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Harper hits out at preparation of Test pitches

Christopher Martin-Jenkins

5 March 1998

THE England team flew to Barbados yesterday with most of them praying for a better batting pitch than any they have encountered so far in the major matches.

Only at Chedwin Park, in Jamaica, shortly before the horrendous experience at Sabina Park, have the batsmen, theoretically the team's stronger suit, had more help than the bowlers. The fact that the two first-class matches played in Bridgetown so far this West Indian season have both produced a total in excess of 400 suggests that the balance will shift, at least a little, for the four-day game against the island which starts on Saturday and the Test match following from next Thursday.

Batting, for much of this series, has been no easier than it must have been in the early days of Test cricket, before mowers, rollers and the art of preparing true pitches had combined to make life so pleasant for batsmen (except when it rained on an uncovered surface) between the two world wars. There has been no report yet from the International Cricket Council committee set up under Sir Clyde Walcott after the Sabina Park debacle - nor could one be expected so soon - but it was absolutely right that their terms of reference should have included Test pitches generally.

There are, of course, many different types of difficult pitch: in this series alone, there has been the disgracefully dangerous one in Jamaica; the two slow, low surfaces in Port of Spain which produced cricket of nail-biting tension; and here, a pitch which was always going to give an unfair advantage to the side fortunate enough to win the toss.

There was sufficient bounce and movement on the first morning for the West Indies fast bowlers to have made life uncomfortable for England had Atherton won the toss but even a first-innings score of, say, 280, would almost certainly have provided a basis for victory.

The prolonged dry spell here obviously gives the Bourda groundstaff an excuse for a poor pitch, but, as was indicated in these columns two days before the game, there was definitely an impression of muddling through. Should Sir Clyde include in his research the way this pitch was prepared, he might ask why the official ground superviser, Joe Solomon, was not here; and why an eight-ton roller was used in very dry weather on a square which had always produced true pitches in the past with a two-ton one.

Roger Harper, Guyana's former captain and now the A-team coach, is honest enough to express the view that there is a problem around the Caribbean and it must be one of the main reasons for the relative lack of outstanding young batsmen here at present. ``We have to accept there is a problem with our pitches,'' Harper said before the Bourda Test.

``It is a pathetic situation. The best way is to send some guys away for training. It is easy to take a former cricketer and put him in charge of pitch preparation in a particular country. But former cricketers are not automatically experts on pitches. Get experts in. Send people overseas to have them trained in soil technology and the preparation of pitches. Have them come back here and carry out workshops for their local counterparts.

``In South Africa, I know they are trying to make it an exact science, not an art. They study the amount of moisture put into pitches. They analyse every aspect from the moisture at the start of a match to the dryness at the end and they measure the bounce each day. They take away samples for scientific analysis. That is the way it should be approached. In my time in Guyana, we had people like Sam Mohamed, who knew about preparing pitches. We don't have those guys around any more in the Caribbean. A lot of guys prepare pitches today as a job, not because they know much about it. They wet and roll and that's about it.''

That, indeed, was about it as far as preparing the Test pitch at Bourda was concerned this time. A professional job was carried out by amateurs although there are so many wet pitches round the world these days that a dry one suiting spinners was no bad thing. It ought, in fact, to have suited England and no doubt would have done if they had won the toss. It is, so to speak, water under the bridge now and administrators everywhere would do well to listen to Harper's message to his own West Indies board. ``If we can't prepare a wicket, we are going nowhere. Forget preparing a fast wicket or a spinners wicket. Just prepare a wicket with decent, even bounce.''

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Date-stamped : 05 Mar1998 - 10:58