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Why they never get bored keeping score at the WACA

by Peter Roebuck

WACA manually operated scoreboard

View of the historic manually operated scoreboard at the WACA Ground, Perth, Australia.
Photo credit: Bahnfrend.

“Umpires out,” a voice called from the rafters below. Ron is on his toes. Ron is a silent fellow dressed in working clothes and he’s as alert as a cat.

“Players out,” he called a few minutes later as the West Indians saunter out. “Right, everybody settle down,” orders Sandy, 29, a roly-poly fellow who directs operations as he peers through a gap in the board.

Sandy isn’t a fellow given to mincing his words. When Michael falls down on the job he is called a ‘dickhead’. During play the air is full of spills and laughs. The day does not pass with the serenity usually associated with an efficient scoreboard. On the contrary, Sandy’s rasping voice regularly calls the party to order.

Sandy is in charge of the team which runs the WACA scoreboard. It’s an old fashioned sort of a board; built in 1946 with an eye to the past and not to the future. It has no gadgets or buttons. Everything is done with sweat. An old bloke called Ossie used to run it with his wife in years gone by, but those were less demanding days, before the jamborees and the cameras. A bloke could bide his time, pottering up and down the stairs, changing the boards and tugging at the pulleys. Now it was all go. With its three layers, like a club sandwich, it took a troupe to work the board.

Sandy is from Mandurah, a sea resort 47 miles south of Perth. He is entrusted with the task of hiring and firing his team. He picks characters he knows from his home town, far away from the smooth surfaces of Perth.

Besides Ron, there is Con, 72, who keeps the bowling figures up to date, and Rebecca, 17, a bountifully built and faintly flirtatious girl who helps Con. Ron does the lights, Michael, 18, records the sundries and one batsman. Kellee, 17, a bouncy lass, attends to the overs and the other batsman, Andy, 39, another generously proportioned chap, is the spare parts man who busies himself around the place. Together they are more bush than beach, more hillbilly than yuppie. Nothing fancy about them, just bingo, beer and guitar.

They drive up from Mandurah to work the board splinters and all, for every footie and cricket game. During Tests, they live in the board, sleeping on sponges and pillows on its various decks. In the morning they rise at dawn and take a shower in the dressing room across the field. Then they cook a vast breakfast. Mornings and evenings are passed with cards, newspapers and radio. The girls listen to pop music, are apt to creep back into bed after breakfast and won’t play euchre for money. The team cooks on a stove and keeps its tucker and drink in a fridge, upon which are written the words; “We are always in a mess. Only the depth varies”.

For the five days of a Test match, the scoreboard takes on a life of its own, entirely removed from the plush reality of the contest. It is a hotel and a workplace. Once the game is over the team climbs into their van and heads for home.

Even though it condemns them to carting heavy objects uphill and down dale, to standing and staring through holes for hours on end, the troupe like their board. It catches the sea breeze and avoids the sun. Moreover, while Sandy acknowledges its age and sluggish pace, he points out that it never breaks down. He isn’t one for newfangled electronic contraptions. “What if there is a power cut?” he asks. He doesn’t hold with computers or electronic toothbrushes or anything of that sort. In Mandurah they like to do an honest day’s work.

Of course things do go wrong. During the second Test, Richie Richardson’s board stuck in its batting slot. Despite Michael’s tugging it wouldn’t shift even as the West Indians took the field. Curses rent the air. Later, Con couldn’t find any ‘ones’. Eleven overs had been bowled in the hour. Numbers 11 and 10 were bowling and No.1 was still in. For a time no-one could find any ones but eventually one appeared and was thrown below with comments changing to; “Good on ya, mate.” The day is full of temporary crises so that even in its dullest moments, the board is like a coiled spring.

“Umpires out,” calls Ron, over the blaring noise of the television and radios playing in this wooden hotel. The second innings was beginning. Upon Sandy’s abrupt command things settled down somewhat in this hidden, improbable world.

Perth’s scoreboard is a bastion of unfit humanity. According to the latest ground plans, they’re going to preserve it, moving it further north. It’ll go in the end though. The sands of time are running out for this board and for its servants.

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 1988.