Cricket: Park where only a few dare to stroll

Test of history: Henry Blofeld opens a series on the Caribbean's famous venues by recalling the flashpoints in the crucible that is Sabina Park
Click to follow
A SERIES in the West Indies is the most romantic adventure in Test cricket - to all except the visiting cricketers, that is. For years, bouncers have roared past batsmen's heads at the rate of four or even five an over and touring, toiling bowlers have spent more than a day in the field without a single wicket to show for it - in high heat and humidity.

England's West Indian escapade begins in earnest on Thursday with the First Test against an eminently beatable side in what was once perhaps the most thrilling of cricketing cockpits in the world - Sabina Park in Kingston, Jamaica.

The original ground, set intriguingly in poverty-stricken Kingston with the dramatic backdrop of the Blue Mountains in the north and the thrill of Morgan's Harbour and all those infamous piratical stories a mile or three to the south, was a ground which set the pulse racing and was the setting for a number of extraordinary, nail-biting Test matches.

Now it has been enlarged by the purchase of neighbouring land and dignified by the big new pavilion stand named after George Headley, Dean's famous grandfather, it does not, in this correspondent's view, have quite the same electric atmosphere.

In the 1960s, Wes Hall was within a whisker of pushing himself off from the sight screen when he began his enormous run at the south end. The old pavilion stand at square leg buzzed like a cricketing beehive and the upstairs bar seemed to be the centre of the universe. Now, the old pavilion stands like the portly Victorian matron she is, put out to grass, with her old and slightly threadbare skirts down to her ankles.

In 1953-54, England played the first and the last Test matches of the series there. The West Indies, with George Headley coming out of retirement, won the first easily enough and came back for the fifth 2-1 up in the series against Len Hutton's side. The pitch was a beauty and when, the day before the match, the groundsman was asked about its condition, he replied that the side who won the toss would make a million.

As it happened, Trevor Bailey rolled up his sleeves, took the new ball and 7 for 34, in spite of the presence of the three Ws, Frank Worrell, Everton Weekes and Clyde Walcott; Hutton then made 205 and England won by nine wickets to draw the series.

Four years later, Pakistan were the visitors and the young Gary Sobers, going in third, made a small matter of 365 not out, his first Test century, to beat Hutton's 364 against Australia at The Oval in 1938, the previous highest individual score in Test cricket.

Ten years then went by before Sabina Park staged perhaps its most memorable Test match which was left drawn - just. It was February 1968, and England made 376 before John Snow, who took 7 for 49, bowled the West Indies out for 143. They followed on 233 behind and lost their fifth second-innings wicket with the score on 204, when Basil Butcher was caught behind by Jim Parks off Basil D'Oliveira.

The hugely partisan crowd could stand it no longer and hundreds of empty bottles bounced across the hard ground thrown by disappointed and angry spectators on the popular side, opposite to the pavilion. The players went off and despite the blandishments and pleadings of the two captains, Colin Cowdrey and Sobers, and the more militant efforts of the police, who uncorked the tear gas, the bottles continued to come.

Play restarted after tea and Sobers, who had been crucially dropped by D'Oliveira in the slips before the riot - a straightforward chance too - played a brilliant innings on an awkward, newly laid pitch.

Thanks to him, the West Indies were able to build a lead of 148, and on an unscheduled sixth morning - to make up for the 75 minutes lost - England had to hang on for their lives at 68 for 8. It was some morning.

In 1971-72 the New Zealanders played their first Test in the Caribbean at Sabina. First, they watched Jamaica's Lawrence Rowe bat brilliantly for 214 in his first Test innings, which he followed with 100 not out in the second, the first time anyone had scored a double and a single hundred in the same Test. Between these two innings, Glenn Turner took root for New Zealand, made 223 not out and saved both the follow-on and the match for his side, who at one point had been 108 for 5 in reply to 508 for 4 declared.

Two years later, Mike Denness's England were saved by a no less dramatic 262 not out by Dennis Amiss in the second innings when all seemed lost. The bottles flew again in 1977-78 when Bobby Simpson's Australians looked like winning. Both sides were without players who had signed for Kerry Packer and Simpson had been resuscitated to give Australia respectability. Twelve minutes were left on the fifth day when the ninth wicket fell but not another ball could be bowled.

The new Sabina has lain relatively dormant for a while now, but who knows what is lying just round the corner?

Whatever else this ground may be, it will not be a place for the faint- hearted at the weekend, especially on a pitch which looks as if it may be every bit as unpredictable as it was back in the arena's greatest days.