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Saturday, September 25, 2010

Ashes 2010/11- Perth cricket ground

After having a look at cricket grounds in Brisbane and Adelaide, let us think about the Perth cricket ground, or as famously known as WACA.  Just like Brisbane and Adelaide, the WACA has got its own charm. Test cricket has been played on this ground only since 1970, but with factors like fremantle doctor, the pitch being hard with bowlers getting pace and bounce which in turn, would test a batsman's technique and his temperament makes watching cricket at Perth a worthwhile proposition.

History

If we look at the history of Perth cricket ground, it can be seen that cricket was played for the first time on a turf wicket way back in 1894, but due to lack of connectivity meant that test cricket wasn't played till 1970. Yes, as the years went by, trans-continental railway was built yet it took days to travel to Perth. It was only after flights were introduced that WACA really became an part of the Australian cricket community. Since test cricket has been played, many quick bowlers  have enjoyed the pace and bounce at Perth and have taken plenty of wickets. A few batsmen also have been forced to visit the hospital with a broken nose or a cut in the face.

With the WACA ground being used as a multipurpose stadium as the ground was used even for AFL, soccer and other sports, it was upgraded in the 80's and 90's. Now though, AFL have shifted their venue from WACA which has led to a financial crisis for the association and as a result, they have reduced the playing area and grass hills have replaced the seats.

Conditions at WACA

The uniqueness of WACA is well known as it is famous for offering quick bowlers pace and bounce. Throughout the 70's, 80's as well as 90's, fast bowlers like Lillee, Thomson, McGrath, Hughes, Ambrose, Walsh, Bishop, Marshall, Holding and co. or let it be swing bowlers like Alderman, Fleming and WA swing bowler Bayhem have all enjoyed bowling on the Perth strip.

In-fact, when I started watching cricket in the 90's, quick bowlers didn't just had the pleasure of bowling on the quickest wicket  in the world, but they also could exploit the cracks that would open up on the fourth and fifth day because of extreme heat. I wasn't able to watch Ambrose running amok in the first innings at Perth in 92/93, when he took seven wickets for just one run in a spell, nor Bishop's efforts in the second innings of the same match. In 96/97 though, I was able to watch the same pace quartet of Ambrose, Walsh and Bishop use their height to advantage by destroying the formidable Aussie batting line-up by hitting those wide cracks that had opened up. I do remember especially, Walsh deliberately bowling short to aim at the cracks that had opened up and poor Australian batsmen were all at sea against the giants from West Indies! It wasn't just great bowlers, who exploited the tendency of the pitch to crack up,  but even the unheralded seamer from New South Wales, Simon Cook from nowhere roasted the Kiwi batting line-up the very next year, by taking advantage of those cracks that had opened up.

In recent times though, the track has flattened out and unfortunately it has become more of a batting paradise. At the beginning of the century, it was still quick, which can be seen by Brett Lee terrorising England's batsmen in the 2002 Ashes with Tudor becoming another victim of the pace and bounce on the pitch as he was hit on the helmet by Lee and had to be carried off the field on a stretcher. In 2005/06 though, the pitch for the first time looked really flat as after giving a bit of assistance to the seamers on the first two days, the pitch got so flat that on the final day Australian bowlers could only get three wickets as the Saffers escaped with a draw. Worse was yet to come as in 2008/09, Saffers this time around were able to go one better as they defeated Australia by chasing down a target in excess of 400. It perhaps left Punter wondering what has happened to the famous WACA pitch. In between, Indian swing bowlers like RP Singh and Pathan had some success in 2007/08, but it was mainly due to the advise they received from Lillee regarding the fremantle doctor which helped the Indian bowlers to swing the ball.

The WACA ground which was built on a old swamp suddenly came under heavy criticism from former players like Lillee and Alderman as it was losing its uniqueness, but the curator Sutherland has promised that pace and bounce would return back at WACA. In recent times, they have imported clay from a place called Waroona to bring back the pace and bounce, though the jury is still out on whether it would work. The recent test match against West Indies and a few T/20 internationals played on the ground does show that Sutherland to an extent may have succeed in his endavour as one could find a bit more carry for the quick bowlers during those matches.

Fremantle doctor 

One of the interesting aspects at the WACA is the breeze which is famously known as fremantle doctor.  The breeze which occurs in the South West coastal areas of Western Australia brings some relief during the summer season. So a question maybe asked regarding  what is the connection between the fremantle doctor and cricket? The fact of the matter is in the past, bowlers like Lillee,  Bishop, Ambrose, Thomson, McGrath, McKenzie, Kasper, Alderman, Massie, Fleming and the WA bowler Brayshaw have all been successful by choosing the right ends at the ground.

I am not an meteorologist or someone with extensive local knowledge to have an in-depth knowledge about fremantle doctor, but the general thinking is, with the wind blowing from south-west, swing bowlers would look at bowling into the wind, so that they can get it to hoop and curve in the air and taller hit the pitch bowlers, would bowl with the wind behind them. Alderman was superb at using it to swing the ball and Brayshaw used it to great effect by taking a 10 wicket haul against Victoria in a Sheffield Shield match in 1967. On the other hand, the one and only Curtly Ambrose is said to have bowled with the wind behind him and annihilated the Australian batting line-up by taking 7 for 1 in a spell in 92/93. There is also a thinking that in the morning an easterly wind can occasionally come into play which just shows that it is very important for any team to knowabout the  fremantle doctor. It isn't just quicker bowlers, who can use it to their advantage, but even finger spinners can exploit it by bowling into the breeze. I have heard a few saying that nowadays it doesn't play an huge part in the outcome of a game because the dimensions of the ground have changed yet, it is important especially, for the visiting teams to know about the Doctor!

