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Pitch fires knockout blow

Christopher Martin-Jenkins

30 January 1998

THE first Test between the West Indies and England was abandoned in Kingston, Jamaica, yesterday after an hour's play on the opening day when the pitch was deemed dangerous, writes Christopher Martin-Jenkins.

After 10.1 overs, England, who chose to bat first, had crumbled to 17 for three as fast bowlers Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh took advantage of an newly laid pitch which provided plenty of pace but hugely variable bounce.

One full-length delivery to Alec Stewart leapt high over wicketkeeper David Williams's head for four byes. The next, off a similar length, barely got above ankle height.

The difficult conditions were eventually deemed dangerous after England physiotherapist Wayne Morton had been forced to go on to the field six times to treat injuries, mainly to the batsman's fingers.

``There was a bit of war out there and you always fear for a batsman's safety,'' he said. ``You don't often see too many apologies from West Indian fast bowlers but they seemed pretty embarrassed by it.''

As early as the third over, one of the umpires, Srin Venkataraghavan, got in touch with match referee Barry Jarman to alert him to the dangers.

England captain Mike Atherton, who had already been dismissed, went out to join his opposite number Brian Lara and the umpires at a drinks break.

Jarman, who later described the pitch as ``horrific'', joined them in the middle before everyone left the field and the International Cricket Council in London were contacted.

``The pitch is unfit and dangerous to the players, it was unfit for play,'' said Pat Rousseau, president of the West Indies Cricket Board, at a hastily arranged press conference.

It was the first time that such action has been taken in the 121-year history of Test cricket.

England opener Alec Stewart put a brave face on events. ``A couple of pieces came out of the wicket and we took a few blows but that's part of cricket. We just had to cope as best we could,'' he said.

Former England all-rounder Ian Botham was more forceful in his condemnation of the pitch. ``I was fearful that someone would be killed out there,'' he told reporters.

Rousseau said efforts would be made to try to rearrange England's tour in order to accommodate the Test at another venue.

Lara was also hopeful that the Test could be rescheduled. ``Cricket has to be played on a fair surface,'' he said.

Former Test fast bowler Michael Holding said: ``I've never seen a pitch as dangerous as that. The people responsible should be brought to task.''

Those people are presumably groundsman Charlie Joseph and Jamaican chief executive George Prescod, who supervised the preparation of the relaid pitch.

Balls spat and shot off the cracked and spiteful surface, and, propelled at blinding pace by Walsh and Ambrose, batting soon became a dangerous exercise.

Stewart and Graham Thorpe had seen enough when Thorpe was hit for the second time. He went off for an X-ray on the middle finger of his left hand, with England 17 for three and one ball of the 10th over delivered.

Atherton knew the pitch would be poor, but not that poor. ``It was dangerous. It was clear before the match that the pitch had been laid unevenly. That's why we saw the unevenness of the bounce,'' said Atherton.

Jarman said: ``The reason for the delay in calling it off was because of the many English fans who had come to watch the Test. They'll be terribly disappointed - and so are the players, but the last thing they want is to wind up in hospital.''

Stewart had made nine in 26 balls and Thorpe had not scored off 10 deliveries before the abandonment. Stewart spoke to umpire Bucknor and Lara between overs on the shambles unfolding before his eyes. Then Thorpe threw away his bat in pain and disgust after another ball from Walsh hit him on the gloves, Morton came back on and during the break Stewart summoned Atherton.

Atherton said: ``Both captains agreed that the pitch was not suitable for first-class cricket, both umpires agreed and so did the match referee, so we decided to abandon the game.

``The pitch was dangerous and the safety of the players was paramount. Conditions were unfit and during the game umpire 'Venkat' was in constant touch on a walkie-talkie with the match referee.

``Alec called me on and we had a chat with Brian Lara. Both umpires asked what we thought the conditions were like. I don't want to get into things like worst, but safety remains important. It was when Alec called me on to the field that I had to consider the safety of the players. Everyone was in agreement.''

Morton's day began with him having to rule out wicketkeeper Jack Russell because of a stomach upset. Soon, though, it was England's batsmen who were sickened by the wicked bounce, with some balls rearing and some shooting through low.

``It was a war out there,'' said Morton. ``There are medals for bravery to be taken, but I don't want players getting fractured digits. There is still a long tour ahead of us. There are a few bruises. Stewart was hit on forearm, finger, the back of his hand and the top of both hands.''

Lara was upset by the outcome, but agreed that the safety of the players had to be a priority. Lara said: ``It was the last thing I wanted to happen and I'm very disappointed for the fans and the players. But I believe the umpires have made the right decision. It was obvious that the pitch was dangerous.''

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Date-stamped : 25 Feb1998 - 19:28