<
>

'Traditions have to start somewhere' - Gilchrist hopes for revival of Test cricket in Perth

David Warner and Usman Khawaja walk out to bat Getty Images

Under the warm late spring sun, Justin Langer and Adam Gilchrist waited patiently in the middle of Perth's Optus Stadium as photographers readied for the perfect snap.

Once advertising ticked over on the ground's giant scoreboard screen, supposedly the largest in the southern hemisphere, the clicking of the cameras began. The resulting image - the smiling West Australian cricket legends waving their bats and positioned neatly so that the screen could be in the frame. The advertising read: There's Nothing Like the West Test.

With the first Test of the summer between Australia and Pakistan at Optus Stadium not until December 14, marketing of the event started especially early in the first week of November.

The Perth sports focus at the time was saturated with the Australian Football League draft as Harley Reid, the top prospect selected by local club West Coast, occupied the back page of the city's only major newspaper for more than 10 straight days.

But the big media event at Optus Stadium, held 38 days before the first Test, did start an awareness campaign in what looms as an important Test match for WA Cricket.

After Perth missed hosting lucrative Tests against India and England over consecutive summers due to strict Covid-19 border rules, just a tick over 40,000 fans attended the first Test between Australia and West Indies at Optus Stadium a year ago.

The underwhelming turnout for Perth's first Test match since 2019 was due to a myriad of reasons, including the fallout of Langer's messy exit as Australia coach and West Indies' lack of marketability.

"It came on the back of a couple of hard years after Covid," WA Cricket chief executive Christina Matthews said. "The Test match came after a T20 World Cup where the West Indies didn't qualify and cricket was in overload at that moment. It was probably a glitch in our Test cricket history."

The eyesore of a mostly empty 60,000-capacity venue amid a somewhat strained relationship between parochial West Australians and the national Australia team resulted in a rebrand of a match to be now known as the 'West Test'.

"It'll give [the Perth Test] its own signature...like the Boxing Day Test and the Pink Test - people don't think of them necessarily as Melbourne and Sydney," Matthews, who announced her resignation from the role on Wednesday after 12 years as CEO, said. "It's all about how you market and promote....and make people want to come here."

This marks just the fourth Test match at Optus Stadium located on the opposite bank of the Swan River to the iconic WACA ground. Opened in 2018 to an ODI between Australia and England, the grandiose Burswood stadium - like a mini but modern MCG - quickly reeled in the punters who had grown tired of the aged infrastructure at the WACA and Subiaco Oval, where AFL games were once played.

But crowds have yet to flock in numbers to an Optus Stadium Test match. A riveting Test between Australia and India in December 2018 attracted around 20,000 fans on each of the first three days. The following year's day-night Test between Australia and New Zealand had similar crowd numbers.

There were several factors behind those lacklustre numbers. The lingering effects of the sandpaper scandal and Australia being shorthanded without Steven Smith and David Warner contributed to a somewhat low-key match against India. Oppressive heat across both those Test matches was also undoubtedly a turnoff with chunks of seating at Optus Stadium not covered by shade.

But there has been a sense that fans have never quite warmed to the shift of Test matches away from the more intimate WACA, an iconic cricket ground due to its fast and bouncy pitch.

In an effort to woo fans and create a link to WACA lore, a new three-tiered hill holding up to 500 fans will be part of the Pakistan Test match. A portion of seats at Optus Stadium will be taken out in a bid to mimic the famous grass banks on either side of the WACA ground, which is under redevelopment but is likely to still hold Test matches in the future involving smaller nations.

"Bringing part of that history and heritage to this modern facility is really exciting," Gilchrist said. "These opportunities to bring some of that old heritage into the new [stadium] is a great starting point to build tradition and history."

Once again mimicking the WACA, every effort has been made to ensure a spicy surface is produced after a lifeless pitch in last year's dreary Test that went well into the fifth day.

The drop-in pitches were recently moved into the stadium's playing surface having been curated at Optus Stadium since February. It contains the same local clay and grass species as the surfaces at the WACA.

Expectations are high for this Test match with hopes of around 25,000 fans for day one. It is being played at WA Cricket's preferred timeslot of mid-December after Perth emerged victorious in a bidding war to host Pakistan with Adelaide and Brisbane left with West Indies later in the summer.

But there remains an unknown over whether West Australians, whose one-eyed fervour spills over passionately supporting their local teams, are truly invested in the national team. It very much feels like WA cricket fans care more for Perth Scorchers, underlined by the team's comprehensive coverage in the local media in a notable contrast to the rest of the year where cricket can feel invisible.

The parochialism has again been evident with adopted West Australian Mitchell Johnson using his column in the metro newspaper to launch a scathing attack on Warner and national selector George Bailey. It's led to WA cricket fans largely siding with Johnson and venting frustration that in-form WA opener Cameron Bancroft has been supposedly ignored as a Warner replacement by those on the east coast - or "over east" as per the local vernacular.

Even Smith has felt the wrath of WA fans having been jeered during the BBL at Optus Stadium last season. Despite this strange dynamic, it's hoped the inaugural 'West Test' can create a fresh start ahead of Optus Stadium hosting blockbuster Tests against India and England over the next couple of summers.

"Traditions have to start somewhere," Gilchrist said. "It's up to the people of Perth... and people interstate... to say 'I want to experience the West Test' and vote with their feet."