Perth, the capital of vast Western Australia, is a magnet for tourists despite being one of the world's most isolated cities, with Sydney and Bali each about four hours away by air. Perth's major attraction is its aesthetics (its beaches rival any worldwide), sunny weather and tranquil lifestyle.
Locals, referred to as Sandgropers, believe Perth is a healthy fusion of its more famed compatriot cities. It boasts Sydney's splendour, and, like Melbourne, has an eclectic mix of small bars and alternative cafés, thanks to a concerted cultural push from some local governments. Still, Perth finds it difficult to shake off its inglorious moniker, "Dullsville".
Situated a short stroll from the city's central business district heartbeat, the Western Australian Cricket Association Ground (WACA) is Perth's most iconic sports facility. Despite its pristine surrounds and close proximity to the Swan river, the WACA is not the archetypal picturesque cricket ground, and certainly would not pose a threat to Adelaide Oval in the beauty stakes. The WACA is neither an awe-inspiring colosseum nor a quaint ground. Worse, it looks tired and dated, the very antithesis of Perth's newfound energy.
The ground's exterior can evoke some pity - after all, its major redevelopment, initiated in 2007, has stalled - but the uncomfortable innards make it difficult for spectators to embrace an outing to the cricket. Basic amenities, most notably toilets, are inadequate and there's barely any shade for most of the ground. The last is especially unfortunate, given the uncanny coincidence of sweltering weather and international matches. Even if you're oblivious to the cricket, it is difficult not to realise what spectators have to endure at the WACA.
Low though the WACA may be on creature comforts, cricket connoisseurs may have another story to tell. For those enamoured of Hollywood westerns, the "Wild West" evokes lawlessness and roughness. The WACA's inimitable pitch has helped spawn gunslingers. Dennis Lillee's swinging gold chain and thick moustache never menaced more wickedly than when he was steaming towards the WACA's pitch. Relocating to the "Wild West" has helped Mitchell Johnson rediscover his mojo (although many attribute his rekindled powers to his handlebar mo').
But it's not just the pace bowlers who have all the fun. Adam Gilchrist's swinging blade was never so destructive than when he eviscerated poor Monty Panesar at the WACA during an Ashes Test in late 2006. Justin Langer scored a half-century on Test debut on a difficult pitch in Adelaide and emerged as one of the steeliest batsmen of his generation, because he had been brought up on a diet of bumpers at the WACA.
Apart from a sedate period in the mid-2000s when it was rendered lifeless, the WACA's pitch has brimmed with fury through the sharp bounce and rapid pace extracted from its hard surface. But it is not just a fast bowler's nirvana. Tall spinners - such as WA's Michael Beer, who earned a baggy green after relocating from Victoria - have relished plying their craft at the traditional graveyard for slow bowlers. Batsmen adept on the back foot and at attacking square of the wicket have always been rewarded with scoring opportunities, and the runs can flow rapidly.
Perhaps a by-product of the WACA, aggressiveness is the overriding characteristic of WA cricketers. WA cricket teams relish playing a brand of cricket with a hard edge. Perhaps the trait can be traced to the state's golden era of the 1970s, when they were led by the talismanic Lillee. A generation imitated Lillee, resulting in a bevy of speedsters until the production line suddenly halted sometime in the late 1990s, forcing WA to import.
Even though Lillee's playing days are several generations removed, he casts an unforgettable and permanent shadow over WA cricket. He emerged in the late 1960s, during a period of cultural change and at a time when Perth was starting to transform from a sleepy country town into a developing city. Alongside Rod Marsh, and later Kim Hughes, Lillee became a mirror to Perth's evolving self-belief. He showcased confidence, brashness and resoluteness, but he also possessed a sense of humour. Cricket was important, and he competed fiercely, but there was a tongue in cheek element to his demeanour. Winning wasn't everything, cricket was just a game. After all, there were beers and gags to revel in with team-mates and adversaries after a hard-fought match.
Perth's cricket fans are ardent and devoted to their team. It should not be forgotten that WA is ridiculously patriotic, with an undercurrent of scepticism towards the eastern states. This leads to the occasional silly chatter on whether WA should secede from the Commonwealth.
So WA cricket fans follow their team with fervour and WA players in the national team are revered (an annual highlight of Australian matches at the WACA is hearing the stadium reverberate when a WA player is announced). Of course, winning is enjoyed and celebrated. But defeats do not leave that permanent painful pang - like they do for sports fans in a place like Melbourne - because there is always beautiful weather to embrace and overall, life is pretty good, thanks to WA's resource-rich powerhouse economy.
Still, WA cricket fans thirst for exciting play. They cherish the sight of athletic pacemen, bounding into the crease off long run-ups. There is perhaps no visual more pleasurable than watching a wicketkeeper planted halfway towards the boundary, reinforced by a plethora of catchers. Fans long for energetic action - plenty of wickets and bones broken, fused with a healthy dose of boundaries. But it's not merely flash that captivates. Substance and grit are appreciated too. Batsmen willing to take a few blows to their body are lauded. Bowlers prepared to toil through arduous spells under Perth's scorching sun are admired, especially by fans who flee to find comfort at nearby watering holes.
Recently I met the Afghanistan cricket team during their visit to Perth to play two warm-up matches against a WA XI team. It was a chance for the players, used to the dustbowl pitches of the subcontinent, to acclimatise to the WACA's cauldron before the looming ODI World Cup.
After talking to several Afghan players, it was evident that the WACA's aura has taken on a life of its own. It is little wonder so many batsmen - not just foreigners but also from the other side of the country - are befuddled before they even set foot on the hallowed pitch. "I expect the ball to bounce sharply and quickly… I can't imagine what it would be like to face Mitchell Johnson here," was basically what several players told me on the eve of Afghanistan's first match against WA. A fusion of excitement, awe and apprehension was evident in their voices.
It dawned on me that no other ground holds such trepidation for visiting players. And that's what makes watching cricket at the WACA so compelling. It's fun to watch batsmen walk to the crease slightly sheepish. It's fun to watch the ball rocket from the pitch and hurtle towards a batsman's throat. It's fun to watch the cut, pull and hook in abundance. It's fun to watch spinners get treated with disdain, and batsmen occasionally perishing because of it. Simply, cricket at the WACA has more action than an Arnold Schwarzenegger film.
However, the WACA's days as Perth's premier cricket venue could be dwindling. A new sports stadium, which will have a capacity of 60,000, is set to be completed by 2018. It is being built in close proximity to Perth's only casino, and many believe cricket needs to be moved to the emerging Burswood locale. Even former WA cricket legend and Australia Test captain Kim Hughes believes the WACA's days are numbered, and is backing calls for international cricket to be played in Burswood.
Despite its uncertain future, I'm pretty certain the WACA's treasure trove of memories will forever resonate with cricket fans.