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Sabina Park's clay promises lively welcome

By Christopher Martin-Jenkins in Kingston

28 January 1998

THE curious-looking match pitch at Sabina Park continues to provoke fears that the first Test against West Indies, which starts tomorrow, might be over a long time before its scheduled close.

Relaid with clay from the middle of the island, it is clearly, in an ideal world, not ready for Test cricket. A mixture of grey and white in colour, the pitch gave the impression yesterday that the cracks, which already line several areas of its surface, have been watered in what may be a vain attempt to hold it together.

Thin sprouts of grass have grown in the cracks, at one end on an inviting length for fast bowlers such as Courtney Walsh, Curtly Ambrose and Dean Headley.

No doubt the pitch will give some help to the spinners, Carl Hooper and Phil Tufnell, but unless appearances are deceptive, they may spend most of the game waiting for a turn to bowl. The difficulty for batsmen, perhaps, will be in trying to ignore the all too visible cracks and to play the ball on its merit.

By contrast, the outfield is lush and even, and the general appearance of the Sabina Park ground could never have been smarter.

England practised at Kensington yesterday, and Adam Hollioake, recovering from a dislocated shoulder, was given a ``very good chance of being fit'' by his captain, Mike Atherton.

The questionable pitch at Kingston and the news that the new turf for the outfield at the Recreation Ground in Antigua where the fifth Test is due to be played in late March - has still not arrived from the United States, has left a feeling of slight disarray in West Indian circles.

It would be dispelled only by a strong performance by the West Indies team, and at a press conference to launch the Cable and Wireless-sponsored series at a Kingston hotel yesterday Brian Lara, speaking with the long, avuncular arm of Clive Lloyd round his shoulders, expressed the hope that he could lead by example.

``I'm in a leadership position now,'' he said. ``I have learned from indiscretions in the past. I can't set a bad example.''

Lara described his recent batting form as being ``at the bottom at the moment''. He added, however, that he had enjoyed a couple of good series against England - a minor understatement considering that he averages 90 against them - and he put a brave face on stories that he will be jeered at by sections of the crowd in Kingston.

``My experiences in Jamaica in the past have been very good. I'm hoping people around the Caribbean will lend the support necessary for West Indies cricket at the present time.

``Other sports have entered the minds of young sports enthusiasts, but cricket is still an important part of Caribbean life. We need West Indian cricket to be successful at the present time.''

Atherton came across at the same press conference as the experienced leader and the more genuinely confident man.

He and several of his players are ``four years wiser and more experienced than last time, and the West Indies are a side who know what defeat's about now''.

Such verbal sparring is of no significance except as a measure of how genuinely primed the two sides are for the big occasion. For once England have a clear edge.

England have been offered performance-related bonuses by their sponsors, Vodaphone, which amount to 208,000 in the unlikely event of every Test and one-day international being won during the next 10 weeks.

A player involved in all the matches would be about 12,000 better off on top of a basic tour salary of 40,000, a significant increase.

Finance is an even more pressing matter for the West Indies Board. Their Jamaican president, Pat Rousseau, said that excellent advance ticket sales for the Barbados and Antigua Tests had ensured that the series would be profitable whatever transpires.

But he added: ``Home series are very expensive for us, because they occur at peak winter touring times: without sponsorship we would struggle.''

Wishing Lara good luck, he expressed the belief that the Rover car, which will be awarded to the man of the series, would be won by someone who will not have far to drive home.

Source: The Electronic Telegraph
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Date-stamped : 25 Feb1998 - 19:21