Perth's long wait is over after international cricket's Covid lockout

The Australia-England T20 marks a welcome return for the game after more than two years

On a balmy Monday night three summers ago, Shafali Verma, the then 16-year-old prodigy, lit up the old warhorse of the WACA with an outrageous 39 off 17 balls during India’s victory over Bangladesh at the 2020 Women’s T20 World Cup.

The 5000-strong crowd, mostly Indian fans cheering wildly for Shafali’s heroics, hopefully savoured the experience on that electric February 24, 2020 evening because it proved the last international in Perth until Sunday’s drought-breaking men’s T20 clash between Australia and England at Optus Stadium.

Of course, just weeks later, right after Australia lifted the Women’s T20 World Cup trophy, the Covid-19 pandemic paralysed the world and closed borders as refuge was sought at home.

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With tough-talking premier Mark McGowan ruling with an iron fist, Western Australia tightly controlled its border longer than most. The strict measures mostly kept the virus at bay through to the end of 2021 but WA’s fortress meant a logistical nightmare for those entering the state, which involved 14 days of hotel quarantine.

There were some exemptions for sports, but organising international cricket proved too difficult while only six BBL matches and last year’s WBBL final were played in Perth over the past two seasons.

In perhaps the biggest blow to local coffers, the fifth Ashes Test last summer was supposed to be played in Perth before being shifted to Hobart after months of hostile debate between administrators, pundits and fans.

It all totalled a loss of AU$18 million in revenue for the WACA, said chief executive Christina Matthews.

“We had to adjust our operations to minimise the loss,” she told ESPNcricinfo. “It was disappointing that we couldn’t participate in elite cricket at home.

“Effectively we were at the whim of the premier and the government that made decisions that meant cricket couldn’t be played here.”

It gave us an opportunity to shine in difficult circumstances. But you wouldn’t want to go through it again

WACA chief executive Christina Matthews

The timing proved particularly inopportune with Perth’s ODI against India in 2020-21 scrapped – after originally being overlooked to host an India Test – followed by losing the Ashes Test in January after McGowan refused to open WA’s borders in conjunction with the rest of the country in late 2021.

“Losing India and England two years in a row… that’s the high point in our membership,” Matthews said. “When we moved matches to Optus Stadium we were building towards those Tests to maximise our returns, so we have to wait another four years to take advantage of the stadium.

“It had a devastating impact on our forward planning and business model. Our financial model is built around BBL and international cricket. But we had relatively small losses compared to what we could have been facing.”

With the heart of its home schedule ripped out, some WACA members were left disenchanted. “I know there were some members who renewed because of the Ashes Test, which we kept hearing was going to be played at Optus,” said long-time WACA member Chamara Seneviratne. “But then it was scrapped, so that left some resentment. It was all very frustrating.”

The last international match in Perth was India’s T20 World Cup game against Bangladesh•Paul Kane/Getty Images

Matthews, who has had to deal with ongoing tumult amid a spate of WACA board resignations, acknowledged the frustration but said it had a “loyal” membership base. “The members were disappointed but 90 percent of our members kept rolling their fees over and there is now a sense of security with cricket coming back,” she said.

Since WA finally reopened in March, Covid-19 pandemic restrictions gradually eased to the point where Perth’s airports are once again teeming, mask sightings are rare and the virus is barely part of the daily conversation.

At domestic matches at the WACA to start the Australian season, fans have been allowed to interact with players, with selfies once again a familiar sight, to reinforce that the pandemic is very much in the rearview.

Anticipation is now building over the return of international cricket in Perth with many locals particularly excited about the prospect of finally watching hometown hero Cameron Green in national colours. There is the expectation for a crowd of 30,000.

“There is a much better feeling among members and fans so far this season,” Seneviratne said. “It’s particularly great for kids who finally can watch Green and their other heroes in person, which is important for the development of the game.”

While this exasperating period caused major headaches and sleepless nights for those at the WACA, Matthews said there were silver linings.

“One of the benefits was that we allowed community cricket to be played on the WACA, which was a dream come true for many,” Matthews said. “We became closer as an organisation. It was interesting to see how quickly our staff wanted to come back and work from the venue .

“It gave us an opportunity to shine in difficult circumstances. But you wouldn’t want to go through it again.”

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