WACA pitch stars as Ashes bursts into flame

There will be no anti-climax in the Ashes at Christmas this time. After three and a bit days of intense cricket a vibrant match on a WACA surface much more like the fiery pitches of old has produced a decisive victory for the home side.

That leaves everything wonderfully open and unpredictable with two games to go. Australia, fired by the resurgent Mitchell Johnson, have thoroughly outplayed their opponents in conditions that England teams have never enjoyed.

Perth is unique. It is 32 years since England won here and that victory by Mike Brearley’s side in 1978-79 is, alas, also unique. Fast bowlers have undermined them every time since the batsmen enjoyed themselves against a relatively weak Australia side in 1986-87.

Michael Hussey, whose batting from the start of the series has been a masterclass in the art of Test match batting, an absolute model of technique and concentration, played the innings that made certain that Australia would not waste the opportunity seized for them by Johnson’s sensational first innings burst.

Hussey got fully forward to the bounce of the ball when he felt the need to play at length balls, judged to perfection the balls that he did not need to play outside the off stump and, once set, hooked and pulled with the same authority that he had at both The Oval and the Gabba.

No other batsman in the history of England’s matches against Australia has gone past 50 in six successive innings.

All four of England’s four century-makers in the series to date were out in the final phase of the third day. Alastair Cook was late on a ball from the bullish Ryan Harris that skidded into his front leg before he had got far enough forward, a dismissal that could have occurred anywhere against a decent new ball fast bowler.

But Andrew Strauss, Kevin Pietersen, Jonathan Trott and Paul Collingwood went in the manner of many an England batsmen over the years since Test cricket first came to Perth in 1970.

One mistake outside the off stump at the WACA is almost always fatal. The ball bounces and carries to distant slip fielders as it does on no other ground in the world. In the pellucid light sighting the ball is never a problem for slip catchers and the illusion is created that batsmen are deliberately offering them catching practice.

Australian fast bowlers know the formula here. A few short ones to put the wind up the Poms; then pitch it up and watch them snick it.

This is a serious setback for England. The hope was that they were playing too well to let their clear advantage slip after a brilliant all-round performance at Adelaide. But last winter’s outstanding performance at Durban was spoiled in the end by a poor one against fiery fast bowling on a quick pitch at Johannesburg.

It will be surprising after what has happened here if Australia do not leave as much grass as they can on the pitches at Melbourne and Sydney. Graeme Swann’s bowling has also been neutered by the conditions here.

That said, there is nowhere quite like the WACA, and long may that be so. For a few years the pitches here had lost the natural pace and bounce that a legendary groundsman by the name of Roy Abbott used to guarantee by judicious rolling and application of the right amount of water at the right time.

The new man, a charming young fellow named Cameron Sutherland, is clearly achieving the same sort of magic formula on a square newly relaid on the orders of the greatest fast bowler ever produced in Western Australia, the incomparable Dennis Lillee, now the president of the WACA, a firebrand turned sage.

The work was done with the last of the clay from the Harvey River, where the particular mineral quality of the dried up bed has a binding quality quite unlike that at any other ground in world cricket. Gradually the pace and extra bounce created by leaving the grass on a very hard and solid base, has returned.

About Christopher Martin-Jenkins

One of the leading chroniclers of cricket over the past four decades, he is perhaps best-known for his commentary on BBC Radio’s Test Match Special since 1973. But he is also a former cricket correspondent of both The Times and Daily Telegraph newspapers as well as the BBC, besides having had two spells as editor of The Cricketer magazine. A fine after-dinner speaker, he played second XI county cricket in his youth and his son Robin was an all-rounder for Sussex from 1995 to 2010.
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