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Fault lines open wide as West Indies are pitched into decline

By Scyld Berry

Sunday 1 February 1998

IN the 1980s no end was visible to the West Indian domination of world cricket. Suddenly there is no end in sight to its decline.

The team representing the West Indies, of course, may well win this series: indeed the likeliest outcome of the two Tests in Trinidad over the next fortnight, if not by much, is that they will take a 2-0 lead over an England side still short of match practice. But even then West Indian cricket will still present the same picture as that of a once beautiful woman whose mask of make-up has cracked and fallen away.

In its prime nothing could match the stylish beauty of West Indian cricket. In the 1950s we were dazzled by Worrell, Weekes, Walcott, Ramadhin and Valentine; in the Sixties by Sobers, Hall and Kanhai. When the rest of the cricket world was digging its own grey grave around 1960, intent on slow scoring and bore-draws, Worrell's West Indians brought light, energy and excitement where there had been only repression.

In the Seventies Clive Lloyd was joined by Viv Richards and Michael Holding, and in the Eighties by many of the greatest names in the history of fast bowling. The rest of us, meanwhile, especially sad old England, could only admire the virile athleticism with which their world supremacy was achieved.

And therein lay the seeds of their decline. To outsiders, West Indian cricket was dazzlingly efficient - and it had the same effect on its own people and administrators. Though a few voices warned about the future, everyone else assumed that great cricketers would keep on growing like new palms, and nothing else had to be done.

So now, when West Indian cricket needs a new, presentable face, the infrastructure is not there. Grounds are being dug up all over the Caribbean in an effort to rediscover the glorious past, but haphazardly, without system or expert guidance, as Thursday's events at Sabina Park so dolorously proved.

The threat to the Antigua Test from equally careless stewardship is a real one. The turf for the outfield has arrived from Florida and, according to West Indies board chief executive Steve Camacho, will be laid this coming week. ``The Test will happen,'' Camacho forecast yesterday, though not until a fortnight before the game will an attempt be made at batting and bowling on the relaid pitch.

Australia and England enjoy the resources of First World countries; India and Pakistan can call on masses of cheap labour. Not only do the West Indies have no indigenous big business to bail them out, they also face exorbitant costs in operating in islands where so much has to be imported.

Almost a fortnight ago, in the interests of a new transparency, the West Indian Cricket Board staged a press conference in Barbados which was broadcast on television throughout the Caribbean for the first time. When the chairman of selectors, Wes Hall, began to speak, his microphone did not work. On television in Jamaica barely half of the opening stages were visible as the line kept breaking down. Dazzlingly efficient it was not, and all too typical.

It would be alarmist to say that Trinidad will not put on a decent show over the next fortnight. Queen's Park Oval should be as ready as any ground could be for back-to-back Tests at short notice. But the sudden notice is the problem, owing to the incompetence of Jamaica's board in preparing Sabina Park.

A new electronic scoreboard is being installed in Trinidad, but as some parts for it are still in Miami, it may be ready for the Test starting on Feb 13, as originally scheduled, but not for the one on Thursday. The old manual scoreboard has been dismantled and removed. One of the stands has yet to have bucket seats fitted.

The groundsman however, Bryan Davis, a former Glamorgan player, has been preparing two Test pitches for several weeks, ever since post-election trouble broke out in Guyana and contingency plans were made for a second Test in Trinidad. Both pitches are evenly, thickly grassed, but the first of them at least is likely to be closely cut so that some cricket takes place in this unblessed series.

For England's seam bowlers, two Tests in 13 days of steamy heat will be an enormous burden, far from match-hardened as they are. In the two-day game of 90 overs per day which starts against Trinidad at Guaracara Park today, the full Test team are expected to play - except Phil Tufnell will be rested for Robert Croft - as they have had less than a full week's cricket on this tour. Jack Russell is fit to reclaim his place from Mark Butcher.

West Indies, on the other hand, have their six fast bowlers to rotate, and whereas it was their height and pace which was all too effective at Sabina Park, it is their quantity and match fitness which should be the deciding factor on the slow-seaming pitches of Trinidad. Furthermore, Brian Lara will launch his captaincy proper in front of his home crowd, twice, rather than in indifferent or even hostile Jamaica.

An imperfection or two in Trinidad can therefore be forgiven, but the West Indian board cannot afford to slip on any more banana skins. They may already have forfeited the chance of staging the 2007 World Cup. Yet the possibility remains that through rain or riot in Guyana, or the state of Antigua's ground, chaos will return.

Back in Jamaica, Jackie Hendricks will tender his resignation as president of the island's board at a meeting tomorrow. The chief executive officer George Prescod is also under fire for what The Gleaner (founded 1834) has termed ``a national disgrace''.

Sir Clyde Walcott's commission of inquiry have to establish, firstly, why the whole square at Sabina Park was dug out, without leaving one pitch in place in the event of things going wrong, as they did? Secondly, why it was dug up less than five months before the Test match, and when the groundsman, Charlie Joseph, was abroad? But in the end Jamaica's punishment is all too likely to be nothing more than missing a Test next year, when the Australians tour.

Among the 500-600 England supporters, the possibility of legal action against the Jamaican and West Indian boards remains, but their mood was considerably placated by Friday evening's party hosted by the Jamaican prime minister, P J Patterson.

Thrown on the lawns of Jamaica House at 24 hours' notice, the party demonstrated that local organisation can be effective, if not at Sabina Park.

Beneath the cracks there lie much deeper fault lines.

Source: The Electronic Telegraph
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Date-stamped : 25 Feb1998 - 19:35