Australia at Perth

With Australia having produced quick bowlers like  Lillee, Thomson, McGrath and swing bowlers like Alderman, Massie and Fleming in their ranks, they have been able to dominate at Perth. In-fact, just like Brisbane, WACA was like a fortress for the Aussies. The only team that used to dominate the Aussies at Perth was the great Windies  side, who won all their first six matches at the ground which includes four victories by an innings!

Australia's domination at the venue can be seen by the fact that between 1990 to 2000, they won seven of the ten matches that were played at Perth. As expected, two of their losses came against an West Indies side which was still an force to reckon with and  they drew one match against Kiwis, who escaped from a certain defeat thanks to their captain Martin Crowe's battling knock. Actually, Crowe played with what can be said as one leg as he was suffering from a chronic knee injury.

Even between 2000 to 2009, their record has been great as they have won six out of ten games with two losses and two draws, but if I just scratch the surface beneath it I can see some cracks as teams like India and South Africa with pace attacks nowhere as good as the mighty West Indies sides of 80's were able to defeat Australia and in 05/06, Saffers were able to escape from a certain defeat.  I can even remember the Kiwis almost winning a match in 01/02.

The present bowling attack of Australia should do well at Perth as they have all the bases covered with Hilfy and Bollinger being the swing bowlers and Siddle as well as Johnson being the bowlers, who will look to hit the pitch hard. Hauritz is a steady bowler, who should do slightly better than Warne and I am not drunk as finger spinners usually do get a bit more success than wrist spinners at Perth.  It can be proved by the fact that Sheikh of tweak got his wickets at Perth at a cost of more than 35.

Australian batsmen have always enjoyed batting at Perth as they are good at playing horizontal bat shots and this time too it shouldn't be any different. For instance, who can forget Ricky Ponting's superb knock against a pace attack consisting of bowlers like Akram, Akthar and Saqlain in 99/00. He came in with Australia in a spot of bother as they had lost four quick wickets  and played an majestic knock. I can't remember the number of times the ball went scurrying to the boundary as Pakistan's fielders were sent on a leather hunt. Australian fans would wish for something similar from Punter, though it has to be said that he isn't getting any younger and his recent form hasn't been anything to write home about. Leave alone Punter, as batsmen like Hussey and Katich have played lots of matches for WA at Perth and have loads of experience of playing on that track.

 England at Perth

With Australia being so dominant at Perth, it is on expected lines that England have got crushed every-time they have played at WACA since 1990.  Since 1990, England have played five times at Perth and every-time Australia have pummelled England into submission, but this time around with Australia being not as strong as they used to be and England having a decent pace attack, the story can be a little bit different.

I would be interested to see how England's pace attack would bowl at Perth. It would be vital for Jimmy Anderson to bowl from the right end as he can make use of the fremantle doctor to get swing. If he is going to bowl into the wind, it would be important that he cuts down on pace and looks mainly for swing. In the past, I have seen a few quicker bowlers from visiting teams talk about how tough it is to bowl into the wind, so it won't be easy for Anderson. Taller quickies like Finn and Broad may operate with the wind behind them. The onus would be on Saker as he has the task of guiding the young pace attack to choose  the right ends.

England shouldn't even mind about asking Lillee for advise as he has bowled a lot at the WACA and knows every minute detail about the fremantle doctor. After all, it was Lillee who plotted the downfall of the Australian side in 07/08 by passing on valuable tips to his one time student at the MRF pace academy and  India's bowling coach Prasad about the fremantle doctor. It surely helped Indian swing bowlers as they took vital wickets to help India to a famous victory at WACA. Strauss also has the advantage of having a world class spinner like Swann in his side. Actually, it is the first time since I started taking interest in cricket that I can remember England having the better spinner. Just like Hauritz, Swann too would look to use the breeze to his advantage.

In the past, England's batsmen have always been troubled by the extra bounce at WACA, but with the pitch not having as much bounce as it used to, they can look to fare better this time around. All of England's batsmen,  should still expect the Aussies to come hard at them and really look to playing horizontal bat shots to counter the Australian pace attack.

As far as the toss is concerned, I am sure if Strauss wins the toss, he would elect to bat first, though the team shouldn't be disheartened if Strauss loses the toss as if there would be something in the pitch, it would be on the first morning of the first day. One can remember England dismissing Australia for a paltry score of just over 200 in the last Ashes series, though leaving KP,  England's batsmen came a cropper and were bowled out cheaply. In 05/06, Saffers were able to dismiss Australia cheaply and even in 08/09, Australia found themselves in a spot of bother as they were reduced to 16 for 4 by the Saffer pace attack. It just shows that there would be something for the bowlers on the first day.

Finally I just hope that if not this year, at least in the future we would see pace and bounce returning back to Perth. In the past, every cricket fan  used to look forward to seeing a game at Perth as it was like watching a boxing match between Frazer and Ali as with the track having pace and bounce, quick bowlers could challenge the batsmen who in turn, would have to play shots like the pull,hook and cut to survive. 

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