<
>

Australia caught on the hop as WACA lives up to billing

Amid all the nostalgia for the final Ashes Test at the WACA Ground, Australia's players seemed to have been those least taken in by hopes for one final Perth flyer. For all its febrile history of venomous pacemen and bold batting, in the minds of Josh Hazlewood, Mitchell Starc, Steven Smith and Darren Lehmann, this has been less the venue of pace and bounce than of endless overs watching Ross Taylor, Dean Elgar or JP Duminy batting, either side of Mitchell Johnson's retirement.

Certainly Hazlewood was less than optimistic when asked about the pitch this week, and on the eve of the match, Steven Smith lamented that the surface was softer under foot than he had wanted to feel. In mitigation, the curator Matthew Page was equally unsure of the strip he had prepared, noting that cold weather had stopped it from "baking" as he had hoped. The same uncertainty led the selectors to pick a fifth bowler in Mitchell Marsh, rather than a sixth batsman in Pete Handscomb.

Within a few overs of Thursday's play, however, it was clear that this valedictory WACA Ground pitch was among the fastest and liveliest prepared here in some years, offering some early seam movement, steep bounce and often frightening pace. At the same time it was commendably even and reliable, meaning batsmen could get plenty of their own back with full-blooded strokes, whether driving off the front or pulling and cutting off the back.

In short, it was the sort of surface Australian players have often dreamed about utilising against visiting teams, particularly those from England. Not since 1978, the year the Sex Pistols broke up, has an English team emerged victorious in a WACA Test match, aided largely by the absence of so many Australian players due to Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket, which was played across the road at the Gloucester Park trotting track. As signs around the ground proudly state, Australia have emerged victorious in seven of seven Ashes Tests since 1990-91.

But having been presented with conditions better for bowling than they had expected, the Australians failed to take full advantage, due to some shoddy catching in particular. Marsh's drop of Mark Stoneman meant that the opener would absorb a Hazlewood spell deserving of several wickets. Cameron Bancroft's miss of Dawid Malan, first ball with the second new ball, meant that the left-hander could go on to a commendable and unbeaten century.

In the hands of Starc, Hazlewood and Cummins, the ball flew through in ways that sorely tested the reflexes of the wicketkeeper Tim Paine, let alone those of Alastair Cook and Stoneman. Their average speed on the day was 142.85kph, the highest such figure in the CricViz database. In his 150th Test, Cook was duly beaten by pace through the air and off the wicket to perish lbw, before Stoneman endured a fire-and-brimstone spell from Hazlewood that included a stunning blow to the side of the helmet that was followed - after the obligatory concussion test - with another lifter that flew off the bat handle to within millimetres of being caught by Nathan Lyon in the gully.

Stoneman would be unfortunate to be given out on DRS referral due to evidence that was mixed at best, adjudged to have gloved a short delivery that took off, this time from Starc relieving Hazlewood, and wonderfully caught by Paine. He fell after Joe Root had again succumbed to Pat Cummins, gloving another rising delivery down the leg side to Paine. The sheer hostility shown by the Australian fast bowlers was a lot to handle, something Malan and Bairstow were able to do as the shadows lengthened and a drying pitch lost some of its earlier lateral movement.

Also of assistance to England was the fact that the pitch offered bounce but very little turn to Nathan Lyon, after he had spun the ball around corners in Brisbane and Adelaide. Based on how Stoneman and James Vince played Lyon's very first over, the former electing to sweep almost immediately and the latter equally eager to use his feet and get down the pitch, the visitors were always going to be braver this time around.

"I'd prefer not to be diving around as much as I was, probably shows we were a little bit two sides of the wicket at times"

Tim Paine

But the fact that there was little deviation relative to the first two Tests tipped the balance back towards the batsmen. Lyon's 0 for 61 from 19 overs was presentable, but a long way short of his earlier feats. Marsh's return to the Test bowling crease was similarly inoffensive, but the pair's lack of wicket-taking threat drove Smith to try his own legbreaks for three overs.

Walking off at the close, Marsh and Bancroft had plenty of reason to ponder their missed chances. In the space of three Tests, Australia have dropped two specialist first-slip fielders in Matt Renshaw and Handscomb, leaving Marsh to take up the post alongside Smith. Stoneman's edge from Hazlewood was straight to him, perhaps only creating difficulty by arriving at the sort of height where a slipper can be unsure whether to have hands pointing up or down. Nevertheless, as a WACA local, Marsh should have not only taken the catch, but done so in comfort.

Late in the evening, the second new ball offered the chance for Australia to take the rush of wickets that some of their earlier bowling had merited. Malan, though a talented strokemaker, is given at times to the odd mental lapse, and by his own admission he made one first up by premeditating a flick off the pads at Starc and finding himself trying to work a full outswinger through midwicket. The edge flew fast, Bancroft lunged at third slip and the chance went to ground, also eluding Smith. A wicket there might well have brought several, but as it is Malan and Bairstow can now begin again.

"You get more time in Perth, it was just that it happens, you drop catches sometimes," Paine said afterwards. "I think the second one that Bangers dropped came really quickly and that's more Starcy than the Perth pitch. He gets that really full ball to fly through and it got there a little bit quicker than he anticipated."

Reflecting on his acrobatics, Paine said the diving he had to do suggested that Australia's pacemen had not been able to deliver the consistent lines and lengths that might have reaped more wickets. Stoneman had been able to feast on the full ball early on, before Malan and Bairstow showed considerable panache in despatching the short ball - never better than the shot which delivered the left-hander's first Test century, also England's first of the series.

"I'd prefer not to be diving around as much as I was, probably shows we were a little bit two sides of the wicket at times, but I wicket-keep to be in the game and I certainly was today so it was good fun," Paine said. "Definitely [more pace and bounce], not a lot of sideways or a lot of swing, but certainly more pace and bounce than we've seen for the last few Tests here and Shield cricket, so some good signs. It felt pretty hard under foot the last hour or so tonight, it might be fractionally quicker if anything tomorrow."

By the final over, the Fremantle Doctor had well and truly come in, the 22,148 spectators were both well sunned and well oiled, and the viewers both at the ground and on television had been treated to plenty of vintage WACA sights and sounds. In their post-play debrief the Australians spoke also about another WACA trait - batsmen who get in on this surface have the chance to dominate for long periods. Missed opportunities and English improvement mean Malan and Bairstow can join a long line of other batsmen to have already done so.