Down to Perth, after a thud

Sports
On your way there from the Perth airport, the surest sign that you're nearing the city centre is the sight of the WACA's floodlights looming into view over the horizon, towering over the mostly single-storeyed suburban sprawl.

The stadium itself is low-slung, exaggerating the height and the vaguely threatening look of the four towers that surround it. Looking at it from the outside, one cannot help visualising a four-man pace battery, composed uniformly of 6'5" giants, inducing claustrophobia in some lonesome little batsman.

Western Australia Cricket Association. The acronym, WACA, sounds like whacker. You almost expect to see it in the dictionary. Whacker: Noun; a bowler, made ten times as potent by the bounciest pitch in the world, liable to cause batsmen bodily harm with whacks to the chest, side, arms and head. In the 90s, Curtly Ambrose, a bowler designed to terrorise batsmen with the Fremantle Doctor (the strong afternoon seabreeze) behind him, was perhaps whacker-in-chief at the WACA.

In January 1993, on an unusually green strip, he ran through Australia with figures of seven for 25 (all his wickets came in a scarcely believable spell of seven for one). Four years later, he came back for his final Test in Australia. This time, the pitch didn't have any grass on it, but, baked by temperatures consistently in the 40s, the rock-hard surface had split open into a jigsaw of cracks. Ambrose took a five-for in the first innings, bowled 20 no-balls in nine second-innings overs (including one believed to be the longest in Test history, 15 balls long), and was run out in between thanks to his bat getting stuck in a crack.

It was in such hostile conditions that Sachin Tendulkar, not yet 19, collared Craig McDermott, Merv Hughes, Paul Reiffel and Mike Whitney for a 161-ball 114 in January 1992. His cutting and punching off the backfoot, often on tiptoe, convinced a country that is often sceptical of visiting talent that they were watching a batsman of the highest calibre. Australia has welcomed Tendulkar like one of their own ever since.

In recent years, however, Perth has become much friendlier to batsmen. From 1990 to 2004, visiting teams were bowled out for less than 200 twelve times in 29 innings. After that, no touring side suffered that fate for 10 innings, till last year, when Mitchell Johnson and Ryan Harris took nine wickets each to skittle out England for 187 and 123. When India won here in 2008, they broke a winless streak for away teams at the venue stretching back 10 Tests. The very next year, it was South Africa's turn to show that teams can come to Perth and beat Australia, chasing down 414 in the fourth innings.

India's 2008 win was almost completely unexpected. Then, as now, they came to the WACA on the back of losses in the opening two Tests at Melbourne and Sydney. But unlike this trip, their Sydney defeat was a close-run thing, and contained enough innings of substance to suggest that the batsmen could handle whatever the WACA threw at them.

This time, their batsmen arrive with their collective confidence level at its lowest ebb in the last decade. The openers haven't fired as a pair overseas for a year, their number three displays a worrying tendency to get bowled after getting starts, their number four, consciously or otherwise, is weighed down by an elusive landmark, their number five has only once gone into double figures in four innings, and their number six will either be a batsman struggling to prove his Test credentials or a debutant.

If Rohit Sharma does play, he will start with the odds of making a significant score loaded against him. Only one visiting debutant, Lou Vincent, has scored a century at Perth. Vincent made 104 and 54 in a match that contained four centuries by New Zealand batsmen. That apart, only one other non-Australian debutant has reached 50. That was JP Duminy, who made 50 not out in South Africa's 414 chase. No one else has even made 40. But not too many great overseas batsmen have made their debuts at Perth. Of all the names in that list, only Chris Cairns really stands out as a player who went on to achieve any real success with the bat.

Does Rohit have the game to stand up and counter the WACA wicket, which has reportedly returned to its old menacing ways? If anything about a batsman gives a clue about his ability to tackle quick wickets, it's that highly subjective element of time at the crease, that extra split second some players seem to have to play their strokes. Rohit seems to have that, and also the kind of strokes that can pay dividends on such surfaces, notably the backfoot punch through the covers.

What might help Rohit most is his air of bored indifference. Body language may have nothing to do with what someone is actually thinking, but Rohit seems the kind of player whose approach isn't clouded by his team's fortunes. Pop psychology, for sure, but something has to click somewhere if India have to turn things around.

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