Sabina Park has had its days in the sun, and its darker moments

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The Independent Online

England begin their quest to win their first Test series in the Caribbean for 36 years in Jamaica. Situated in the southern suburbs of Kingston and only a mile and a half west of Trench Town - one of its roughest and most deprived neighbourhoods - Sabina Park is the most intimidating ground in the West Indies.

England begin their quest to win their first Test series in the Caribbean for 36 years in Jamaica. Situated in the southern suburbs of Kingston and only a mile and a half west of Trench Town - one of its roughest and most deprived neighbourhoods - Sabina Park is the most intimidating ground in the West Indies.

It is not just the location which gives this venue a formidable air. Ten-foot walls rise from the edge of the playing surface at either end. It is this, along with the ruthless nature of the cricket which is normally played here and the constant cacophony of noise from the crowd, which makes you feel as though you are performing in a coliseum.

Sabina Park may be in need of a lick of paint but it is a fantastic place to play cricket. Like all West Indian grounds it is unique. Modern stadiums may have wonderful facilities for players and spectators but most tend to be featureless. This arena is full of character.

Walking out to the middle, you sense that special things have happened in the past. It was here in 1957/58 that Garry Sobers broke Len Hutton's world-record score of 364.

The ground was also the scene of the infamous riot by West Indian supporters in the second Test in 1968, the last time England won a series in the West Indies. With the home side struggling in their second innings, Basil Butcher was given out caught behind down the leg side. It was a good decision but sparked ugly scenes in the crowd that caused play to be held up for 75 minutes.

Some of the most hostile fast bowling has also occurred at this ground. Michael Holding sprinting down the slope from the Blue Mountains End in the Eighties must have been a wonderful sight for everybody but the touring side. And as for Patrick Patterson roaring up the hill against England in 1986 on a dodgy pitch, well, that must have been something else.

The dressing-rooms only add to this. Both are situated in the bowels of the George Headley Stand End: a huge arched terrace which seats 8,000 and dominates the southern end of the ground. The rooms are small and basic. There are dusty old wooden lockers on the wall and benches to sit on. In days gone by, it could comfortably hold a team but now, in an age where players possess enormous amounts of kit, it is chaos.

An area is partitioned off for the physiotherapist. A treatment table fills half the room but this fails to prevent it from being the most popular place to sit once the cricket starts. This is the only spot where it is possible to lie down and relax. The noise from the crowd above gives you little peace but here you can attempt to get away from the intensity of the cricket for a short while.

To do this on the first morning of a Test series, however, is virtually impossible. As a tail-end batsman who did not particularly warm to the prospect of facing the likes of Walsh, Patterson, Ambrose or Marshall, you tried not to watch the cricket.

To see your colleagues ducking, diving and taking the odd blow from these fast bowlers was like watching a horror movie. But like a child hiding behind the sofa, you cannot help but have the odd look.

Walking out of the changing area and on to the field is a strange experience. There is a huge roar but all you can see in front of you are a couple of small stands. To your right are the double-decker bleechers. These are the cheapest seats in the ground and spectators used to be fenced in behind chicken wire. They still have only concrete steps to sit on but this does not dampen their enthusiasm and it is from here that the most noise comes.

To the left is the old Kingston Cricket Club pavilion and, directly in front, a huge white sightscreen with a seated stand to its left and a grassy bank to its right. Between the bank and the bleechers stand is the scoreboard, which now has a false beach and a plastic swimming pool positioned beneath it. It is a bit tacky but the "Barmy Army" seem to enjoy it. Once you have walked 30 feet on to the field, you are aware that the noise is coming from behind. When you turn around, you see a huge stand.

During the 56 minutes of play in the abandoned Test match of 1998 there were unbelievable scenes in the England dressing-room. A television had been installed and half the squad were squashed around it watching the early action. A few eyebrows were raised in the first over when a delivery from Courtney Walsh kicked of a length and flew over Mike Atherton's shoulder.

It did not take long before everyone realised something was not quite right. Those not playing in the game would rush off the balcony and into the dressing-room as another ball went through the top of the underprepared pitch.

