In splendid afternoon sunshine yesterday an international cricket match was called off and English cricket looked utterly absurd. The first match of the NatWest Series between England and West Indies at Headingley was abandoned despite the installation of a new drainage scheme costing £600,000.
It was England's version of what happened in Antigua in February and just as embarrassing. The second Test match at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium was called off after 10 balls because a sandy outfield made it unfit for play. It took slightly longer to make that judgement yesterday. Hours after the rain ceased, water lay in puddles on the outfield: abandonment had seemed the only possible outcome.
In keeping with the usual stance in English cricket when things go wrong, Stewart Regan, the chief executive of Yorkshire county cricket club said: "This is not about blaming. This is about trying to understand. What you have seen unfortunately is a torrential downpour last night and another one this morning. The whole of cricket in a country affected by rain is a gamble."
Unfortunately, it is only 10 weeks before Headingley will stage the fourth Ashes Test and the prospect of a repeat is all too real. The new drainage system, paid for with a grant from the England and Wales Cricket Board, was simply not up to the job.
The technical reason given was that the rainwater sat in a thatch ledge just below (and eventually above) the turf and could not drain away. Eventually, it will undergo a process known as verti-draining which should clear it. Regan refused to forecast whether the problem would be eradicated by the time of the Test but it seems that everybody involved knew that the system would take time to bed down.
"The key point to remember here is that had we not done this drainage project this match wouldn't have taken place at all," he said. "There would have been a flood in front of the old pavilion and it would have been called off potentially hours ago." He seemed to have forgotten already that the match had not taken place at all.
The ECB, already criticised after two unsatisfactory Test matches against West Indies, now faces immense pressure because of the Ashes series. They have taken a huge gamble by awarding the first Test match to Sophia Gardens at Cardiff, where the pitch was reported as unfit by umpires after a one-day match last week.
Following yesterday's scenes the concerns should multiply. The ground will be a building site because a £21m development at the Kirkstall Lane End will be taking place. It had been hoped that it could be completed in time for an Ashes Test but the planning application was delayed. If the ground should be unfit for any reason potential catastrophe looms.
Despite the protestations to the contrary it was difficult to believe that international cricket would not have taken place on England's other international grounds. Two questions are pertinent: why was sufficient time not allowed for the new system to bed in, and why was more money not spent on a drainage system such as that at Lord's where play, as Regan conceded, would definitely have taken place?
"I have no regrets about the system because the money wasn't there," said Regan, although it seemed questionable to be spending so much on a pavilion and skimping on the business area. "The work started in September. Every possible contingency was put in place. We completed the outfield in time for the ECB to sign it off as fit for first-class cricket. We're investing for the future." Sadly, they were unable to stage an international match in the present.
* Pakistan fast bowler Shoaib Akhtar has been ruled out of the World Twenty20 due to a skin infection in his groin, a Pakistan Cricket Board spokesman said yesterday. "The medical panel of the board has examined Shoaib and he has been advised 10-12 days rest," the spokesman said.
47 days to go...
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