The view from the ABC box
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The wind in the WACA and other Perth phenomena

Christian Ryan  |  

East lies desert, west is ocean, wind can come from every direction, a windsock, ugly as any alone or lost sock, gives clues. The wind's mind is only partly readable.

Third-row bench behind the mid-off palings: tie man, sunglasses woman. Their thighs bob close, not touching, they're two in a patchy crowd of 3,065 (it's Friday), her chin rests on a fist in the late light.

Vanished evenings only mean so much by vanishing.

A black-clad youth on the other side, Farley Stand side, has no eye for wooing, eyes thirsty only for ball.

The pitch points north-south. Townsend the umpire's spreadlegged and low, gone no-ball trawling. McKenzie's legs crisscross. Cunningham - KG - plays the leave. Marsh catches. Marsh's shadow's long like three Marshes, it's spearing between the slip man's legs and sucks up his shadow, a merging, shadow on shadow. Inverarity, who's at slip, and Marsh are each tilting inwards, a near-nonstop dialogue. Marsh holding his cap down two-handed. KG leaves another one bounce by. KG smooths his hair under the glare of McKenzie, who's paused, the bowling arm's sleeve unrolled itself and is flapping, McKenzie's tugging at it and rerolling, flapping's too significant to tug and walk. Marsh, kneebending into his wicketkeeper's crouch two seconds till showtime, seeks to minimise total daily moments of intense concentration and can shrink it to 4 secs a ball & today = 628 balls so 42 mins of furrowed focus, so, no time conqueror no exploited wage slave either. Richards finds the strike. Ball's splitting midwicket and the chaser's barely putting on a chase which is rare gold luck out in benchtown: competition's slim to none. There's him, the ball, the palings, steep but the black-clad youth leaps. He's over and picking up cleanly and tossing the ball to the chaser, who's grateful for the yardage spared. Clocked a year's yards' worth already today. Paper lifts itself up off the grass near long-off and flips facedown, right way up, down up etc ad nauseam repeat until it is gone from eye range.

McKenzie walking back to the mark. His shirtback's a wobbleboard.

Wristwatch wearers take stock of the date: November 20th, 1970.

Richards on 282.

The Doctor is all around. The task of being in the world simplifies. It becomes a question of stopping caps, hats, combovers, necklaces, sweaters, odd garments, laces

The creaseline sidewinding square off the cut pitch is three paint blotches. Not an unbroken white stripe, and Carter the square-leg umpire's watching McKenzie, this isn't some chucker precaution, McKenzie's purity, even past-prime McKenzie with the bits of bulk sticking on him, with the crisscrossing-too-late legs.

McKenzie's misfitting architecture.

KG touches his hair. Smooths it, pats it and trudging away from the section where a car and a Bright Spot hotdog van are parked tight against some wooden benches goes DK. Sweat soaks into wooden benches, a superior style of seating, as on plastic seats sweat pools. Weather began hot but now The Doctor is all around. The task of being in the world simplifies. It becomes a question of stopping caps, hats, combovers, necklaces, sweaters, odd garments, laces even, from blowing. The players' trousers move hugely. Richards on 297. A video tease: Richards claimed to on this day wear no thigh pad, only socks where a thigh pad goes, and during the surviving black-and-white silent film of the final 26 minutes there are times he must have wrapped on an industrial wad of sock-paddage. DK untucks and hitches up the trouser hem caught in his left sock. Untuck, hitch, do it again, if it's compulsion or repairwork or fashion or superstition or whatever the hell it's his pre-walkback routine. Whereupon he hand-irons his buttoned shirt downwise, while walking back, then keeps messing the attack angle. However highwire the occasion a game's a retracing of steps and gestures. DK goes wider, goes straighter. But Richards is bossing every gap. Richards has wrists like collapsible cement sinew: they're hard when the ball strikes bat, soft while ball's leaving bat. Marsh, in still moments, could be a lip-reader deterrent, could be a tic, covers gob with glove. DK untucks, KG slicks and pats back a few stray ones, DK hitches, ball's coursing wide of mid-on sparking a breath of a query over which of two fielders should go fetch and he's back - in black - the youth, he's landing on terra WACA firma on two feet, the palings behind him … Palings are paling to a memory.

The state of the game, the stadium snacks he's wolfed - relegated to memory.

This 301 ball, if the black-clad youth wanted he could lift it higher and munch into it, it's made sweeter by his indisputable ownership not even 500 seconds ago of the 282 ball. Together these two passages of play stamp him as a bonafide part of this historic innings. Some kind of external/internal powerful presence.

And the wind's as alive as the players are.

Do as Dennis: Norman Cowans loses his helmet while trying to avoid a bouncer in the 1982-83 Perth Ashes Test

Do as Dennis: Norman Cowans loses his helmet while trying to avoid a bouncer in the 1982-83 Perth Ashes Test © Getty Images

Hot-air theory says the easterly blowing from the desert fills the cricket field with heat making moisture rise from the grass forcing the seam on the ball to swell causing swing. In the desert's the plain called Nullarbor: lakeless, treeless, uncurved. The Nullarbor was once widely travelled on and trodden upon without giving up its mystery. It's these days flownover and unseen and mostly no one thinks about it. That is not the same as saying it is not felt. Hot-air-swollen-seam theory's old like witchcraft and always was untested and localised. It pertained to one city, Perth, one of those beliefs not totally believed in yet convincing. "And no," Ian Brayshaw's telling me - Brayshaw is one in a short line of windmasters - "no, I do not believe you could actually see the seam had swollen, however I believe there could have been some truth to it."

Nullarbor by train used to be visiting cricket teams' entrée to the WACA. Two days (and three nights) to get to a game lasting five days (no nights). Possible the getting there melted into the being there. I don't know. Then reboard.

Or they sailed the seas in and exited by train. Seated amid the enforced bonhomie of team-mates; and - some at least - lonely. Train window for company. Outside, nothingness. Absence of outside leads you to peer inside. Bad setting for this looking into self. Train compartment. Team-mates near. Probably no land or sea journey so far invented has better replicated the experience of being a cricket player than the Nullarbor ride.

Except: no such thing as nothingness. So, they saw what? They'd heard rumours, of inland pools, and limestone caves, blowholes, wind trumpets. But rare times when the train stopped they struggled to see past the train's black-skinned welcomers. This is known through diaries and tour books left behind by generations of English cricketers and English cricket journalists, and through the words they chose - specifically: dusty, deformed, very dirty, a poor crowd, legs thin as laths, eye-corners flyblown and full of sand, undersized, dejected-looking, odd scraps of clothing discarded by whites, degenerate creatures, a deplorable pack of creatures, Robinson Crusoe would have felt ashamed, disgusting, devil, filthy, venereal, primitive, cunning, sores on their legs, all dirt and whiskers, loafers, wretches, most useless and worthless of all God's two-legged creatures.

Photograph starring old batsman Charles Burgess Fry - captioned CB Fry talks to an aboriginal in the "outback".

Who there in that photo's the loafer?

The repeating of the words is not to "out" English bigotry as Australians would likely have reacted identically if they visited their "outback" but most didn't: didn't/don't.

Capes had eyes only for sky. "You would arrive at the ground knowing. Good day to bowl. Without looking at the pitch. Because the pitch was always going to be the pitch"

From 1950 onwards, overseas cricketers crossed the Nullarbor by aeroplane.

Years after that Brayshaw with his father saw the Nullarbor. "Don't know what this has to do with bowling," Brayshaw says, "having said that, I drove it twice with my father in the early '60s in a van."

It has to do with imagination. Takes imagination to be OK on the Nullarbor. Takes imagination to thrive on the WACA where there's a high priority to think and play above the eyeline. "When you rang and I knew you were coming today," Peter Capes is saying, "I thought Christ I can hardly even remember playing. But you do, it all comes back, growing up in Perth, kickin' a football, throwin' a ball, going with the wind, against the wind, you're always experimentin', looking at the way it works, at the characteristics of it. You're figuring out how you're going to deal with it."

Capes - the best-named windmaster. Brayshaw thinks underspin's key to a cricket ball's late-swingingness and the getting of underspin involves massive bending back of wrist and fingers. Some kite-like way about Capes' body action, the ball's arc-ing out of his hand, free-feelingness, nothing factory, now years fly by without him bowling but then he'll bowl. And there's that thing again.

Swing thing - how many WACA windmasters in total is uncatalogued and arguable but safe-ish to suggest (all Perth-born except MacLeay of Wiltshire, UK) six: Ray Strauss (died in 2013), Brayshaw, Bob Massie, Terry Alderman, Ken MacLeay, Capes. MacLeay and Alderman after lunging for the balls box used to talk and talk. Go for the cherry-dark or the lightly coloured one or the one whose stitching looked nearest to rope? Others talk about the pitch, how WACA means truest fastest whitest biggest-bounciest though Capes had eyes only for sky.

"You would arrive at the ground knowing. Good day to bowl. Without looking at the pitch. Looking at the pitch was secondary. Because the pitch was always going to be the pitch."