As they made their way to the television to watch a replay, all you heard was "Did you see that?". Those still to bat had, but they did not want to talk about it. Everyone was looking through people's bags for extra padding and a bigger chest-guard. Philip Tufnell was the most amusing.

He had never been the bravest but on this occasion he surpassed himself. If he had batted, he would not have needed to put on any sun protection because every part of his body was covered by something. If there had been a mattress in the dressing-room he would have tried to fit it under his shirt.

The umpires were right to abandon the game. Walsh, a proud Jamaican, was devastated that this should take place on his home ground. He just stood there like a ghost leaning against the wall, looking into space.

This, sadly, is not the only occasion a rogue pitch has damaged the reputation of Sabina Park. In the Seventies it was quick, bouncy and true. Runs were relatively easy to come by. Things changed in the Eighties. The West Indies developed a bowling attack that dominated cricket for almost 20 years and the quality of the pitches deteriorated. One of the first instances came in 1986.

Phil Edmonds, the former Middlesex and England spinner, remembers it well. "It was absolutely unbelievable," he said. "The pitch was corrugated. Some say it was worse than the one used for the abandoned Test in 1998. It was certainly the worst I ever played on.

"I remember Lamby [Allan Lamb] batting for 15 minutes before lunch on the first day. Twelve balls scuttled through at ankle height and three whistled past his nose," Edmonds went on. "They all pitched on about the same length."

England were bowled out twice for 150 and lost the match by 10 wickets. Patterson terrified England's batsmen on his Test debut and finished with match figures of 7 for 74.

In 1990, England pulled off one of the most remarkable victories since Ian Botham performed his heroics in 1981. After a disastrous Ashes series many of England's top players chose to go on a rebel tour of South Africa. This meant England, under Graham Gooch's leadership, travelled to the Caribbean with one of the most inexperienced squads to leave the United Kingdom.

Nobody gave England a prayer against the world champions. Indeed, before the first Test in Kingston a British tabloid had a double-page spread with the West Indies quartet of fast bowlers on one page and England's on the other. The West Indies were under the headline "Top Guns" and we were labelled "Pop Guns". Allan Lamb scored a hundred, Fraser burgled his first five-wicket haul and a good time was had by all.

Events returned to normal in 1994 and England were thrashed by eight wickets. Graeme Hick scored 96 in England's second innings and Keith Arthurton scored a hundred for the West Indies but this match was memorable because it was the first time that many of us had seen Brian Lara.

Devon Malcolm roughed him up with a few well aimed short balls at the start of his innings but he overcame this and went on to score a stylish 83. During his time at the crease it quickly became apparent that we were in the company of a special talent.

On this occasion the player had lived up to the hype but not one of us thought he would break Sobers' world record score of 365 before the end of the series.

SABINA PARK THE FACTS

Capacity: 15,000

Results: Played: 38 (13 v Eng). Wins: 20 (2). Draws: 12 (5). Lost: 5 (5). Abandoned: 1 (1).

Performances: Highest score: 849, England, 1929/30. Lowest score: 102, Zimbabwe, 1999/2000.

Most runs: G S Sobers (WI), 1,354, avge 104.15. Most runs for Eng: L Hutton, 401, avge 80.2. Highest individual score: 365no, G S Sobers v Pakistan, 1957/58. Highest score for Eng: 325, A Sandham, 1929/30. Highest partnership: 446, G S Sobers and C C Hunte, 1957/58. Most wickets: C A Walsh, 48, avge 18.69. Most wickets for Eng: F S Trueman, 13, avge 30.92. Best bowling: T E Bailey (Eng), 7-34, 1953/54.

Hundreds: There have been 75 Test hundreds scored at Sabina Park. Garry Sobers, with five, has scored more Test hundreds on the ground than any other player. Colin Cowdrey and Les Ames have each scored two centuries for England here.

Five-wicket hauls: There have been 43 five-wicket hauls and two 10-wicket hauls at Sabina Park. Wes Hall claimed five or more wickets in a match on three occasions. Five England bowlers have achieved this feat. Hines Johnson - 10-96 v England, 1947/48 - and Courtney Walsh - 10-101 v India, 1988/89 - are the only two bowlers to have taken 10 wickets in a match.

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