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A rum do for England fans in Jamaica

By Martin Johnson

31 January 1998

A WAY from the four-star hotels, Kingston is not quite the palm-treed paradise the tourist brochures would have you believe, and while most of the local industry revolves around making coffee, there's also a bob or two to be earned from making coffins. However, if picking a rum-fuelled argument in a downtown bar remains the simplest method of attempting suicide in Jamaica's capital (albeit only by a short head from attempting to cross the road during rush-hour) then batting against Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose on Thursday morning was a more than a viable alternative.

Batting against the West Indies over the past couple of decades has always attracted a hang-glider's insurance premium, and rarely more so than here at Sabina Park. In 1986 the next man in had to take guard while they were busy retrieving a piece of Mike Gatting's nose from the ball, and on the same ground 10 years earlier, Bishen Bedi opted to declare India's second innings closed rather than become the cricketing equivalent of Field Marshal Haig. Keith Fletcher once said that when the West Indians were bowling, he even watched the TV highlights from behind the sofa, and if the scheduled first Test of 1998 had not been called off, it's doubtful whether Sky would have been allowed to continue their coverage before the 9pm watershed.

After the toss there was the traditional press box sweepstake inviting tenders as to the teatime score, and one or two were in the region of 15/20 for no wicket. This was not so much because they thought that England's batsmen would be scoring particularly slowly, as the belief that the West Indies would by then be batting. Whether or not the match would have been called off so abruptly had Walsh not been replaced as captain is a moot point. It is more or less accepted practice for tail-enders to make rapid strides towards the square-leg umpire rather than risk decapitation, but Brian Lara would have been expected to stand and earn his VC, posthumous or otherwise.

As far as the crowd were concerned, it's mildly surprising that there wasn't more in the way of protest. There were more than 1,000 England supporters in the ground, and they were not in Jamaica simply for the sun and rum. If that had been the case, they'd have gone to Montego Bay, not Kingston. However, just like the home supporters, they wandered around with the kind of blank, dazed expressions not seen since England were bowled out for 46 in Trinidad four years ago.

Many of them made a beeline for the pitch, which in days gone by used to be like no other in Test cricket - as black and shiny as a tap dancer's shoes. Then they dug it up because of lack of pace, leaving it with the appearance of a battered straw hat. While the old surface was flat, this one was not dissimilar to one of Kingston's B roads, and one female spectator from England felt the need to fill a handkerchief with soil samples to take home as a souvenir. She didn't need a trowel, as it came away like a rhubarb crumble topping.

Others made for the pavilion enclosure, where an interesting, if somewhat one-sided, conversation took place between two rival supporters. One of them was sporting the familiar uniform of the English supporter overseas - cream long-sleeved shirt, MCC tie, calf-length shorts, black socks, and red face. ``Do you know what they should do?'' he spluttered, but we never did find out, largely because his West Indian opponent had a sizeable advantage in the decibel department, and appeared to have made an earlier start on the rum punch.

``How did you ever get an empire, man?'' he demanded to know, tossing in names like Raleigh and Drake, and maintaining an unshakeable theme that the English had all the vertebracy of an amoeba. ``You don't like it, battin', why you not declare? Where you Winston Churchills? Fightin' on the beaches!''

Some of us fought back the urge to point out that, while the pitch did indeed resemble a beach, the 57 minutes of play we had just witnessed did not represent the Sabina Park groundsman's finest hour, and that both sides - not just England - had agreed to up stumps and leave town. One of the advertising boards inquired: ``Are You Man Enough To Have A Vasectomy?'', but England were merely drawing the line at having the operation performed by Ambrose and Walsh.

Meantime, the carnival-like atmosphere on the Red Stripe Mound continued, cricket or no cricket. The band played on, just as it did when the Titanic (currently showing at the Kingston Roxy) went down, broken only by a loudspeaker announcement. ``Apologies to Mr Andrews, the vodka is on the way''. Just the sort of thing you'd hear over the Tannoy at Lord's, really. Part of the new enclosure, developed in an attempt to match Barbados and Antigua for Test match atmosphere, contains an artificial beach, complete with sun-loungers, umbrellas and swimming pool, and a good many of its patrons did not seem to either care, or notice, that there wasn't actually any cricket taking place.