The WACA on November 22, 1970 in the aftermath of the Barry Richards assault

The WACA on November 22, 1970 in the aftermath of the Barry Richards assault © Getty Images

Massie coached Capes. It was Massie saying come back next season when Capes took seven wickets in sandshoes in third grade in the last game of summer. Massie did it's true get Capes tilting more sideways, only way you can swing it, more sideways-on than Capes' L5 vertebra felt was brainy. Brayshaw learnt from Massie.

"Used to picture Massie's fingers," Brayshaw says, "which were so far back in the moment before release the backs of his fingers almost touched the skin of his forearm.

"Hence, standing in the slips, I would take the first two fingers of my right hand and with my left hand stretch them back as far as I could to give myself maximum flexion."

That was as an adult. "Never got anywhere near as far as Massie's."

In childhood Brayshaw watched Strauss (and Puckett and Price, i.e. Charlie and Harry) on Sheffield Shield afternoons at the WACA (dubbaYEW-eh-C-eh ground to quote future commentators Grljusich on radio and Benaud on TV, pedantically unrhyming it with "lacquer").

About two o'clock typically The Doctor visited. The Doctor that is also known as "the seabreeze". First time bowling with a proper ball at school Brayshaw swung it. Eight-ball overs in Australia and he developed eight variations, five being his own discoveries,

normal run-up inswinger
normal run-up outswinger
hard-hand yorker
half-ball slower ball megaswinger (Doctor-dependent but away-hooping 1.3m when The Doctor said so)
hard-hand over-their-heads bumper (saved for the non-hooking & inept - Brayshaw was low 120s kph approx)

and three

outswinger from concealed run-up starting behind the umpire's bum
behind ump's bum inswinger
roundarmer delivered so close to the stumps its release point was the other side of the stumps

were bequeathed to him by Strauss, at a time when the long-retired Strauss, lantern-like of jaw, had taken up standing beyond the bowlers' run-ups at state team practice. He'd been 15, Brayshaw, near the ocean above a golf course on a hilltop cricket ground - Cottesloe Oval - when he understood the value of wind. Wind itself defies comprehension. There was no understanding the logic of Under-16s coach Eddie who made Brayshaw bowl outswingers only, another kid Kevin O'Brien did inswingers only, the same every week. Wind defies sameness. They were morning games, sometimes an easterly ran up a pine-lined street and blasted the oval, maybe an early-day version of The Doctor would flow over. Windmasters are not noticeably animal of physique. They're noticeably noticing. Of angles, sudden shifts. Locum windmasters who have harnessed The Doctor for an afternoon or afternoons include Hadlee of Christchurch, Hafeez of Punjab, Fleming of Melbourne (ex-Perth but left Perth aged two), JK Lever of Stepney. They hear the rushed assembly of falling-down leaves and aren't intimidated, it's strictly relevant information, with implications for ball navigation.

Strange: that people think it strange Massie lost his swing - gone 44 years - when what's stranger is it would occasionally reappear, for minutes.

A lightly blowing Doctor on days with some cloud in them is considered most dangerous though The Doctor is not known only for danger.

It soothes. Song 6, "VFT", on multi-instrumentalist Ashley Davies' latest record is an arrhythmic seven-minute synth epic. Song 7, he knew, had to be a comedown, a cooldown, a jolt of seawater over listeners' heads so he called it "Fremantle Doctor". From his beachside youth. From driving home from work on Perth summer evenings all windows wound down. "I was working in the police department, working in the files section," Davies says, "my first job. It was in that great building. In that great COP building, which I think is still there, overlooking two bridges and Heirrison Island and the Causeway."

In the Test Stand bar dress standards took a pounding, thongs, shorts, singlets, 50 shades of caps. Livers took a shellacking. Two beers to choose between, Swan Lager and Emu Export

"And the WACA," I say.

"Yeah! And the WACA!" he says. "Some of the officers had offices where they could see the WACA. And there'd be nights, days in Perth, mate, when it'd be so f***ing hot and I'd be coming home from work and where I lived at City Beach there was this ONE HILL along The Boulevard. I had a Datsun 1600, brown with a white roof. Actually" - Davies is yelling at me in the half-time break at a gig (we're in Melbourne: shit wind) by one of the nine bands he drums in - "actually I rolled the Datsun. I, um, used to drink and I had been drinking with a friend and when it rained in Perth I'd go drive around, you know, liked to slide a bit, maybe, which was just stupid and ridiculous and dangerous and this one particular afternoon I rolled the Datsun coming out of the Floreat car parks. So I got a Mazda 1300 station wagon. Anyway. Thinking about a song title. People could have been a bit uptight after 'VFT', if you're on one of those VFT trains they're moving real quick, and I remembered a feeling I'd had - Fremantle Doctor. Feeling a bit sweaty, f***ing sticky or whatever, heading towards the beach, climbing the hill up The Boulevard before it hits West Coast Highway, Wembley golf course on the right, but the houses are still blocking it a bit, then you get over the top of the hill and there's a slight left turn; THAT'S when you feel it. It would relax you. Feel beautiful, no matter how hot. When that Doctor came in it made you feel better."

