‘It was the quickest thing I had ever faced’
A chapter of cricketing history will come to a close in December as England play an Ashes Test at the WACA ground in Perth for the final time.
But before cricketing activities relocate to the new stadium across the Swan River, Steve Harmison, who played in two Ashes Tests at the ground, shared his memories of the famous arena with Elephant Sport.
An England cricket team first entered the WACA during the 1970/71 series and five days of play later, they left the West Coast disappointed with a draw. Eight years down the line Bob Willis and John Lever decimated the Australian batting order, England won by an unflattering 166 runs.
But in the 39 years and 10 matches since, England have not won a single Test in this bear-pit of a stadium; in fact, they haven’t come close.
Harmison is a man who’s only too familiar with this graveyard for English success.
He is the proud owner of 63 Test caps, gained between 2002 and 2009, winning two Ashes series in 2005 and 2009, and was once the number one ranked bowler in the world.
But being the best is no hiding place in the cricketing equivalent of Hades.
“I’ve not got many good memories of that place, to be honest I’ve got a fair few bad ones,” laughed the 39-year-old paceman.
‘He got booed, but that didn’t make me feel any better’
Harmison first visited the western city in Test match colours during the 2002/03 series, where he was met with a rather aggressive introduction.
As expected, the pitch was hard, cracked and nasty. Spectators winced as a Brett Lee delivery spat off the surface and barged through the gap between Alex Tudor’s helmet and grill at 90 mph.
The English tail-ender hit the ground with blood pouring from his face. Lee even rushed over, instantly offering his apologies, such was the severity of the injury.
Tudor retired hurt; next man in was Harmison. “I remember getting bounced by Lee the ball after he put Tudor in hospital,” he said.
“He got booed, but that didn’t make me feel any better. It was the quickest thing I had ever faced.”
Harmison scored five before being bowled by Lee, his wicket handing victory to the Australians by an innings and 48 runs.
Welcome to Perth, Steve.
When on form, Harmison’s thundering run up and high action made him one of the most feared bowlers in Test cricket.
Australia’s Glenn McGrath was accurate, Sri Lanka’s Muttiah Muralitharan moved the ball in ways batsmen could rarely predict, but Harmison was frightening.
He may not have had the raw pace of Lee or Pakistan’s Shoaib Akhtar but, even on green English wickets, the Durham bowler could send a cherry down quick enough to ruffle any batsman – just ask former Australia captain Ricky Ponting, who Harmison infamously bloodied with a vicious bouncer during the 2005 Ashes series.
But the pitch and outfields are lightning quick in Perth’s batsman-friendly arena. Aggressive bowling can be nullified by equally abrasive batting, a lesson that Harmison and his bowling attack learnt during the 3rd Test of the 2006/07 Ashes.
Battered in Brisbane, abject in Adelaide, England had to make changes out west.
‘He went berserk’
In came the raw duo of Monty Panesar and Sajid Mahmood, the latter intended to attack with the short ball while captain Andrew Flintoff hoped Panesar’s left arm twirlers would be too tempting for the opposition to resist.
But rather than get out, in the third innings when the hosts were setting England a target, Australian wicket keeper Adam Gilchrist tucked in – scoring 102 not out in only 59 balls.
“He went berserk. It was the second fastest Test hundred in the history of the game [at the time], it was just ludicrous”
“When greatness is great there is nothing you can do – and, boy, Gilchrist was great that day”
“Poor Monty, Gilchrist just kept hitting them further and further. I was standing on the boundary, and even at 6ft 6′ I was wasn’t close to getting anywhere near them.
“He was hitting balls out of Perth, not just the WACA.”
Gilchrist’s savagery set the visitors an unlikely 507 for victory. Predictably England fell 206 runs short and with that the urn was gone. Celebrating the epic 2005 series win at Downing Street 18 months earlier suddenly felt like ancient history.
“It was one of those occasions where you walk off devastated, you have just lost the Ashes.
“But after a while when the series is over and your career is finished you think back to special moments, and being on the field when Adam Gilchrist did what he did, I still think, wow.
“When greatness is great there is nothing you can do – and, boy, Gilchrist was great that day.”
The build up to this winter’s Ashes contest was not without its dramas.
For months, the possibility of Australia not fielding a side at all became increasingly likely following a pay dispute between the players and their board, but those issues seem to be ironed out.
In the England camp, enough have been said about Ben Stokes’ evening escapades.
But, perhaps more worryingly, captain Joe Root took an unsettled squad down under with many positions yet to be filled.
“We don’t want question marks over anybody we have picked, the captain and coaches want to have debates over who to leave out rather than who to pick,” said Harmison.
“England need both Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad to play all five Test matches. They have got nearly 900 Test wickets between them, it’s like leaving out one of [Glenn] McGrath or [Shane] Warne, you just don’t do it.
“There might be a lot of bravado and chatter saying Anderson isn’t what he used to be, but he is still as skilful as he has always been. And Broad will always stand up on the big occasion.”
With England already 1-0 down in the series following their loss by 10 wickets in the Brisbane opener, a win – or at least a draw – is imperative in Adelaide in the second Test.
The third contest of the five-match series begins in Perth on the December 14th, and the tourists can ill afford to be chasing victory at the WACA as they bid to retain the urn.
They must hope to exorcise any previous nightmares suffered out west.
And while the gates of the WACA may shut for good following the match, England must ensure that, when they depart the famous ground for the last time, the series is still wide open.
Steve Harmison photo by PaulSh via Flickr Creative Commons under Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)