Another West Indian supporter, in front of the pavilion, was busy informing anyone with a pink complexion, a Gullivers' Travel bag and a Sunday League shirt, that English batsmanship had become totally spineless since the days of Geoffrey Boycott. His natural modesty would doubtless have prompted Geoffrey to disagree with him, but England's batting barnacle-turned-media pundit was not around. Or if he was, he was keeping an unusually low profile.

Boycott had flown into Kingston on Sunday night, amid rumours that his assault conviction in France had had his various employers shifting uneasily in their seats, and, sure enough, as the week went on, it transpired that of his original contracts to work on this Test for TWI (the TV conglomerate supplying, among others, Sky), BBC Radio 5, a local radio station and The Sun, only The Sun had survived.

Early fears about the pitch, plus the business in France, may have made various employers fearful of any mischievous on-air badinage along the lines of: ``How long do you think it might take the bruising to go down then, Geoffrey?'' But it at least solved the usual Sky problem of how to keep Boycott and Ian Botham at a safe distance from one another. Bosom buddies they are not, particularly after Boycott appeared, complete with sponsored shirt, for Imran Khan in the ball-tampering libel case.

The week began with the West Indian newspapers taking more of an interest in the Super Bowl than the cricket, and, with Caribbean youngsters now growing up on a diet of satellite sport from the USA, cricket is now under real threat as the major sport in this part of the world. West Indian cricket badly needs a shot in the arm, especially after the three-Test annihilation in Pakistan, and the kind of debacle we have witnessed here is not exactly calculated to provide it.

THE local papers have not spent much time focusing on England, apart from the obvious interest in Dean Headley, grandson of the great Jamaican batsman George. Even this has been a bit half-hearted, with headlines in The Daily Gleaner such as ``Dean Headley Hopes To Do Well At Sabina''. One English journalist, propping it up over the breakfast table, decided he hadn't seen such an arresting headline since the Romford Gazette's ``Pope Not To Visit Romford''.

The main thrust of the Jamaican media has, not unnaturally, been the replacement of Walsh, one of their own, with Lara, from Trinidad, as captain. Rivalry between the different Caribbean communities is never less than fierce, and finds a natural outlet in cricket.

So when Lara failed to attend a ceremony to honour Walsh at his local club this week, the locals clambered in to such an extent that Lara was forced to issue a statement saying he hadn't known anything about it.

There were, in fact, fears that the Jamaican crowd would turn upon Lara during this Test, though in the event there was scarcely enough time to find out. One newspaper columnist urged supporters not to boo him, but this was less an exercise in preaching harmony and unity, as advising alternative methods to put him in his place. ``Whatever Lara does,'' he wrote, ``ignore him. Give him the silent treatment.'' We'll never know now whether Lara, raising his bat for a century, would have been greeted by a deafening silence.

As far as England are concerned, they have handled the Sabina business with admirable diplomacy, and in terms of public relations are unrecognisable from the side who toured Zimbabwe last year. Bob Bennett, the genial tour manager, is a refreshing influence and things have improved to the extent that this week - having told the press where to stick their invitation to a Christmas party last year - they happily accepted the media challenge to a friendly golf match.

Well, friendly-ish. Wayne Morton, the physio, proved to be a dab-hand with an eight-iron, especially when hurled vast distances, and it was almost a case for the ICC referee. His caddie, having on one occasion had his hair singed by a flying niblick, bravely got around the course without a batting helmet and would probably have felt safer facing Walsh and Ambrose at Sabina. Faced with this kind of intensity, the press slid to defeat, though if it had been a Test match we could have called it off on the grounds that it was too dangerous.