Chris Matthews, no master of wind, more a wrecker style of bowler, but able to swing a ball with subtlety, was picked to play for Australia and journalists asked had he ever watched DK. No, cricket's too boring a visual and I only watch golf was his answer. Pretty wise answer even if golf's lessons are best inhaled by batsmen - think Adam Gilchrist in 2006 faced with Monty Panesar, also Viv Richards versus Bob Paulsen in 1975, a couple of thugs clubbing silkily downbreeze high into the WACA's swirling upper currents, nearly but not quite landing balls on Roe Street where in 1954 the poet Alan Ross, in town to see Combined XI play MCC, encountered brothel verandahs like hen coops where women chain-smoked or read and an elegant redhead

"with hair cut in the Italian style and dangling gold earrings".

From the great cop building right now you can see not only the WACA but the new arena the cricket's moving to in January.

Down at shoe level, the cemetery backing onto the ugly ten-storey road services building which backs onto the famous sloped WACA car park is fenced off. It's locked up - except for two hours, 2 to 4 on Sundays - when in this place of desertion suddenly entry fees kick in, dogs and smoking are banned, no leaning on gravestones allowed. In the sloped car park loose gravel lifts itself up off the firmer bitumen and goes skip slide scudding etc to the lip of Queens Gardens. Perth sheds its old skins yet these gardens stay the same stay perfectly in tune with Perth. Wooden benches mounted on raised concrete. So feet don't touch grass. And only the posh-sounding flora gets an information plaque. Pride of Bolivia. Cockspur coral.

Cemetery, car park, rat-arse building, lagooned and gazebo'd gardens - they're the WACA's surrounds, sort of part hideous and part the one bit of Perth that's (I left at eight) a bit home. Inside (first taste of orange juice out of carton) is the feel of a museum pressed into museum service while still a functioning cricket ground. No mention's made, no map details on which grassy bank a spectator plucked off her bikini top in the middle of a two hours, seven minutes Chris Tavaré innings of 9. The focus is more parochial. More field of play, less obscurely cultural, less pervy, it's photographs of locals, many past or else pushing pension age now, who dazzled, if briefly. Photographic tat a lot of it but with a power to stir. Maybe a thousand-and-something photos. Photos on the walls of a machinery stowaway area in the Lillee-Marsh Stand bowels. In the corridors snaking out of the Prindiville Stand's lower-tier drinking pit Shane Clements, the late opener, undistinguished, features twice, movingly. Never saw pension age. Outside, and a way over on Roe Street, there's no reading no hen coops these days but there is this mural in a vacant lot

which evokes for me somebody the poet once saw.

Want to know what happened to Capes? Missed selection to go to England in 1989, endured they picked that guy, really? flickers of deep disappointment, plus DK had a bit to do with what happened. The DK part is my words not his. His words: "Dennis" - DK - "was finishing up and of course the whole bowling set-up was based on whatever Dennis did everyone should do. And Dennis loved running, long-distance runs, he used to run on roads and I used to always think that's completely stupid and counterproductive and why would you - your knees and hips and back get sore?" But in WDDD (Whatever Dennis Did Days) objecting was null. Missing England and an Ashes did keep Capes fresh for Tamil Nadu where the state team was headed and where DK in coaching sessions preached get quicker, drop back a length, learn cutters, diversify beyond swing. This was the new-way bowling, sounded OK, its aim the manufacture of all-weather everyplace players. Take out the variables. Wind: a lesser presence.

It stuffed Capes (not Capes' words). And when he faded something else ebbed with him. Last heard of circa 1992.

MacLeay breeds bulls. "Hard work" - the wind, he means. Bowling into it, keeping balance. Ball navigating when it's buffeting. "It's pretty much in your face all the time so to practise I'd run along the beach." Beach? "City Beach, quite a slopy beach, soft sand, there was a point," MacLeay says, "where the waves came up and washed back and you sank to your ankles. I used to run along that line." Against the wind. "And the pitch - never used to point north-south." It was more like southwest-northeast and MacLeay thinks after the switcharound the wind went to backward square leg, tough conjuring an inswinger against that, 1985 that was.

MacLeay: "I reckon I'd have preferred to bowl at the Gabba. Which didn't have wind."

