WACA groundsman hopes to revive past aura
Few venues in world cricket are as evocative as the WACA. From the days of Dennis Lillee thudding the ball into Rod Marsh's upturned gloves, to the sight of Curtly Ambrose claiming seven wickets for one run in a legendary spell in 1992-93, it is a ground that has promised riches for all bowlers who relish pace and bounce in their deliveries.
Around the turn of the 2000s, however, the WACA lost its bite, as the tired old pitches gave up the ghost after years of being baked in the Western Australian heat, and the ground's reputation took a hit as a consequence. But according to the curator, Cameron Sutherland, a return to the surfaces of old is on the cards for the coming Test, as part of an overall project to revive the venue's aura.
"We've totally redeveloped the wicket block," said Sutherland. "We dug it up and started again three years ago, and have been doing it stage by stage. This is only the second first-class game on the Test wicket - we played the West Indies Test on it last year and were pretty happy. Every year as it settles and compacts, it gets harder and gets better, and we think we are on the right track."
With two days to go until the Test gets underway, the pitch is a remarkable sight, with live grass giving the surface a lush green tinge that Sutherland says is a deliberate bid to improve the battle between bat and ball, even if - to judge by the effect in recent Sheffield Shield fixtures - the actual impact of the covering is likely to be less dramatic than its appearance would suggest.
"Most of the Shield wickets have been new-ball wickets," said Sutherland. "In the first 10 overs the quicks get a bit of movement, with a bit of swing around. We are aiming for similar, and are quite happy to have a bit of grass and colour in it for the Test. It took WA a season to get over looking at the colour, because it probably doesn't influence the way it plays. There will a bit of nibble, but it won't go excessively either way."
In the five years since Sutherland has been the WACA's head curator, there has been just the one drawn Test match, and that was his first match in charge, when Jacques Rudolph batted South Africa to an improbably comfortable stalemate after being set an unlikely 491 in the fourth innings. But despite some definite signs of life in State cricket, Sutherland admits that he hasn't quite got the formula right for his five-day surfaces.
"This is the last piece in the puzzle," he said. "The comment comes every year that the Shield wickets have been pretty lively and quick but what's happened to the Test wickets? It hasn't been for the want of trying. Hopefully this year will be similar to what we prepare for the domestic season. We're in a better place with the ground and the wicket development is going nicely. Hopefully in the next three or four years we will keep improving it."
Either way, Sutherland does not expect a repeat of the scenario that he faced during a second XI fixture between Western Australia and New South Wales in November, when a dramatic temperature change caused cracks of up to 4cm to appear on a good length. The match came close to being abandoned but in the end NSW were persuaded to play on so long as there were "no silly buggers" from the pitch - and so it proved as they mustered 244 in the fourth innings to lose by 234 runs.
"That grass we had only put in six months ago and our root establishment was not as good as it could have been," explained Sutherland. "Since then we have had two four-day games with temperatures of 38C all the way through, so the Test wicket has sat there and baked. We estimate we will get some cracking, but that's a characteristic we want - the soil we use sets hard but also cracks, and that's part of the WACA.
"Given the WACA's history we're hoping for a result, but it's up to the players to make the most of it," he added. "I've listened to people on the radio from the Gabba and Adelaide saying 'gee, I wish some wickets would deteriorate'. Our characteristic is cracking. How much it opens up will depend on the weather. You might bowl first, get the freshness out of the wicket early, and then the cracks might even the contest up later."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo.