'I just want to give you some advice about batting at the WACA'
"Hey chum. You got a moment?"
When a player of Murray Goodwin's quality calls you over you don't hesitate.
"Sure Muzz." I responded. It was February 2005. Subiaco-Floreat and Joondalup were about to play a day-night 50-over Western Australian first grade Sunday League Final at the WACA. It was twenty minutes before the first ball and we, Subiaco-Floreat, had won the toss and elected to bat. I was opening the batting, and Goodwin was batting three.
"Now chum, I just wanted to give you some advice about batting at the WACA." Goodwin's distinctive Rhodesian twang always made me laugh, but not on this occasion. Aged 19, it was my first senior final and I was nervous.
"Put your cover drive away early. The extra bounce out here means you can nick a lot of balls trying to drive through cover or away from your body. The nicks are always caught here chum. You can leave those early. Scoring happens naturally here anyway," he said assertively.
Put the cover drive away early. Check.
"Try and hit the sightscreens. The boundaries are shortest there and presenting the full face and using the pace and bounce out here will give you great value."
Hit the sightscreens. I nodded. Check.
"If you get width, chum, cut with the horizontal bat only. Cut hard to the alleys. Lots of runs to be had on the cut shot here. The ball flies down there. You won't be caught," Murray said with a smile.
Easy for you to say Muzz, I thought. Goodwin was one of the best cutters in the world. His three Test hundreds and 67 first-class hundreds for mainly WA and Sussex were testament to that. This was just my 11th first grade game.
"When you pull, chum, make sure you don't take on balls outside your eye-line or above your head. The extra pace and bounce make it really tough to control here."
I took special note of that. This was not an U19 attack. Their opening quicks were both in the WA senior squad.
"Be sharp on your feet. Get as far forward or back as possible. And most of all chum, enjoy batting here. It is a great place to bat if you follow the rules."
With that he turned and headed up the race.
For the record I made 11, in an opening stand of 51, and we won easily. But Goodwin was right. My only two boundaries were straight drives to the sightscreen. One a check-driven half volley, the other a defensive push with the full face that bounced off the rock hard pitch, over the bowler's head and raced away down the hill. I got out breaking Goodwin's rule too. I fell across a slippery inswinger from former South African left-arm all-rounder Mike Rindel. I was dead LBW trying to whip through midwicket rather than driving straight. Murray didn't have time to say "I told you so" when we passed at the gate, but he didn't need to.
I am one of the fortunate few, without ever having reached first-class ranks, to have played a decent amount of cricket at one of the world's great Test venues, the WACA. And although I failed in my first attempt, Goodwin's Gospel was imprinted in my mind from that day forward, and has held me great stead for more team and individual success at the ground in the years since albeit at grade level only.
I have been lucky enough to play at Adelaide Oval too. But a Perth background didn't help me at all there. My penchant to let a lot of balls go, drive straight and pull anything short, yielded me two infuriatingly ineffective scores across a total of five hours of batting in a losing four-day game.
The contrast between the two venues is stark. It is an adjustment the Test players have to make in three days. In Adelaide you can, and almost have to play at everything. Outside of the new ball, it is difficult to be nicked out. The wicket is so even, so placid, and so devoid of sideways movement that a good eye, sharp hands and simple footwork will bail you out of any trouble. The boundaries square are tiny and you can manoeuvre the ball with the vertical bat, off both feet, with impunity. Once you're in in Adelaide, it is difficult to get out.
The WACA is the complete opposite in every way. Playing the Adelaide way in Perth will guarantee slips catching practice for the fielding side as Goodwin espoused. No matter how well you're going in Perth if you break the rules, your day will end as quickly as it started.
The WACA wicket has varied though down the years and even across the breadth of the square. I have played on some quintessential WACA wickets. Rock hard, shiny white, lightning quick, with long snake cracks and a thin even covering of grass that made for a superb contest between bat and ball. Break Goodwin's rules and you would be sitting and watching from the sheds. But if you followed the rules and bowlers erred, runs flow with incredible ease.
There is no doubting that grade cricket is at least two rungs, plus change, below Test cricket, but these tracks are reminders of those that hosted some of the great moments in Test history at the ground. Doug Walters battle with Bob Willis in 1974. Roy Fredericks and Clive Lloyd against Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson in 1975. Ian Chappell squaring off to Michael Holding and Andy Roberts in the same game. Ricky Ponting's tete-a-tete with Shoaib Ahktar in 1999. Five fearless batsmen with peerless hook shots that took on six of the fastest bowlers of all-time and won. These too are the tracks that caused bodily harm. David Lloyd, Brian Luckhurst, and Colin Cowdry still wince at the thought of Thomson downwind in Perth. Geoff Lawson's broken jaw at the hands of Curtly Ambrose made a louder crack than any well struck hook shot at the ground. You feared for Alex Tudor's life when he was struck on the temple by Brett Lee in December 2002. Even Kemar Roach made "mince meat" of Ponting's elbow here.
The wickets on the scoreboard or eastern side are very placid and a touch two-paced by comparison. They are still quicker than most wickets around the world but the bounce is more tennis ball than turbo-charged. These are the wickets that have yielded WACA run-feasts and have seen no-one get out. The wickets where Ian Redpath, Geoff Boycott and Jacques Rudolph camped out for days. Where four New Zealanders made centuries in an innings. Where South Africa created history by chasing 414 to win with ease, and where Australia made 527 for 5 in 112 overs during their Ashes demolition of 2006-07.
The wickets on the western side of the square are often lush with grass and sickly green. The sideways movement has never abated no matter how long the game lasted. These are the wickets where we have seen Test matches completed inside three days. These are the games where luck, more than skill, decides your fate.
But no matter the type of WACA surface that is provided, the Goodwin Gospel always applies. The players that have succeeded here have all followed the rules. Leave well, drive straight, and play horizontally and powerfully with quick feet off the back foot. Some have done it in different ways. There are the violent blitzkriegs of Walters, Fredericks, Richards, Gilchrist, and Warner last year. Then there are the technical masterpieces of Tendulkar, Ponting, Chappell and Michael Hussey.
No player has exemplified WACA batting better than Hussey. No real surprise given he knows the ground intimately. In 13 Test innings here he has reached 50 six times, and has two hundreds which would rank high among his favourite innings ever played. But the best I saw from him was not his 103 in the second innings of that 2006 Test against England. It was his 74 unbeaten in the first in a total of just 244. Batting at the WACA is at its toughest first time of asking. He was the only Australian to reach 40, and only Kevin Pietersen managed to reach 50 in England's reply. But in 162 balls Hussey hardly made an error. It was an exhibition of crisp footwork, exceptional judgement, straight driving, cutting and pulling. He ticked every box that Goodwin covered.
You can fear the WACA. With its bounce and pace, its sideways movement, its slips cordons fielding half way to the fence with no concern of a nick falling short. Or you can embrace its challenges, its value for stroke-play, and its reward for discipline. It is an incredible place to play. No better venue for a cut-throat decider.
Alex Malcolm is a freelance writer based in Perth. He is captain of the Subiaco-Floreat first grade side, and has played for Western Australia's second XI