How to win at the Waca
Perth, Western Australia
Less than 48 hours to go until the third Test gets under way, and the tension is ratcheting up. Should England win here in Perth, they will hold on to the Ashes urn for another two years. Should Australia come out on top, the series is wide open again going into the final two matches over Christmas and New Year.
England, dominant for all but two days of the series so far, have a problem. Historically, they have never worked out how to play well at the Waca.
Of the 11 Ashes Tests staged here, they have come out on top just once - in 1978, when Australia's team had been wrecked by the breakaway World Series.
Australia? No such issues. They've won every one of the last five Ashes Tests at the ground, including the 206-run thrashing four years ago.
So what is the secret to winning at this idiosyncratic arena on the banks of the Swan River? What special skills do batsmen and bowlers need to succeed here?
"The thing about batting here is that, while it can be a batsman's paradise, the margin for error is a lot smaller than at other grounds," explains former Australian opener Justin Langer, a Perth native who scored 711 runs, including two centuries, in 10 Tests at the Waca.
"If you nick it, it usually carries to the slips, so you have to be very careful driving. You have to be selective when you go for it. Make sure you're in a perfect position or you're gone behind the wicket.
"If you're going to drive, you need to strike the ball as under your eyes as possible. If the ball gets outside your eye-line, because of the bounce and big carry through behind, you can get yourself in trouble. You're flirting with danger.
"Technically you need to be quite correct, because if you're loose the extra bounce will find you out. You have to keep it all nice and tight.
"The rule of thumb is to play the ball as late as possible. Playing with soft hands is a big thing. If you're watching the ball onto your bat and playing late, you'll have those soft hands naturally because you're not as far through the shot. People talk about hard hands, but you mainly play with hard hands when you're hitting the ball away from your body."
Langer (right) reaches a century for Australia against Pakistan at the Waca in 2004 - photo: Getty
Langer has scored more runs at the Waca than any other batsman in Western Australian history. He also shares the record for the highest Test partnership at the ground, the 327 he put on with Ricky Ponting against Pakistan in 1999-2000.
What shots bring the most reward for batsmen on this track?
"It's a great place to play the pull shot, even with the extra bounce, because that bounce is so true. It's the same with the cut shot," he says.
"The cut is a very aggressive shot, and if you play it here you can afford to play it as hard as you like. On most grounds if you don't quite get it, it will fly off to third man, whereas here the bounce is so consistent that you can feel confident behind it.
"You will also get great value for your shots because the outfield is so quick - it's like an ice-rink. But you have to watch the ball right onto your bat."
The Waca is famous for the Fremantle Doctor, a strong wind that blows up from the west and buffets the ground from mid-afternoon onwards. While it's better known for the impact it has on bowling conditions, it also affects the way batsmen must approach their innings.
"That wind can be a nightmare," admits Langer, now Australia's batting coach. "It's a very strong breeze, so as a batsman you're almost getting pushed backwards at the crease. That's how strong it is.
"As a batsman you always want to be coming forward at the bowler. If the quick has got that really strong wind up his backside it gives them such an advantage. The flipside of that is that at the other end you're getting pushed towards the bowler, and they're having to fight their way into that breeze.
"Good batting is all about balance. As long as you get your balance right at the crease here you don't need to change your stance or set-up because of the wind.
"But you do need to have in your mind that you've got a guy coming in at you fast with the breeze at his back, and it'll be a lot harder for you to be positive with the bat. For example, it'll be a lot harder to hit down the ground because you're hitting into that wind."
What must bowlers do to take wickets and keep the run-rate down?
"It depends how strong the wind is and how regular," says former Middlesex seamer Simon Hughes, in Australia as an expert analyst for Test Match Special.
"It can blow you off-balance as you come into your delivery stride, and that messes up your timing. And bowling is all about timing.
"If it's in your face it pushes you back as your arm comes over, which means you can bowl too full, and if it's at your back it can push you through your action and make you bowl too short.
"You have to make it work for you. If the wind is coming across you from leg to off, you might bowl more bouncers because if a batsman plays a pull-shot the ball can get held up and then get caught.
"A cross-wind will also affect a swing bowler. If you're a right-armer with a good out-swinger, you don't want to bowl into a wind coming from off to leg, because it can straighten out any swing. So you might have to set the ball off wider to compensate for the effect of the wind.
"Other swing bowlers will enjoy bowling into the wind, because it holds the ball up and so allows it to swing a little more.
"But bowling into it will tire you out. Not only are you fighting your way through it when you bowl, but it pushes you back to your mark much faster, so your recovery between deliveries is shorter."
Tim Bresnan is one of three England bowlers competing for a place in Perth - photo: Getty
England have yet to announce which of Chris Tremlett, Tim Bresnan or Ajmal Shahzad will replace the injured Stuart Broad for this Test.
Should the physical builds and track records of the three bowling in windy conditions come into the selectors' minds?
"Someone like Bresnan would be able to push through a strong breeze because of his leg power," says Hughes. "For that reason he might get the nod. It wouldn't have suited Broad, because he's willowy yet there's still a lot of him. It might not suit Steve Finn either.
"The difficult thing is that the Doctor doesn't always call. Sometimes there's very little wind; sometimes it blows all day and sometimes it only comes mid-afternoon."
Is there a particular line or length that tends to reap dividends?
"Some bowlers get a bit carried away with the bounce here," believes Langer. "You don't very often see the ball go through to the keeper above head height, but you do here, so bowlers can sometimes bowl too short.
"But you actually have to pitch the ball up a little more because of that advantage with bounce. You're pushing the batsman back because of the pace and lift in the wicket, but you want to bring him forward because that's where those nicks will come into play."
The highest wicket-takers in Tests at the Waca are all pace bowlers - Brett Lee, Merv Hughes and Craig McDermott, with the top of the pile (52 scalps in 12 Tests) being Glenn McGrath, who liked to bowl exactly the sort of delivery Langer describes - just short of a length on off-stump or just outside, drawing the batsman forward to take the edge.
"At most grounds around the world now blokes can just get on the front foot and play with ease, because there isn't that bounce there any more," says Langer. "At the Waca it's a bit different. You can't be as confident going forward.
"For me, while I was looking to get forward and looking for the full ball, I knew I couldn't go with the same confidence as elsewhere. If the ball is only coming through waist-high you're not so worried.
"Good off-spin bowlers can do well here, particularly right-armers, because they can get their flight into the breeze. What's brilliant is that from the other end against an offie you feel as if you can hit every ball for six, because you've got the wind at your back, and they're flighting it up.
"Leg-spinners don't tend to have as much success; the great Shane Warne never had much joy at the Waca. But the margin for error for all bowlers is very small, because of the true bounce and fast outfield."
What of the specific conditions for this match?
On Tuesday lunchtime the Test pitch here looked much greener than expected, with a little more grass than traditional Waca wickets. Groundsman Cameron Sutherland expects it to offer something for both bowlers and batsmen.
"In the first 10 overs the quicks have been getting a bit of movement here, and there's been some swing," he says.
"It will still have a bit of colour come Thursday, but I don't think there'll be much seam movement off it - there'll be a little nibble, but it won't go excessively either way.
"We'll get cracks, no doubt - it just depends on the weather how big and when. Spinners can play a role - there'll be some bounce for them.
"Given the Waca's history we're hoping it can produce a result. We've only had the one draw here, and that was pretty dead pitch."