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Lara backs my Sabina stand

By Michael Atherton

1 February 1998

I HAVE played in a few extraordinary Test matches: the only drawn Test with scores level, at Bulawayo; bowled out for 46 in Trinidad and then becoming, in the next match, the only team for 50 years to win in Barbados; Brian Lara breaking Gary Sobers' record for the highest Test innings. But nothing can surpass the remarkable scenes at Sabina Park on Thursday when the first ever Test match was abandoned because of an unsuitable pitch.

Firstly, an account of the events. During those 10 overs of the Test match, Srinivas Venkataraghavan, umpiring at the George Headley Stand end, contacted the match referee, Barry Jarman, twice to express his concerns. Clearly, from an early stage he was unhappy about the conditions. I spoke with the match referee to find out what powers the umpires had in such situations and he told me he would support the umpires' decision absolutely.

On the pitch, Alec Stewart had just been hit badly for the second time in three balls, while at the other end Graham Thorpe was nursing a bruised forearm and finger. There was a natural stoppage of play as our physio, Wayne Morton, applied his magic fingers. It was at this point Alec called me on to the field of play. He said: ``Athers, you know I'll play in any conditions but this is ridiculous.''

Obviously, it is highly unusual for the batting captain to walk on to the pitch in any situation, but there was no other option. It was a fast-developing situation and I just trusted my instincts. I felt the pitch was unsuitable for first-class cricket and the players had been put in a position where there was risk of physical injury.

I quickly went over to Brian Lara to assess his feelings. He agreed the conditions were unfit for cricket but he seemed to be a bit wary because it was his first Test as the official captain and because it was in Jamaica. So I suggested that I would do the talking to the umpires and he agreed.

At this point, both Venkat and Steve Bucknor approached Lara and myself and asked for our opinion. They agreed conditions were unsatisfactory and that we should lead our players off the field while we discussed it with the match referee and West Indies Board of Control officials. I must stress the decision to call off the match was made solely by the umpires in consultation with the match referee. It was, however, a decision with which I was in total agreement and with which I know all players on both sides concurred.

I gather there has been some controversy about Lara's part subsequently, but on Friday night at a party hosted by the Jamaican government I had a quiet word with Brian and he reiterated it was absolutely the right decision. We have agreed we will continue to sing from the same songsheet.

What then was the nature of the pitch? Although it looked awful, with cracks and crumbly areas, it was the unevenness which was the real problem. Whether the ball hit an up-slope or a down-slope determined whether it passed a batsman at throat or ankle height. The fourth and fifth balls of the first over from Courtney Walsh were a case in point. Curtly Ambrose bowled a couple of lethal deliveries at Alec - both balls of fullish length, one of which cannoned into Alec's shoulder and one which flew over David Williams's head for four byes. If this had been a fourth or fifth-day pitch then I don't think there would have been any complaints. However, these were the first 10 overs of a Test match and conditions would have only got more dangerous.

Clearly, the newly relaid pitch had not been relaid flat. It had an undulating, corregated look about it, far worse than in 1986, as confirmed by John Emburey, who was present at both matches. Prior to the toss, a piece of string was laid along the strip parts of it were flat to the ground, other parts were a good two inches off it and were casting shadows.

People will no doubt ask why I batted first after telling Bob Willis that ``the pitch looked good and we'll take first use of it''. Given the slight damp, the pitch would have been at its slowest on the first morning. As at Montego Bay, the pitch would have dried, quickened up and made the unevenness even more unplayable. To bowl last on that pitch was the aim.

Secondly, Nasser Hussain and I saw the pitch on our own three days before the game and we both knew immediately that it would be a dreadful one. I even told John Major at the pre-match banquet that he would be lucky to see any cricket at the weekend. But we had to make sure the pitch was not a distraction for the team. A captain winning the toss and batting is clearly not going to say it is a poor pitch. Your words at the toss to Sky TV are not really for Sky viewers but for the opposing captain standing next to you.

At the start of play there was the usual tension within the dressing room on the first morning of a match. This tension was increased at the perilous position of nine for three. Concern grew at the sight of Wayne Morton continually trotting out. Most damaging was the increasing sense of farce.

While the batsmen next in were considering game plans (basically, anything not in ``the business area'' gets walloped), increasing laughter could be heard from the dressing room after each unplayable delivery. Even the normally serious Ambrose could be seen grinning from ear to ear. Test match cricket is not about farce.

Naturally, we all feel hugely disappointed for everyone involved. A Sabina Park Test match is a huge event for Jamaicans and their loss is considerable. To the hundreds of England fans who travelled here, paying good money, I can only say we share your disappointment. No doubt the ramifications of those 10 overs at Sabina Park will be massive. I can only hope the rescheduled match in Trinidad makes up in some way for everybody's disappointment.

Interestingly, one West Indian player saw that this situation had been coming for some time. Certainly, pitches seem to have been in decline for some time. All the captains at the last International Cricket Council meeting expressed their concerns and Mark Taylor said his side had not played on a good pitch for 18 months. Varied conditions are what make Test cricket interesting. But, hopefully, the authorities will now recognise that for Test cricket to flourish and be entertaining, players need a fair surface. Sabina Park was far from that.

Source: The Electronic Telegraph
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Date-stamped : 25 Feb1998 - 19:33