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Jamaican folly

It was just a small patch of soil, 22 yards long, but it did arouse plenty of comment. Not surprising, considering the fact that this was the first time a Test match had to be called off because the pitch was considered too dangerous. The only comparable incident in the game occurred late last year, when India had to call off a one-day international against Sri Lanka, again because of the unpredictability of the wicket.

I recall one instance where a pitch played up a lot: it was a one-day tie between Pakistan and the West Indies during a tri-nation tournament in South Africa in 1993. The wicket at the Wanderers was so lively that the West Indies bowled out Pakistan for 43 after having them at 26 for nine at one stage. The West Indies won the game but lost four wickets in the process. The pitch came in for a lot of criticism even though nobody got hurt during the game.

From all accounts, it would appear that there was a real problem at Sabina Park; one ball would shoot over a batsman's shoulder and the next, pitched more or less on the same spot, would get up to ankle height. England captain Michael Atherton was apparently genuinely concerned that his mates would get injured; his opposite number Brian Lara agreed with the decision but, true to form, went back on his word later, claiming that the match could have continued. One would tend to agree with another Jamaican, former West Indies paceman Michael Holding, who said the wicket was not suitable for any form of cricket.

The episode has not done cricket, especially West Indies cricket, any good. The monetary loss is said to be in the region of $1.5 million. The West Indies board and member associations desperately need every dollar they can get; this year finances are so bad that they do not have a sponsor for the regional Shell Shield competition. The board is short of funds and cannot offer players the contracts it did last year to keep them from going out to play for English counties. And the calling off of the match has embarrassed one willing sponsor, Cable and Wireless, no end.

As usual the search for a scapegoat has begun. And it is more than likely that a couple of groundsmen will be blamed, thrown out of their jobs, and condemned to live on the fringes of society. But there is more to this than meets the eye. No groundsman would go to the extent of re-laying a pitch on his own authority. He would only undertake such a major change at a ground under instructions from some higher authority.

Consider the following: Wickets in the West Indies have been playing slower and slower by the year. Many who administer the game in the islands and players too have, on numerous occasions, questioned why faster wickets are not prepared. This seems logical: every country prepares wickets to suit their strengths and the West Indies have depended on pace ever since Clive Lloyd decided that a four-pace attack was the way to the top.

Cricket in the West Indies is no longer attracting the kind of talent it was, one reason being the lack of money in the game. The board is thus desperate to generate more revenue. Crowds are needed and one factor that could lead to this is better performances by the home team. Nobody wants to come and see their own team getting beaten up every time. The recent hammering by Pakistan is fresh in the memory.

Given this kind of background, the re-laying of the wicket in Jamaica for the Test against England should not come as a surprise; it was only to be expected. Faster wickets were being prepared so the home team could exploit its strengths. Courtney Walsh and Curtley Ambrose may be on their last legs but give them a helpful surface and they still can cause as much havoc as any other fast bowler in the game. And one must bear in mind the fact that for the West Indies, a series win over England is the ultimate.

It leaves one wondering: what would have happened if the wicket had played much as it did during the match between Jamaica and England and the visitors had beaten the home team?