Who knows where, when, the WACA windsock went, who decided its fate.

Once, this ground overflowed, the day of the fastest ball on YouTube, Holding to Laird, Holding who left behind no upturned sod or any trace he'd ever been there. "Holding… Amazing… As if he did not touch the pitch," the pitch's curator at the time, John Maley, is praising him. "Whereas Dennis just chewed it out. Whereas Dennis really dug it out. Heavy-footed. Holding just sort of ran over the top."

Match day dawned with ticket presales scarce and by nine o'clock queues at the three WACA entry points were centipeding and nearby traffic jamming. Nine-thirty brought gridlock on the Causeway and the cricket ground CEO doing a ring-around of the radio stations - quick chat with the sports reporter guy if they had one, or whoever picked up if they didn't - try to get the word out, two words, stay home. It was six days before 96FM, the lone commercial FM station, rolled out its annual 100 great rock albums countdown, a massive hit around town. Five days before Christmas - also a big hit traditionally - 1981. Neither compared with the hit on Laird on 20/12/81 while thousands of fans were still stranded outside the iron gates. Eyeing them off, weighing one up: scale it or smash it? This Holding ball reared so fast off a congenial length before pinioning Laird to the turf that the slo-mo can't ascertain whether Laird copped it on the upper breast, shoulder edge, neck, sternum, collarbone or general oesophagus casing area. Guaranteed skull if he hadn't made it onto tiptoes first. One iron gate was felled. Two suited-up board delegates commandeered emergency gates. When all the gates were declared locked an estimated five thousand wall-climbers and fence-hoppers let themselves in, many of them, upon regaining their footing, approaching a turnstile attendant and handing over their entry coins, too many all in all for the wooden benches to hold so spectators' arses happily adorned the boundary line.

And the booze. In the Test Stand bar dress standards took a pounding, thongs, shorts, singlets, 50 shades of caps. Livers took a shellacking. Two beers to choose between, Swan Lager and Emu Export, same two options as in the members' bar except there - pampering! - the 7oz glasses were pre-refrigerated. So the beer when it got tipped in them was near-icy. Precisely as desired on a scorcher. Esky lids made a blue-green patchwork of the grassy banks. Too hot to move, too crammed to move kegs from the main bars to the outer bars so staff had to lug the kegs out, ferry them around the WACA's red-brick exterior, and delicately feed the kegs back in through gaps in the wire at the relevant locations where the bars were.

Definitely there were certain unavoidable moments sometimes when people couldn't get a drink.

And the noise. Their opinions on this weren't ever recorded but it's certain that in the Farley Stand, where each had his or her regular viewing spot, Jack (the winemaker and ex-legendary underarms bowler) and Vera (who liked to keep score in a notebook) and Vera's husband (a hairdressing salon owner from nearby Quairading) and Clare (who kept Vera company though that was more after Vera's husband died) hadn't experienced a comparable roaring. For sure those four would have been present. Well, maybe or maybe not Clare. "Ground capacity then," the CEO at the time, John "JR" Rogers, is remembering, "was 25k maybe and I reckon 75k tried to attend and maybe 30k got in." Four Little League games in the innings break, every pipsqueak swoop and strike got a cacophony. So crowded it grew impossible to keep the members' and public areas segregated. Peppermint Grove's doctors in their Sunday finery shared a how-do-you-do with the rump from Mullaloo.

Tiny silence sometimes accompanies a stump's uprooting and maybe it was there when Holding bowled Darling. Possible. Never bowled a faster spell, Holding reminisced later, no kink or hitch in his run-up and zero energy expended. After bowling a ball it was as if he hadn't. Once, not even facing Holding, merely kitted up waiting to face Holding, Pakistan genius Majid Khan tripped over a team-mate's leg in an attempt to see a TV replay, injuring back ligaments and pinching a nerve.

That was also at the WACA, the day before this day, part of a doubleheader weekend.

There's a moment when a small boy, watched by a larger boy in a souvenir DK T-shirt, trots on the field up to DK and gets a DK autograph while a third boy, sitting on the grass because they've run out of wooden seating, and eating from a cheese Twisties mini-pack, looks conspicuously the other way.

Lloyd on 80. Richards on 72 (i.e. Viv; Barry was 20/11/70). Balls are bouncing back off the sightscreens, propelled by muscle and wind, all gone sedate on the Causeway outside, everything's throbbing and blazing on the inside, too young for ghosts.

Christian Ryan is the author of Feeling is the Thing That Happens in 1000th of a Second (riverrun). With thanks to The Apartments song, "All the Birthdays", for "…only mean so much by vanishing"