Cricket: Root cause of Caribbean decline

Tony Cozier suggests the pitch battle is of vital importance to the West Indies' future
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THE irony of Thursday's calamity at Sabina Park was that the offending square - the "killing field" as one tabloid dubbed it - was dug up last October because it was too lifeless. The same complaint was directed last year at the Queen's Park Oval, venue for the next two Tests.

"We need livelier tracks with a little more bounce and turn and lateral movement," Sachin Tendulkar, then India's captain, said after the first two matches of the series of five were dragged-out draws. In the second, at Queen's Park, Navjot Singh Sidhu accumulated the second slowest double hundred in Test cricket, over 111/4 hours. Yet in the previous Test on the ground, two seasons earlier involving Australia, the match ended in under three days and the highest total was the West Indies' 136 on a pitch so green it was barely discernible from the outfield.

It has always been the problem with preparation throughout the Caribbean - how to get the balance right. More and more, ground staff - or, more precisely as in the case at Sabina, meddling ground authorities - have got it wrong. Generally, the quality has deteriorated to such an extent that it has contributed to the decline in batting standards. Batsmen such as Headley, Sobers, Kanhai and Richards, raised on perfect pitches quickly and easily prepared on any piece of open ground, are becoming an extinct species.

In the 30 matches last season in the Red Stripe Cup, the West Indies' first-class tournament, there were only four totals over 400 against 34 under 200. In seven matches this year, the ratio has been 1 to 10 and there have been only four individual hundreds. All have been at Kensington Oval, Barbados, scene of the Fourth Test and generally the best pitch in the region. Yet last season, in an effort to answer Tendulkar's pleas, even its character was altered and India, set 120 to win, were routed for 81.

"You can't expect to produce proper cricketers if you can't produce proper conditions," the West Indies coach, Malcolm Marshall said. "We've got batsmen coming through now with plenty of faults and that's largely due to the sub-standard pitches they're playing on."

Yet back in 1972, after 13 draws in 15 Tests over four years, Sir Clyde Walcott wrote in the West Indies Cricket Annual: "The general pattern is to prepare the best possible pitch and this generally means the best possible pitch for batting. I suggest we now consider what is the best possible pitch for cricket."

The authorities have been trying to heed his plea ever since with varied, often disastrous results. Walcott went on to preside over the West Indies Board and the International Cricket Council, who have now appointed him to head the inquiry into the Sabina Park affair.

What he would have seen for himself there, as others did, was a surface lined with cracks and so obviously undulating that, viewed side on, there were alternating areas of sunshine and shadow. The relevant fact was that the square had been dug up only three months earlier and the clay-based soil, from a sugar estate in the middle of the island, had not had time to settle.

After the only match previously played on it, between Barbados and Jamaica three weeks earlier, the Barbados manager and former West Indies off- spinner Tony Howard put in a report condemning it as unsuitable. "I was so concerned for the safety of my players, I asked if the start could be delayed until after lunch but that was denied," Howard said. "I said then it could not be ready for the Test."

As the series shifts to Trinidad, the teams will play the next two Tests on soil imported from the south of the island. The presence of the mole- cricket in the indigenous soil at the Queen's Park Oval in Port-of-Spain renders a proper pitch impossible and, until the first turf was laid in 1954, all matches were played on either jute or coconut matting. The foreign soil naturally, if gradually, deteriorates and has been replaced three times since.

At no ground in the Caribbean have groundsmen had such a hit-or-miss job as at Queen's Park. The only match there so far this season, between Brian Lara's Trinidad and Tobago and Curtly Ambrose's Leeward Islands, was over in less than two days with Trinidad and Tobago all out 87 in their second innings (Lara caught off Ambrose, 1).

The difficulty was caused by excessive grass cover that offered exaggerated movement to the seam bowlers but it was not dangerous. Bryan Davis, the former Trinidad and Tobago, Glamorgan and West Indies opener who is now manager of the host Queen's Park Club, was confident yesterday there would be no repeat. "We got it wrong in that match but I've no doubt the pitches for the two Tests here will be good for cricket," he said.

In the West Indies of late, it's a brave man who makes such a pronouncement.