Cricket: The day pain stopped play

'Suddenly, I stopped being nervous. It became such a lottery out there that I stopped caring'; Derek Pringle in Jamaica suggests the dramatic hour has done untold damage
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The Independent Online
BEFORE he had perfected his W G Grace beard, Karl Marx postulated that it was men who made history and not the other way around. But although those who came to Kingston to see a Test match would probably disagree and cite the pitch for Thursday's historical events, the players who batted and bowled on it will be forever linked to it, their deeds, however modest, frozen and packaged along with the day that a Test match was abandoned because of a poor pitch.

Marx's final resting place is Highgate cemetery, and it was precisely because England's batsmen had no wish to join him that the match was called off after just 61 legitimate deliveries. As one of those who batted, but did not succumb, Alec Stewart faced 26 of those balls, scored nine runs and was struck seven times. The gallows humorist might call it a strike rate of one in four.

"It was clearly a sub-standard pitch," Stewart said the day after the mauling before when he had swapped his batting armour for a natty pair of trunks and a baseball cap. "We thought it would be dodgy long before we got the chance to find out.

"The problem was that when you see a few go through the top and go up, you start to play guessing games in your mind and you get edgy. To be fair it ended up as a lottery. I reckon," a twinkle in his eye, "that my nine not out is worth about 200 on a flat one."

His skipper, one of those whose negligible score will have eroded the career average a few points, was even more forthright. "It descended into farce. Test cricket is not about farce. If any good has come out of this, it is that the authorities now have a duty to make sure pitches are properly supervised and prepared," Mike Atherton said.

Captaining only his second Test, his opposite number, Brian Lara, was in an unenviable position. But having agreed that the strip wasn't fit, he should not have then backtracked by telling a television crew that had his team been batting, they would have stayed on.

Out in the middle, Stewart revealed that Lara, unsurprisingly, wanted to leave it up to the umpires. "It was a very brave decision by Venkat [umpire Srinivas Venkataraghavan]," Stewart said. "Our bodyguard Bob the policeman, who says he's never had to shoot anyone in Kingston during the Nineties, reckoned that if it had been the weekend there would have been a riot."

Venkat, probably the most highly regarded umpire on international duty, had actually been in contact with the match referee Barry Jarman as early as the third over. But while the decision was bold, it has now provided a precedent that, like the deduction of 25 points for poor pitches in the County Championship, is based on total subjectivity. In any case, soil science is an inexact one and Sabina Park is not the only relaid pitch to prove more than a little fruity.

Graham Thorpe, after Stewart the only other batsman to have experienced life in the middle and survived with his wicket intact, reckoned it was eerie. "Normally, when the opposition are getting you out, they are going barmy with delight. When Nasser was out and I walked to the middle, they were quiet. Like they were embarrassed."

When a pitch is that poor, and the bowling is of such unerring quality, technique becomes a secondary concern. Indeed, fear has to be conquered first before technique can have its say.

On such pitches the choices are stark and simple. You either go for all-out attack, or you defend and hope for luck and for scoring opportunities to present themselves eventually. Stewart, mindful that this was the opening Test of the series, opted for the latter. "The most straightforward thing to do would have been to throw the bat and hope. As it was a Test match that was only overs old, I decided to battle it out and hope, instead.

"You could tell it was going to be interesting after just one over. After Athers was out, I went up to Butch [Mark Butcher] and said, 'Good luck, brother-in-law'. They were the last things I said to him. Walshy got him with a snorter first ball."

Off the field, nerves were equally frayed. Angus Fraser watched three overs and became so nervous that he had to go inside and lie down. "That didn't really help, though," admitted the Middlesex medium-pacer. "I kept hearing these Oohs and Aahs from the boys watching on the dressing-room telly. Suddenly, though, I stopped being nervous. It became such a lottery that I stopped caring.

"I felt the same thing once on a horrendous flight in a light aircraft in Australia. We were all shitting ourselves when I thought 'I can't do anything about this' and relaxed. It's like our sports psychologist says: 'You can't control the uncontrollable'."

In tense situations, humour often comes to the fore. Phil Tufnell, not a batsman noted for his reckless bravery, told Wayne Morton, the physio, that he wanted him ready and waiting at the ringside with his first-aid bag. Morton, who made six visits to the middle to offer what Stewart later described as cold spray and tender loving care, was the busiest man around. "After the third over, Carl Hooper came past and said it was a dangerous wicket. I said 'yeah', but told him he'd be all right at second slip. Being a Jamaican, Courtney was very quiet and hugely disappointed." Actually Walsh looked quite distraught afterwards, though he perked up when he learnt that his two wickets would not be expunged from the record books.

Because the figures stand, the contest now becomes a six-match series. To squeeze that into an already tight schedule, England now have to play back-to- back Tests in Trinidad on a pitch with a long-established reputation for being fickle.

Four years ago, the Queen's Park Oval witnessed one of the most electrifying spells of fast bowling ever seen as Curtly Ambrose took 6 for 24 to bowl England out for 46. Unlike Sabina Park, where Ambrose has taken just seven wickets since 1989, the Queen's Park Oval has been a profitable hunting ground for the beanpole Antiguan.

The normally grassy pitch and slightly uneven bounce is tailor-made for big bowlers who hit the seam, and both Andrew Caddick and Angus Fraser prospered here last time as well.

Before that, England have a two-day match - the team batting first will have a maximum of 90 overs - against Trinidad at Guacara Park, where, providing Jack Russell is fit, they will probably play the team most likely to take the field for Thursday's Test match.

With the majority of England's batsmen having had less than two meaningful innings under their belts, the situation is far from ideal. But then as James Joyce once said: "History is a nightmare from which I'm trying to awaken."

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