Pietersen was stopped, mocked and changed by Australia, the WACA seemed to get him out as well. When Siddle finally took his wicket he howled like a savage dog over a fresh corpse. That was the WACA scream. Had England survived, had they prospered, had they even just held their own, Siddle would have screamed the same way, but for a different reason.
England thought they had Australia’s measure coming into this series. They were right to think so. This series has been the very opposite of a lovely stroll in the park for England. It’s been a limp through an abattoir being chased by an English-hating, axe-wielding maniac.
Today their best men, trying their hardest, fought as hard as they could. England still lost the day. Tomorrow they walk out into the WACA heat once again.