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Rueful West Indians begin damage limitation exercise

Christopher Martin-Jenkins

31 January 1998

THE International Cricket Council started an investigation yesterday into the circumstances leading to the abandonment of the Kingston Test after 10 overs and one ball. Jackie Hendriks, the former West Indies wicketkeeper and tour manager and president of the Jamaica Cricket Association, a widely respected figure in world cricket, was the first man to take some responsibility for the dangerous pitch at Sabina Park. He offered his resignation, but added: ``I'm not quite sure how it will help.'' Christopher Martin-Jenkins reports.

The groundsman, Charlie Joseph, did not comment yesterday, but he had earlier been reported to have denied laying the strip. However, while most Jamaicans were inclined to blame local white collar cricket officials for this and the equally disgraceful pitch at Montego Bay, an ICC official asked why Joseph had been been seen mowing around the pitch in the days before the game but not working on the Test strip itself.

The ICC investigation will be conducted by their cricket committee, whose chairman, Sir Clyde Walcott, was at the ground as England were being reduced, in between blows to the hands and body, to 17 for three. It was appropriate that the ICC should arbitrate, and endeavour to prevent a repetition, because they, not the home authority, now officially run Test matches and it was their representatives, Barry Jarman as referee and Srini Venkataraghavan and Steve Bucknor as umpires, who took the decision to call the game off.

It is inconceivable that the same conclusion would have been arrived at in the days before ICC referees and the independent National Grid panel, set up by Sir Clyde's predecessor as ICC chairman, Lord Cowdrey. For a start it is hard to imagine that prior to mass media coverage of Test matches anyone would have taken the drastic decision to relay the whole Sabina Park square, as opposed to doing it pitch by pitch as they have at Lord's, among many other places. More to the point, however, local sensibilities would have prevented a Test being abandoned in the days of home umpires, no matter how dreadful the pitch. So severe a blow to national pride would not have been countenanced.

It is a safe bet that Tests have been played on more dangerous surfaces, especially when rain intervened as, for example, at Bridgetown in 1935 when England declared at 81 for seven - Bob Wyatt had his jaw broken - and the West Indies followed suit in their second innings at 51 for six, setting England 72 to win. They lost six wickets getting them. Whether, on the other hand, any Test has ever begun on so completely unsuitable a pitch as this one must be seriously in doubt. The right decision was surely taken, despite dissenting West Indian voices yesterday and some back-tracking by Brian Lara himself, as a senior England player put it yesterday ``to cover his backside''.

Lara said: ``It was the sort of situation when you have to fight it out as cricketers. I thought it was dangerous but a lot of our guys stated that if we had been batting it would have been a tough decision to call off the match. We have experienced pitches such as this before and I think the match would still have been going on but the umpires have to make a final decision. They thought it was dangerous.''

No doubt similar doubts would have been raised by England if they had fielded first and had the West Indies in similar trouble, both cricketing and physical. Had Andrew Caddick or Dean Headley, respectively 6ft 5in and 6ft 4in, used the same pitch, the chances are that they would have been almost as destructive as Courtney Walsh (now level with Dennis Lillee on 355 Test wickets) and Curtly Ambrose. That will remain conjecture. The vindication of the international panel and a neutral referee is that a decision could be taken independently.

The initiative was taken first by Venkat, who was praised for his courage by the watching chairman of England's selectors, David Graveney. Venkat himself had been the last man out when Bishen Bedi declared and thus forfeited the game in the fourth innings at Sabina in 1976.

THE circumstances then were quite different as Venkat explained yesterday: ``I was actually lbw to a shooter from Wayne Daniel. Plenty of runs were scored in the game, though. Yesterday I was on the walkie-talkie to Barry after half an hour. Balls were taking pieces out of the pitch. I'm convinced that someone would have been grievously injured if we had carried on.''

Venkat rejected any suggestion that the pitch might have got better but as some West Indians understandably began an exercise in damage limitation yesterday, Steve Camacho, chief executive of the West Indies Board, questioned whether the decision should not at least have been delayed until lunchtime. Walcott himself is believed to have held that view privately too.

Camacho said: ``Most of the balls were lifting into the hands, not the head. That has happened before. At Edgbaston in 1995 for instance. It was a bad track, no doubt about it, but they might have waited longer to see if it quietened down.''

Camacho's main concern now will be to cajole the Leewards Islands Cricket Association into swifter action. Camacho, whose office overlooks the Recreation Ground at St John's, where what will now be the sixth Test is due to start on March 20, said that he expected the latest new stand there to be completed on time - work is now going on 24 hours a day as it was when the most recent stand was completed shortly before the Test against England four years ago.

More important, surely, is the fact that the relaid pitch has not been used and that the outfield, currently a wilderness of bare, uneven earth, still has no grass. Camacho, never one to make a drama out of a crisis, said: ``The turf for the outfield will be laid this week. We'll make sure that a game is played on the pitch before the Test.''

He was unable to tell me, however, what the match would be. It will not be a four-day President's Cup game, similar to the Jamaica v Barbados match which was used as a trial for the Sabina Park Test. Antiguans have a way of getting it right just in time, but all concerned must be praying that they have laid the right sort of clay. Nowhere in the world outside the West Indies would anyone dream of trying to stage a Test on a pitch which has not been tested for several games of different durations.

The spotlight moves now to Trinidad, where England were due to make a seven-hour journey today - airport to airport. Their reorganised schedule now has them playing a two-day match at Guaracara Park - a good ground spoiled by a constant stench of petrol from the neighbouring refinery - followed by the second and third Tests, starting next Thursday and on Feb 13, at Queens Park Oval. The groundsman there has the unenviable task of preparing two pitches on a square which tends to be a slow, low turner if it is dry, or a seamer's paradise if it is left damp and green.

Those who came to watch from Britain were invited to an open party yesterday at the residence of Jamaican Prime Minister P J Patterson. The mother of one family who had saved money for seven years to come to Jamaica for a Test, was in tears on Thursday night. It was a disappointment for so many and a dreadful day for cricket.

The sponsors of the Test series yesterday asked for assurances there would never be a repeat of the Sabina Park abandonment.

Sonny Peart, marketing communications manager of Cable and Wireless, who will pump 687,000 into Caribbean cricket during their four-year contract, said: ``We have no intention of doing anything except continue with this contract. But we will be asking for assurances that this sort of thing never happens again.''

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Date-stamped : 25 Feb1998 - 19:43