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Jamaican pitch disgrace

Christopher Martin-Jenkins

30 January 1998

THE reverberations of yesterday's abandonment of the first Test at Sabina Park after 56 minutes will echo for years. The game may have been replaced by an extra Test next Thursday in Trinidad but the consequences for cricket in Jamaica are dire. It was a severe embarrassment for the island which produced George Headley, Michael Holding and Courtney Walsh, writes Christopher Martin-Jenkins.

The local authorities have to take the responsibility for trying to play a Test on a relaid pitch which should have been given several seasons to settle down.

The match lasted only 62 balls before the umpires decided, following consultation with the match referee, Barry Jarman, that batting was too dangerous for the game to continue. From the first over, balls had either shot or lifted from a length and bones would certainly have been broken sooner or later.

England had reached 17 for three before the sixth appearance of their physiotherapist, Wayne Morton, to treat batsmen for blows to the hand or arm, prompting Alec Stewart, who had survived 26 balls himself, to call his captain, Mike Atherton on to the field.

Atherton and Brian Lara told the umpires, Steve Bucknall and Srini Venkataraghavan, that the pitch was unfit. Atherton had chosen to bat first on it, believing it could only get worse.

Atherton himself was caught in the gully withdrawing from a cut in the third over. Mark Butcher, who had come into the side at the last moment because Jack Russell had withdrawn with a severely upset stomach, was then out to his first ball of the tour, which reared towards his gloves and cannoned to third slip. Nasser Hussain lasted five overs before edging Ambrose to second slip.

Graham Thorpe's brief time in the middle emphasised the apparent impossibility of batting for any length of time. Hit on the forearm and twice on the fingers, he watched Stewart being struck on the top hand by Ambrose two balls before a lethal lifter off a length flew for four byes over the wicketkeeper's head.

Lara was in a difficult position, having been booed by sections of the crowd when he was introduced to them before the national anthems. He might have taken the view that England, having won the toss, could have hit out and even declared. Such tactics were not unknown after rain in the days before uncovered wickets. But Atherton said that not only Lara but all the players were in agreement. Stewart added: ``The bowlers were in a dodgy postition. They knew what was happening. It was just a question of when and how many times you were going to take a blow.''

The square at Sabina Park was relaid, in the words of the respected president of the Jamaica Cricket Association, Jackie Hendricks, ``in order to find more pace and bounce and a fair pitch for both batsmen and bowlers''. Hendricks said that this pitch had been prepared like any other. The decision to re-lay had been taken after a dull draw against India last year on a lifeless surface. The question has to be asked, however, why work did not begin until August and was not completed until six weeks ago. The replacement soil came from the middle of the island at Appleton, the source of the clay for the relaid pitch at Jarrett Park which proved no less dangerous for England's opener in Montego Bay.

There can be no great confidence in the pitch at Port of Spain, venue for the third Test and the scene of an extra game as the England and West Indies boards have agreed to play there next Thursday in place of the three-day game against Trinidad. The four-day match played there in the President's Cup last week ended in two days on an unreliable pitch.

The unfortunate impression is growing that West Indies cricket is currently in a critical state. There is not a blade of grass on the outfield at Antigua, venue for the fifth Test in late March. The pitch is already laid but it will be far too soon for comfort to stage a five-day Test there.

This match will stand in the records as an official Test, so Nixon McLean has won his first cap without bowling a ball. None of the previous 1,396 Tests has been abandoned for a dangerous pitch but it has not been unknown on less important occasions. In 1881, a match between Oxford University and the Gentlemen of England was switched from Christ Church to The Parks when the captains decided that the pitch was dangerous. Here at Sabina, in 1976, the Indian captain Bishen Bedi declared in the fourth innings, handing the West Indies the match in order to save his tail-enders physical punishment. In December a one-day international between India and Sri Lanka at Indore was also abandoned because of a dangerous pitch.

It is too early to say whether the right decision was taken here yesterday. The crowd, of about 6,000, including more than 500 holidaymakers from Britain - the advance guard of those who will flood into Barbados and Antigua later - took the disappointment well. Local ticket-holders were refunded immediately and those who bought in advance will get their money back in due course.

Pat Rousseau, who as the Jamaican president of the West Indies Board was especially embarrassed, said: ``We deeply regret the abandonment of the Test match and offer our apologies to members of the public, especially our visitors from overseas, the media and the two teams.''

It rubbed salt in the wound that Jamaica's football team were playing a friendly game against Sweden last night. What cricket needed to retain its position as the island's premier sport was the close and exciting match which had been anticipated. What it got was a farce with tragic undertones.

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Date-stamped : 25 Feb1998 - 19:29