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No more batsmen will be tortured in Perth

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Yesterday, while sitting with a friend on the outskirts of a college field, we were taken in by the grace of a sporting body in motion. Perhaps it was just me, but I was quite bizarrely reminded of Francis Bacon's Figure in Motion: an amalgam of the imagery of Edward Muybridge and a smattering of other sports, and what might even be an artistic imitation of the feline grace seen in Michael Holding running in to bowl. But the course of events saw a different painting by the same artist enter my mind.

Bacon's Figure in Movement seemed to quite fit my mood. It shows a batsman twitching and writhing, a body in agony, with his legs parted quite awkwardly. The batsman in obvious discomfort, according to some accounts, was modelled on that most fluid wielder of willow, David Gower. He was known to saunter across the field as if he were Psmith's batting incarnate.

That I found the painting to be profound and quite accurate even, speaks volumes of the artist's skill, but it was certainly helped by the WACA figuring prominently in my thoughts.

The Western Australian cricket ground, in one of the most geographically isolated of cities, Perth, amidst the harsh Australian outback, is typical of the city and its surroundings.

 

It isn't the prettiest of grounds. Nor is it stylistically consistent. And it is certainly among the most uncomfortable of places to watch cricket, but the ground, and more specifically, the pitch, became the reference point for the Baconesque batting posture.

That the ground has been decommissioned is a personal setback to my cricket watching sensibilities. It is, after all, a sort of litmus test for ambitious greenhorns, one of the giant red Xs that dot every great batsman and salivating fast bowler's world map. Perth is a barometer that tests batting qualities- patience, technique, courage and sometimes even a dose of sheer lunacy.

Roy Fredericks' cavalier charge against the untamed Lillee and Thommo combine - shirt unbuttoned, and a cloth cap to protect the batsman from a fatal blow to the head - very crisply sums up the wild days of cricket in the 70s: all Pace and Thunder, macho contests, rowdy stands, rowdier cricketers and a general disregard for refinement, all washed down with a wee bit of rum.

Roy Fredericks in his 1975 pomp, offered a counter point to the usually Baconesque movements that were common to batsmen facing the snarling quicks on a surface offering extremes of pace and bounce. The harsh glare of the Perth sun spared none. The watching spectators too were not immune from its blinding rays, and one often got the impression that after getting a bit of a boil standing under the sun, the flaky batsman was quite indisposed to tackling the rigours of hostile pace bowling.

The helpless Australian batsmen caught in the face of Curtly Ambrose's 7 wickets for 1 run, David Lloyd's inflamed nether regions, the affable Colin Cowdrey bravely smiling through a torturous pounding at the hands of Lillee and Thomson, are all now part of cricket folklore, all a nod to Bacon's painting.

But for every twitch and swerve of the head, there is a show of batting supremacy that wards off the lurking demons of the WACA pitch.

A baby-faced Tendulkar's 1991 century on his WACA debut, on a typically hard wicket, lit up the parched outfield and was an early indicator of how he would stand out in a largely ordinary Indian team. Brian Lara quite ironically ended his century drought of eighteen months in one of the driest and sparse regions inhabited by man.

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7 years ago, would India have rejoiced as much, even allowing for the controversies of the 2008 Sydney test, if their moment of redemption had come at any other Australian ground? I think not! The sight of young Ishant Sharma forcing Ricky Ponting into awkward positions, visibly troubled by the pace and bounce thought of as an Antipodean ally, was particularly pleasing. The Bacon, quite unexpectedly, was on the wrong plate.

That the Fremantle Doctor will pass by an empty ground, bringing relief to none, is something I cannot quite grasp. The awkwardness of the WACA, in its continuous conflict between retaining the harshness of its pre-2000s heyday and a need to progress in step with the demands of the modern cricket watcher has resulted in an identity that is not valued enough.

The 45°Cheat, the open stands and a violent pitch do indeed bring some variety to a game that is becoming increasingly homogenised, and is indeed a relic from the rock and roll era of cricket. But as cricket further embraces commerce, the WACA sticks out like an angry middle finger, waving madly in the direction of the corporate boardroom. One wonders why else, with talk of day and night tests, the WACA would be compromised for a predictably soulless, ultra-modern bowl of a stadium.

 


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