David Lloyd, the coach, continues to be a mixture of the highly personable and slightly irrational, having declined to answer press conference questions from the Sunday People man on the grounds that his newspaper upset him with a story about his personal life. It's a bit like taking it out on the ticket collector because the train is late.

The mood of the camp often depends on what the media are reporting, and while Michael Atherton's claim never to read the newspapers is true up to a point, this is because all the cricket articles are faxed out to him from Lord's.

The skipper, who is understandably miffed that his innings will be recorded in Wisden, was ploughing through another batch on the eve of the Test match, while Jack Russell was being interviewed just along the hotel poolside on the eve of what was to be his 50th Test match. He was talking about the old floppy hat he's worn for the thick end of 20 years, now outlawed in favour of the official ECB version. But Russell is continuing to argue in private

Maybe diet of banana and Weetabix has done for Russell. Or maybe his constitution has packed up after cutting back his daily tea quota for the tatty old favourite. Sadly, Russell spent the night before Sabina contemplating not so much his 50th Test as his 50th trip to the lavatory, and was too weak to play. Word came back via the media relations manager that he was ``gutted'', an unfortunate choice of phrase, but everyone in the press box felt for him. Maybe that diet of banana and Weetabix has done for him, or maybe his constitution has packed up after cutting back his daily quota of 20 cups of tea to only 10.

Mark Butcher, who came in to replace Russell, made the expected diplomatic statement about being ``pleased for myself, but sad for Jack'', though an hour later he might have felt inclined to feel pleased for Jack and sorry for himself. Outside of the nets, the ball that got him was the first he'd faced on the entire tour.

David Graveney, the chairman of selectors and Russell's old Gloucestershire captain, is as upset for Russell as anyone, though Graveney is as unwaveringly cheerful as ever, and smilingly reports that he has just been told he will have to pay his own way when he returns for the Barbados Test match, with the immortal phrase from an ECB official: ``We don't want too many hangers-on, after all.''

Meantime, Vodafone, who took over from Tetley this year as the team's major sponsor, have announced a series of bonuses which could amount to 200,000 if the team win every international out here, albeit nothing if they don't win one of them.

On England's overseas form since 1986, Vodaphone are in no great danger of being badly out of pocket, though they would be more than happy to pay up for being associated with a winning team. Tetley, after all, finally gave up after too many years of being linked with a drowning-your-sorrows ale.

MEANTIME, England's relief at getting out of Jamaica with only one visit (Graham Thorpe) to the local infirmary is slightly tempered by the news that the re-arranged Test in Trinidad means that they are now playing their warm-up game at Guaracara Park rather than Queens Park Oval.

Guaracara Park is home of the biggest petrol refinery in the Caribbean, where they play cricket under the shadow of an oil rig rather than the shade of a palm tree. It's a tough life as a touring cricketer. One week, your fingers are battered into the shape of a spatula, and the next, your lungs are coated in diesel.

The main sympathies today, however, go to those English tourists who make the annual trek to watch England playing overseas, often more in hope than expectation, but this time with a genuine belief that their side could win a major Test series abroad for the first time since Mike Gatting's team retained the Ashes in 1986-87.

Peter Hill, a 62-year-old flooring contractor from Birmingham, had also booked four days' marlin fishing on the north Jamaican coast, only for his hire-boat to fail to materialise, while there was the stunningly incongruous sight of three Barmy Army members, complete with tattoos, ear studs and beer bellies, sobbing forlornly into their beakers of Red Stripe.

However, while there is a distinct shortage of cricket in Kingston at the moment, rum supplies are in no danger of drying up, and one group of Scots, wearing red-wigs and sporting T-shirts proclaiming them as the ``Jamaican Lubrication Delegation from the Scottish Nation'', are taking the current situation in their stride.

Eric Sanderson, from Glasgow, seemed quite perky about having witnessed Test match history, and when asked what his lads intended to do for the rest of their stay, he seemed to regard it as a slightly silly question. ``Carry on drinking, of course.''

Source: The Electronic Telegraph
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Date-stamped : 25 Feb1998 - 18:31