It all happens at the WACA
The WACA might be the only ground in the world that has a big dispenser of free sunscreen for anybody, preferably everybody, to use. "Apply sunscreen before you go out in the sun," a sign on one of the walls says, under which is a giant two-litre container of sunscreen neatly padlocked away.
There are no automatic glass doors at the WACA that open when they sense someone near them. Last night, I got locked inside, and Graeme Wood, former Western Australia and Australia opener, and now the outgoing chief-executive officer of the WACA, had to come out himself with a key to unlock the gates and let me out.
It is a ground where the advertising logo painted into the grass has to be further behind the stumps than at any other ground so that the wicketkeeper doesn't end up standing on it. It has a pitch on which Geoff Marsh once stuck his bat inside a crack, and watched it stand there without any support. The photograph of that moment sits proudly in the museum. Grounds are often known by a signature wide-angle photograph. The WACA can be identified by its pitch.
On one such cracked-up pitch, Curtly Ambrose took seven wickets for one run in a fearsome spell. Four years later, when he tried to slide his bat in, it got stuck in a crack and he was run out. Tony Greig once lost his key in one of the cracks while doing a pitch report. The Fremantle Doctor - the afternoon sea breeze in Western Australia - is famous in the rest of the cricketing world because of this ground. It is, however, the wind from the desert, of a drier variety, that has the most impact on the cricket. It is that wind that helps the ball swing. No amount of wind can take away the flies, though. The flies do not swarm around you, and are, in fact, not really visible; but the odd fly somehow finds a way to keep pestering you.
The big scoreboard at the ground lists an all-time Western Australian XI. Rod Marsh is their wicketkeeper. Not Adam Gilchrist, who makes it to almost every all-time Test XI. Western Australia has given the world some of its most-eccentric characters. The current chief-executive Wood was nicknamed Kamikaze Kid in his playing days because of his manic running between the wickets. Once, after he scored a Test century against West Indies here, Wood, who had been getting criticism for his performances, flipped the Channel 9 commentators the bird.
Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh, two of the greatest Western Australian cricketers, once betted against Australia even when they were playing in the match. Lillee threatened to kick Javed Miandad here. He batted with an aluminium bat here and, incredibly, expressed reluctance to change to a normal one even after the ball seemed to have gone out of shape with a crisp hit that somehow failed to make it to what was a ridiculously long straight boundary back then. The crowd booed as Lillee threw the metal bat away in disgust.
Perth has given us crowds as parochial as its players have been colourful. The late eighties to mid-nineties wasn't a good time for an Australia wicketkeeper to come to Perth. Ian Healy was booed when on Australia duty, Adam Gilchrist given a harsh welcome when he moved to Western Australia. The fans at Perth believed that spot belonged to Tim Zoehrer, a cult figure here, and considered by many to be the best keeper to fast bowling in Australia in his time.
It is a struggle to retain the idiosyncrasies of the WACA. Trinity School, opposite the WACA, produced Zoehrer and Simon Katich. The practice pitches are situated between the WACA and the school. At the end of this cricket season, a road will be built that will cause the WACA to lose some of its practice pitches.
It is a wonder that the WACA has escaped the corporatism of Cricket Australia. Unlike the SCG, the grass banks have stayed. The floodlight towers don't look attractive but they do their job. It is here that I finally found a proper cricket hat - the "Greg Chappell one" they call it here - with no sponsor names on it. There is less concrete and more character. "It's an aged stadium," Wood says. "It's hard to maintain. The ICC and Cricket Australia requirements to host international games are getting tougher and tougher to meet. You guys [journalists] are growing in number. For the World Cup [in 2015] we will have to have an additional facility. That's an ongoing battle, certainly something that keeps us busy. The WACA is renowned worldwide. We hope to continue playing Test cricket here."
Much tougher than keeping the facilities up to scratch has been retaining the characteristics of the pitch. The soil that causes the kiss-off bounce is rare. It comes from the banks of the Harvey River in Waroona and is running out. The pitches in the early 2000s made the WACA look like an old wrestler trying to live off the stories of his badass days, sort of the way Scott Hall, or Razor Ramon, is now by featuring in a documentary about his life.
For the WACA, though, things are slowly returning to the way they were. Cameron Sutherland, the pitch curator, has studied soil types, has researched videos of the bad old days of the WACA bounce and collated it with the soil types, and seems to have got a block that promises a lot. The one used during the last Ashes gave Australia reason enough to use four fast bowlers, a decision that was vindicated through a win. In November 2010, on a particularly hot day with a lot of desert wind, a crack in the pitch opened up wide enough for you to fit a hand in, and all hell broke loose in a second XIs game between Western Australia and New South Wales.
The WACA is one of the most idiosyncratic and storied grounds in perhaps the most isolated city of the cricket world. The MCG and SCG lay claim to being the greatest Test venues, but the WACA is the most talked-about Australian ground, at least outside Australia. It is a slap in the face of homogeneity. As Bill Lawry would say, "It's all happening at the WACA." Long may it happen.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo