Not many people in Australia might quite understand this irrational love for a ground that seems to have stopped loving back, but coming back to the WACA Ground is like going back to a cranky old relative you have particularly been fond of. There is so much personality there it seems like a person that, like most people, talks, laughs, snarls, heaves, has mood swings, loves, is loved, is hated, is imperfect. It is scarcely possible to come to Perth for cricket this time, and not feel sentimental about the old relative.
The WACA Ground has to be the most singular and written-about cricket ground in the world. In the most isolated city in the world, closer to Singapore than to Sydney, this ground has given the world more stories and characters than any other. There is something about watching and playing cricket in a cricket ground that falls between 2800 kilometres of emptiness and 8000 kilometres of sea. Between Adelaide and Africa, the WACA Ground stands tall as an oasis, also as a two-fingered salute to homogeneity.
The pitch cracked up brutishly, the wicketkeeper stood further back than anywhere else, the shots were crisper, runs and wickets had to both be earned. Its soil came from a town at the bank of Harvey River, called Waroona, whose population is 1800. The five imposing floodlight towers are just that: concrete floodlight towers in cold grey colour, rectangular blocks about 70 metres high, seemingly of the same material as a cement floor. It does not look perfect like almost everything in urban Australia appears to be.
It is just as well that two days before the first time an official Test in this 10800-kilometre vicinity will be held at a stadium other than the WACA Ground, the training took place here. To sit quietly on the hill, under the legendary scoreboard with the 20th century Western Australian XI on it, is to be haunted by tales. The Fremantle doctor is in, despite part of it being blocked by Fraser Suites to its west.
It is like the breeze is telling you tales: of button-down Australian fast bowlers, of Doug Walters' hooked six off the last ball of the day to bring up a hundred in a session, of a bat standing upright in a crack, of Tony Greig's car key lost in yet another, of Curtly Ambrose trying to slide it in but getting stuck in yet another crack and getting run out, of Ambrose using those very cracks for figures of 7 for 1.
As India go through centre-wicket practice, you wonder what can possibly replicate the experience of watching cricket from that hill. That boundary rope is about four metres from you. Imagine back in the day when there was no rope. Dennis Lillee walking back after an over. You could hear him breathe heavy. You still can, if you close your eyes. If you stretch your hand far enough, you can touch the action, feel it.
You imagine Justin Langer at the non-striker's end. Ricky Ponting facing Shoaib Akhtar, two forces of nature. Kamran Akmal stood so far back you could steal a single every ball, Langer felt. You think of Jeff Dujon standing so far away that the batsmen were advised not to look back lest they get psyched. "When you're batting at the end with the sea breeze behind the bowler, you feel alive," Langer once told the Guardian. Water taps at the WACA Ground now say this is the "water Langer and co. grew up on".
The WACA Ground might well be the only ground in the world with two-litre dispensers of free sunscreen locked to a wall at every turn. You need it. The Perth sun is the purest, and possibly the harshest, of all cities. Partly because of the isolation, partly because of absence of pollution, partly because of a weak ozone layer, the Perth sun can hurt your skin even on a pleasant day. And yet the WACA Ground hardly provides any shade to the spectators. The spectators have to make do with portable toilets. It can be extremely difficult to watch cricket here on a hot day. It is almost as though, just like your wickets and runs here, you have to earn the viewing experience. #Madetough indeed.
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That's also where this old relative has gone cranky. There has hardly been an upgrade to keep up with the times; all other major Australian grounds have sacrificed idiosyncrasies, and sometimes aesthetics, to meet the demands of changing times. It can be argued whether it is all for the good - losing views of the St Peter's Cathedral at Adelaide Oval, for example, for a plastic-looking grandstand - but the days of getting burnt and drunk on the hill in the unforgiving Perth heat should really be behind us.
The WACA Ground's refusal to shape up left open an opportunity, which the swanky and expensive Perth Stadium has grabbed. It is visible from the WACA Ground, all modern and spectator-friendly. It can seat 60,000 to WACA Ground's 20-odd. It will provide shade, although the higher-up seats, which provide shade all day long, have not been put up for sale for this Test because the crowd is not expected to be big and empty seats lower down don't look good on TV. And this could really be Anytown, Anycountry. It is just a modern stadium, a tribute to homogeneity, the Cake Tin to Wellington's Basin Reserve. It already doesn't seem like a great idea to send Test cricket there; do so with ODIs and T20s by all means.
Soul-less might be too harsh a description for a new ground, but when you can't even enter the ground two days before a Test, you know you have reached the other extreme. The gates are all locked, and nobody to tell you where to go. Even the teams haven't been there yet. Over the coming years the Perth Stadium will have to develop its own soul, its own legend, its own tales. Great performances will help. A pitch similar to the old WACA Ground too. The old relative, meanwhile, has been left alone. Bill Lawry is not commentating anymore. It's not all happening at the WACA Ground anymore.