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How a piece of string gave the Sabina Park game away

By Scyld Berry

1 February 1998

IT was a simple piece of string which finally gave the game away. At 8.30am on Thursday the string ran from the base of the middle stump at one end of Sabina Park's pitch to the middle stump at the other end, and was pulled tight.

``Look at it,'' said David Lloyd, pacing up and down. England's coach and his fellow decision makers had suspected Sabina would be uneven from the moment they first saw the pitch during Jamaica's match against Barbados two weeks ago and the string confirmed their fears. In its way the sight was as disturbing as that of a dishevelled, bulging-eyed figure earlier in the week: that of Richard Austin, a former West Indian opening batsman, who had sought out Lloyd and Mike Atherton at their Kingston hotel and begged for money. Austin, 43, a former 'rebel' who went to South Africa, is a crack addict.

The string should have lain flat on the ground. Instead, it lay on the pitch for some of its length and in other parts rode an inch or two above it. The pitch was made up of 'mountains' and 'valleys' - not to mention cracks which had already appeared and at 10.05 England would have to bat on it against four very tall, fast bowlers.

Easton McMorris, a West Indian opening batsman of the Sixties, was overseeing the last stages of what passed as preparation in his capacity as first vice-president of the Jamaica Cricket Association. This time last year Sabina Park had staged a tedious Test match against India when the bounce had been slow and low. Afterwards McMorris and the rest of the association had decided to dig up the square for the third time in four years, to produce something in tune with the words being pounded out from 'The Mound' stand, where a local brewery was staging a promotion: 'You're Gonna Lively Up Yourself'.

England's forebodings were distracted by the fitness test for Jack Russell, pale and sick, and by the sudden installation of Alec Stewart as wicketkeeper, although he had not kept on tour, and by the call-up of Mark Butcher, who was going to have to bat in a match for the first time since September. The Sabina Park pitch was not adequately prepared; nor too, it should not be forgotten, were England.

After the national anthems had been played, Atherton and Stewart walked out to face sterner music. As Brian Lara led West Indies into the field and Courtney Walsh twice ran up to pat the new captain on the back as a gesture of West Indian unity, the majority of England players turned to watch the single television in their dressing room.

The first tell-tale sign came before a ball was bowled, when Atherton and Stewart took guard and the largely clay soil fragmented as they scuffed in their creases and made their marks: it was going to be only a matter of time under a fierce sun before the entire pitch disintegrated into a mosaic. On a traditional Sabina pitch the batsman could not have made any impression with his studs. Sabina was once made of soil bought from Bulli Creek near Wollongong in Australia which set rock solid and provided the surface for three of the five highest totals in Test cricket.

When a ball in Walsh's opening over lifted from a length and almost cut Atherton in two, the dressing room fell silent. ``No one said a word,'' said one eye witness. ``We just looked at each other.'' In the same over another ball had done the opposite and bounced twice before reaching West Indian wicketkeeper David Williams. Still, the lifter might prove to be a single rogue ball; it might just be at the George Headley Stand End that the ball misbehaved.

This England hope did not long survive. Bowling the game's second over, Curtly Ambrose hit Stewart on the left shoulder. ``Bloody hell,'' was the most common reaction in the England dressing room. Rogue balls were not going to be the exception after all. As England's lower-order batsmen started to check out their chest protectors the next men in sat outside the cell-like dressing room on the raised viewing stand that is all too similar to a scaffold.

Wayne Morton, England's physio, was meanwhile taking the field six times during the 56 minutes of play and increasingly spraying the batsman's top hand, not the bottom, so exaggerated was the ball's kick. After Atherton had been caught at gully, Mark Butcher faced his first and so far only ball of the tour from Walsh; it rocketed off the top of Butcher's bat handle. In other words it kicked almost two feet higher than the batsman had predicted.

Batsmen may appear to be fully protected now from most of the damage which can be done by a projectile weighing at least 5.5 ounces. The most serious injury, however, is waiting to happen, when a batsman flings back his head, as if whiplashed in a car accident, and the ball angles in to hit his unprotected throat beneath the helmet. Players' jargon for such a ball is taken from warfare: like a bullet, it has 'your name on it'.

After Nasser Hussain had come and gone - the score nine for three wickets (and more injuries) - the incoming batsman, Graham Thorpe, noted that there was no chirping or noise from the West Indian fielders that he had expected. Already they had realised this was not a fair and equal contest of skill, a point reinforced by Stewart to Ambrose after another hit.

While Stewart and Thorpe fought it out, on the viewing stand Atherton sat next to the match referee's box, to engage in quiet diplomacy with Barry Jarman. Jarman said later that he was ``shedding tears of blood'' for all the spectators who had come so far, but that he was shedding tears for the batsmen too. Back in London, David Richards, chief executive of ICC, was watching the television coverage with mounting concern.

Out in the middle the senior Indian umpire, Srini Venkataraghavan, got in touch with Jarman again on his short wave radio. ``The first time it was just to ask Barry what he was thinking,'' Venkat recalled. ``The second time, after the ball to Butcher, I was seriously concerned.'' Something had to be done, even if it had never been done before in 1,396 Test matches.

Michael Atherton's modest assessment of his contribution should not be underestimated. If he had been allowed to resign last September, England would have had a new, inexperienced captain at one of the most awkward moments since Bodyline. Without throwing weight around, Atherton's diplomacy quickly brought the matter to a head by bringing all parties together.

While agreement was being reached, Phil Tufnell, on the raised stand, was affected by gallows humour. ``I would have taken guard, left the bat standing in the crack and walked away.''

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Date-stamped : 25 Feb1998 - 19:35