Cricket: Atherton angered by Lara pitching a different line

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The Independent Online
There was a second day's play of sorts in the first Test with verbal bouncers between the England and West Indies captains and the announcement of an inquiry into the Sabina shambles. Derick Pringle, reports from Kingston, Jamaica.

The morning after was warm, as Kingston invariably is at this time of year, but it was not as hot as the underside of Michael Atherton's collar. A day after the first Test had been abandoned, the England captain was smarting at suggestions made on television by Brian Lara, that the game would still be going on, had the West Indies been batting first.

The point of whether England's bowlers would have been quite as lethal as Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose - they did not get to the pacier Nixon McLean - has been the topic of discussion ever since the match was called off. Lara seems not to think so, though Atherton is adamant that the West Indies captain agreed the pitch was not playable when they and the umpires discussed the matter out in the middle.

According to Atherton, Lara's only concern as a new captain on hostile territory - he ousted the Jamaican Walsh as skipper - was that he did not want to start a riot. Perhaps his subsequent claims were made wearing his diplomat's hat and not the one he had worn on Thursday when England's batsmen were being battered about the gloves and chest.

"It was the sort of situation where you have got to fight it out as cricketers," Lara said yesterday. "I thought it was dangerous, but a lot of our guys stated that if we had been batting out there it would have been a tough decision to call off the match. We have experienced pitches such as this before and I think the match might still have been going on."

Lara's contentions were backed up by the former West Indies captain, Richie Richardson, who watched the match from the stands. Richardson said he had seen Sabina begin as frisky as that before, and reckoned that it would have quietened down after lunch.

In fact, although Richardson felt that the pitch was unacceptable, he believed it was not as dangerous for batsmen as the one here that England lost on in 1986, a match that failed to last three days.

On that occasion, on a quick uneven pitch, Patrick Patterson produced what many believe to be the fastest bowling ever seen. Graham Gooch remembers it being the only time he felt that his reflexes may not have been quick enough to avoid serious injury.

When these points were put to Atherton, who spent yesterday relaxing and reading, he was not for moving. "The pitch we played on was going through the top," he said. "For the first day of a Test match that is totally unacceptable. If it had been playing like that on the fourth or fifth days, we would have accepted it."

There is no doubt that although attempts are being made to soften the blow for those supporters who have travelled here for the match - P J Patterson, the Prime Minister of Jamaica, has even opened his residence to all overseas visitors - most still feel upset at what they see as the general slapdash approach to the problem by the West Indies Cricket Board.

With claims for compensation and lost revenue mounting daily, the cost to West Indies cricket is thought to be $1m (pounds 600,000), a sum no Board can afford to lose. However, some of that will be offset by extending the series to six Tests instead of five.

In response to the fiasco, the International Cricket Council have set up an inquiry to be chaired by Sir Clyde Walcott. David Richards, the ICC's chief executive, said that Walcott's committee will be convened at the earliest possible date. The meeting, which will feature representatives of all nine Test-playing nations, will be by conference telephone.

Two key issues have to be debated by the ICC. The first is whether the Jamaica Cricket Association is culpable in the preparation of such a substandard pitch, and second, what needs to be done to ensure there is no repeat of such a farce.

Ironically, the ICC are already gathering evidence concerning the abandonment of the Christmas Day international between India and Sri Lanka at Indore - again because of a dangerous pitch - and the two incidents are now likely to be viewed together.

One matter which the ICC hierarchy must consider is whether two Test strips now need to be prepared at every world venue - as is the case in England - so that a stand-by strip is readily available.

Quite what Walcott and Co will find, apart from a distraught and largely blameless groundsman, and a relaid strip that has not yet had time to settle, is not known, but for the sake of cricket's image, they must be seen to do something.

Once they convene, they may be together for some time, as Sabina Park is not the only pitch in the Caribbean to cause concern. Indeed, the surface at Trinidad's Port of Spain, the venue for the next two Tests, has been reported for being substandard. Trinidad and Tobago's game there lasted less than two days. With Test pitches having been relaid in Guyana (venue for the third Test) as well as Antigua (final Test), this could be a series that is forever postponed.

However, if this farcical episode has taught the authorities here anything, it is that their priorities must be towards investing in the nuts and bolts of the game, i.e. the grounds and groundstaff, rather than the glossy sponsors' boxes. As Sabina has shown, without a suitable pitch there is no game to watch.