Remembering Sabina’s ‘devilish’ pitch

As the three-match Test series between West Indies and Pakistan opened Friday at Sabina Park in Jamaica, there was a lot of hype surrounding the feat of the 50th Test to be played there.

Co-incidentally, it is also the 50th Test between West Indies and Pakistan.

Many outstanding achievements at the ground have been highlighted in the media.

Preparation of the surface has also come under the microscope as the ground has a reputation for fast, bouncy pitches.

Amidst all of its historical feats, however, the abandonment of the first Test against England in 1998 after just 55 minutes play on the opening day (January 29) because of a “devilish” pitch was a wake-up call for the authorities.

It was the first time in 121 years of Test cricket that a match had been called off due to a dangerous surface.

Ace batsman Brian Lara was the new West Indies captain, having been appointed three weeks earlier to replace Courtney Walsh, who led the side to Pakistan in late 1997 when West Indies were swept aside 3-0 in the Test series.

England, who won the toss, were 17 for three after 10.1 overs, their batsmen having taken several blows on the body from Walsh and Curtly Ambrose, two of the game’s most durable campaigners.

Reaction to the fiasco was swift. There were calls for heads to roll, not least those the president of the Jamaica Cricket Association, Jackie Hendriks, who was a former West Indies Test player, and his West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) counterpart, Pat Rousseau, himself a Jamaican.

It was argued strongly in many quarters that had the Jamaican authorities taken heed of complaints from some influential people including former West Indies players Michael Holding and Tony Howard, the embarrassment could have been avoided.

Howard was the manager of the Barbados team for their opening match of the 1998 President’s Cup Championship against Jamaica at the same venue when Barbados were routed for 135 in their first innings on the first day, January 9.

Alec Stewart complaining about the pitch at
Sabina Park.

Since the pitch was re-laid in late 1997, it was the first time a first-class match was being played at Sabina. Barbados managed a draw over four days but when the team returned home, players could not hide their feelings about the state of the pitch, pointing out inconsistent bounce and several ridges.

Howard was forthright in his assessment.

“I predicted the pitch would not be ready in time for the first Test, I cautioned Jamaican manager George Sterling, the umpires, the Press and the groundsmen its appearance could pose a threat to life and limb,” Howard said.

“The pitch was under-prepared and way too much needed to be done for it to be in a satisfactory condition for a game as important as a Test match.

“It was full of wet patches. Jamaican captain Courtney Walsh sent us in and I was so concerned about the safety of my players, I asked if the start could be delayed until after lunch. The request was denied.

“It was not only the wet spots; the surface itself was very frightening. There were loads of ridges, cracks and corrugations and even before a ball was bowled there was concern in our dressing room.

“My fears became a reality when Walsh had the ball flying all over the place or shooting through very, very low,” Howard said.

Holding had expressed his feelings about the pitch during the Barbados match and two days before the start of the Test, he was at it again, saying he was “very disappointed” with what he saw.

“I heard there was going to be plenty grass but there is absolutely none and there are cracks already down the middle,” Holding said.

“By the fourth day these cracks are going to open up and no one can tell what will happen.”

According to Holding, Charlie Joseph, the veteran head groundsman, wanted to seal the cracks with what he called “a muddy soup-like mixture” but had been warned off it by those in authority.

“Charlie knows what he is doing and has used that method before to effect. For those who don’t have nearly half his experience to prevent him from using it again is farcical.”

After the match was abandoned, Holding said: “I’ve never seen a pitch as dangerous as that. The people responsible should be brought to task.”

Former England captain and outstanding all-rounder Ian Botham, who was covering the Test as television commentator, was quoted as saying there could have been a fatality.

“In all my career, I have never seen anything as bad,” Botham asserted.

“Make no mistake about it. This was a death trap. I honestly believe somebody could have been killed out there if the game had gone on much longer. It was just a miracle that nobody was seriously injured.”

England captain Mike Atherton said: “I felt the pitch was unsuitable for first-class cricket and the players had been put in a position where there was risk of physical injury.”

“What then was the nature of the pitch? Although it looked, with cracks and crumbly areas, it was the unevenness, which was the real problem. Whether the ball hit an up-slope or a down-slope determined whether it passed a batsman at throat or ankle height.

“The fourth and fifth balls of the first over from Courtney Walsh were a case in point. Curtly Ambrose bowled a couple lethal deliveries at Alec (Stewart) – both balls at fullish length, one of which cannoned into Alec’s shoulder and one which flew over David Williams’ head for four byes. If this had been a fourth or fifth-day pitch then I don’t think there would have been any complaints.

“However, these were the first 10 overs of a Test match and conditions would have only got more dangerous,” Atherton said.

Following are some of the comments made by persons close to the game, following the abandonment of the Test:

Brian Lara (West Indies captain): “The umpires had to make the decision and we abide by the decision… Cricket has to be played on a fair surface.”

Mike Atherton (England captain): “The pitch was unfit for cricket and dangerous for my batsmen.”

Barry Jarman (match referee): “The pitch was horrific. When one ball goes past your ear and the next one past your ankle, then it’s impossible to play on.”

Ian Botham (Former England all-rounder, TV commentator): “I was fearful that someone would be killed out there.”

Michael Holding (former West Indies fast bowler, TV commentator): “It’s ridiculous… the pitch is sub-standard.”

Alec Stewart (England opener): “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.”

Jackie Hendriks (President of the Jamaica Cricket Association): “We wanted to give the pitch more pace and bounce. As far as I am aware, there was nothing different in the preparation for this Test.”

Wayne Morton (England physiotherapist): “There was a bit of a war out there and you always fear for a batsman’s safety.”

David Holford (former West Indies all-rounder): “This is a disgrace as far as West Indies cricket is concerned. You have to do something about that pitch. For some reason or the other, the Jamaican authorities always seem to be relaying the pitch just before the season starts. I think it is time they get their act together.”

They did get their act together and when West Indies played their next Test at Sabina Park in 1999 (March 13, 14, 15, 16), the talk was about Lara’s magnificent 213, helped by a solid 94 from Jimmy Adams as West Indies triumphed by ten wickets in the second match of the four-Test series after being humbled by 312 runs in the first at Queen’s Park Oval in Trinidad, falling for just 51 in the second innings.

That was indeed a memorable tour as Lara slammed an unbeaten 153 in the second innings of the third Test at Kensington Oval to spur West Indies to a nail-biting one-wicket victory before Australia levelled the series in Antigua with a 176-run win despite another Lara hundred.

And mind you, Lara’s double-century came after the ill-fated tour to South Africa in 1998-99 when West Indies lost all five Tests, and the WICB’s subsequent decision to put him on probation for the first two matches of the series against Australia.

Just a bit of history but the focus for the moment is on Sabina Park. 50 not out.

Keith Holder is a veteran, award-winning freelance sports journalist, who has been covering local, regional and international cricket since 1980 as a writer and commentator. He has compiled statistics on the Barbados Cricket Association (BCA) Division 1 (now Elite) championship for three-and-a-half decades and is responsible for editing the BCA website (www.bcacricket.org). Holder is also the host of the cricket Talk Show, Mid Wicket, on the Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation 100.7 FM on Tuesday nights. Email: keithfholder@gmail.com

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