A road, Kevin Pietersen called it. Others trotted out the numbers that prove the WACA has lost its terrors. And an overnight first-innings score of 305-4 for England would suggest that, too. It must have been easy if the Kontiki cricketers can bat on it.
Yet those who were there, either baking in the sun, or huddling under the duvet for warmth at home and watching through the night, will tell a different story.
The demise of what was once the fastest wicket in world cricket has been very much exaggerated. The WACA is still ferocious, it still brings the brutal best out of genuine quick bowlers, it can still scare the bejesus out of any batsman unwilling to utilise its positives.
Dawid Malan lifts his bat to the heavens after scoring his maiden Test hundred at the WACA
England duo Malan (left) and Jonny Bairstow celebrate after putting on an impressive display
The ball may come on quick but, by God, it leaves quick, too. A well-timed forward push here can zip through the outfield for four. Get your eye in and all that pace becomes your friend. That is what happened to England – and two Englishmen in particular.
Dawid Malan and Jonny Bairstow steered England from 131-4 to the close, a partnership of 174 that made day one in Perth the best of the Ashes so far for England.
In Adelaide, when Jimmy Anderson whipped through Australia in their second innings, England were still playing catch-up. Here, Joe Root having won his third straight toss of the tour, they are setting the pace.
They need to get to at least 400 and may hope for a fair amount more to really apply the pressure, but there is already much to build on and bowl at – even if England do not have the pace to extract anything like Australia’s venom from this surface.
So in these most old-fashioned environs, the most old-fashioned, and marvellous, day’s cricket. Hostile bowling, aggressive batting, a throwback to the 70s at a ground that looks as if it has stepped out of a television archive.
Giant monolithic concrete pillar floodlights – Soviet-style, like one of those east European football grounds Liverpool used to play at in grainy footage on Sportsnight – scorching heat and bouncers.
Proper, trampoline surface bouncers, that were taken by wicket keeper Tim Paine at full stretch, both hands high over his head, or simply missed, sent into orbit, out of reach flying away for four.
Super frustrating for the fielding side, for Paine, for Mitchell Starc, but still a wonderful sight – a reminder of the unrelenting, gladiatorial nature of this sport at its best. One can only imagine what was going through the minds of England’s Ashes rookies, once they had seen the team’s most experienced batsman, Alastair Cook, simply beaten for pace after just 21 minutes at the crease.
His scoring has been dismal on this tour – leaving Adelaide he had an inferior average to Australia’s No 10, Nathan Lyon – and he made only seven here. It was a 92mph delivery from Starc that trapped him lbw, playing all around it, just too quick.
His opening partner Mark Stoneman, then, deserves particular credit for setting up the innings in the adverse conditions, and resisting a barrage of short deliveries from Australians scenting blood.
A passage of play in which he was peppered by Josh Hazlewood was probably the most compelling of the day, offering drama, sudden bursts of violence and the hope that the Durham man will have aged five years in a matter of overs, and will be a different character from here.
On 52, Mitchell Marsh dropped Stoneman at slip. This did little to improve the mood of bowler Hazlewood. Stoneman hadn’t added to his score when another one was dug short, rearing up and striking him on the side of the helmet grill. For several minutes play was suspended while Stoneman recovered his senses and doctors checked for concussion.
Everyone knew what was coming when play resumed, though. The WACA was alive for it, roaring Hazlewood in, like playground bullies gathering round as their leader prepares to give some poor soul a hiding.
Short again, obviously, flying off Stoneman’s bat handle as he prodded, hoping for safety. The ball flew up and was shelled by Lyon. The pace was unrelenting. At the other end, Pat Cummins took captain Root for the third time this series. The pressure was mounting.
Australia bowler Mitchell Starc runs down the wicket to bowl during day one of the third Test
Without doubt, not one of England’ s rookies will have faced a sustained pace attack like this, or a track like that of the WACA. This was a unique test and it is to Stoneman’s credit that, while he never looked as comfortable after that head blow, it took a rogue call by third umpire Aleem Dar to dismiss him.
So, to the hero of the day. Malan, batting five, and the first Englishman on this Ashes tour to reach three figures. Ably supported by Bairstow – who should have batted six from the start, an error England may regret if this series proves irretrievable – he brought the best out of the WACA surface, using its pace to play his shots, using the speed of its outfield to keep the scoreboard ticking along.
There is no venue in the world that rewards a batsman like the WACA, that turns dot balls into singles, singles into twos, threes, even boundaries. Malan rode his luck, as happens in most long innings, but he introduced successful tactical shifts, too.
Like all England’s batsmen he tried to get after Lyon, rather than waiting to be picked off; and the left-hand, right-hand combination with Bairstow shifted Australia’s field around, too.
As England grew more settled and survived the new ball, so a decent day became a good day and England’s fears of Perth began to recede. It isn’t a road and it most certainly isn’t a primrose path, but it may just be the most rewarding track on which to play Test cricket; and we’ll miss it when it is gone.
Lyon smiles as he watches Bairstow and Malan run between the wickets on Thursday