At 3:46pm local time, an edge from Chris Woakes landed in the gloves of Tim Paine. Eleven cricketers joined in a delirious huddle, while a pair of batsmen lingered awkwardly, united by their despair. After 863 days without it, Australia had regained the Ashes urn.
So ended the last ever marquee Test match at the WACA in Perth. The ground will cease to be the primary international venue in Western Australia, though it will still host tier-two Tests, against opponents expected to attract daily attendances below 15,000.
Its replacement, a kilometre away and in perfect view from the ground, is the Optus Stadium — a swanky new 60,000 seater stadium, built at an Australian $1.45 billion cost.
A stadium with 1500 loos
On the night of the first Test the press were treated to a tour of the new stadium, complete with special effects on the big screens in the ground. Certainly the Optus Stadium has much to recommend.
It glistens with new polish. Its seat look lush. It has — as Mike McKenna, the chief executive of the stadium, delighted in telling us — 1500 bathrooms, of which half are for women: crucial in an age when grounds are belatedly taking spectator comfort seriously.
And, most fundamentally, a bigger venue means that more people can come to the cricket and that, at least in theory, tickets can be priced affordably. There will be much to cheer when the Optus Stadium hosts its first international, a one-dayer against England on January 28. The locals are so excited that the ground has already sold out for its moment of history.
A few hours before visiting the Optus Stadium, I watched cricket at the WACA for the very first time. To an Englishman, the mere mention of the name conjures up images of broken English hearts and bones, of scars in the Wild West and braying Aussies singing ‘If Lillee don’t get you Thommo must’.
And there is much to savour here. The stroll around the WACA during a packed Ashes Test, via the beautiful grass banks on both sides of the ground, is sumptuous.
There is the sense of history brimming through the ground, a monument to the fast bowlers of yore. And there is the rather endearing parochialism on the walls of the bars here: portraits of ‘historic firsts for Western Australian cricket’: the first Western Australian to score a century for Australia, take a five-fer, be national coach and even be the national chairman of selectors.
But all these joys belie the uncomfortable realities of the WACA. This is a ground at which, like cake in pre-1789 France, shade is the preserve of those who can afford it.
And while the sun was seldom unbearable during this Test, in recent years Tests have been played out in searing 40-degree heat, and the cheap seats so inhospitable that many cricket-loving locals have preferred to watch the games unfold on TV at home.
The ‘Cancer Stand’
Locals call the WACA’s Eastern Stand, which has temporary seating that extends high into the skyline, the cancer stand. If that sounds like a joke, it’s rather less so when you consider that 1,800 Australians die of skin cancer every year.
It is a symbol of how the WACA, for all its charms — which are probably best enjoyed by media enjoying the comforts of the press box and leisurely strolls around the pitch when it is not too hot — is a ground that exudes the impression that it has often failed in its basic duty of care to its spectators. The toilets are sparse and, beyond the members’ area, the food and drink is overpriced and mediocre.
Yet, for all this, leaving the WACA after its final marquee Test match, there remained a sadness: a creeping sense that, the world over, unique cricket grounds are being replaced by identikit stadiums.
The Optus Stadium is a product of best practice in how to build a sport stadium. That means shade for the spectators, ample places to eat and drink and, yes, plenty of bathrooms. It also means that any spectator sitting down could, if they forget what sport they are watching, essentially be in any stadium in the United States.
So it is with so many new stadiums or ground redevelopments — the Adelaide Oval standing out as an object lesson in how it is possible to modernise while remaining unique.
Elsewhere, the world over cricket grounds have given way to venues that stage a package of sport, rather than exclusively cricket, and at which the wickets the games are played on are increasingly homogeneous. That means no venues with the mystique of the WACA’s once treacherous pitch.
But at least, after a morning of unseasonal showers that briefly imbued England with false hope, the ground did have its fitting farewell: this was the eighth consecutive Ashes Test that Australia have won here, the most consecutive Test wins any country has managed against one opponent at one ground. The pitch has fundamentally become far more benign — but Australia’s pace bowlers have not.
England’s last visit to Australia, 2013/14, was the series of Mitchell Johnson and Ryan Harris; both have long since retired, but England seem as dependent upon James Anderson and Stuart Broad as ever — a symbol of a team in stasis.
Oddly enough, both sets of selectors have had a good series, with England’s borderline picks Dawid Malan, Craig Overton and, to a lesser extent, Mark Stoneman and James Vince performing admirably, even if not quite as formidably as the Marsh brothers and Tim Paine. The salient contrast between the two teams has been in the performance of their experienced core. Steve Smith alone has 51 more runs than Joe Root, Alastair Cook, Moeen Ali and the absent Ben Stokes combined.
No relief in sight for England
To Melbourne and Sydney, then: two of the world’s most historic Test matches, yet for England synonymous with the smug Australian victory lap.
On two of the last three occasions Australia have vanquished England in Perth, they have clinched the Ashes here, en route to a whitewash. These ill omens are hardly the only reason for England to fear that it will happen once again.
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