The odd slap of paint and England will get over the halfway line
Return to the Recreation Ground is spiritual homecoming but it also gives tourists a good chance to level series
Sunday 15 February 2009
Throughout this tiny country yesterday the sentiment was overwhelming. Cricket was coming home at last. Armies of volunteers swarmed over the dear old Antigua Recreation Ground to make it spick and span for Test cricket, which they feared had gone from there forever.
But not too smart. That would never do. It needs to have an air of studied shabbiness. The ARG is made by the people who inhabit it, not by lifts connecting tiers of high-rise stands and fancy digital scoreboards and rows of executive boxes and all the other paraphernalia associated with modern big-time cricket.
The general feeling was that divine intervention must be at work. The Sir Vivian Richards Stadium, where the Second Test between West Indies and England was sensationally abandoned after 10 balls on Friday, had never won over Antiguans, or anybody else. It is remote and antiseptic and everything that the ARG is not.
Crucially, it was not fit for its purpose. There was no choice but to call the whole thing off with the match barely underway because the outfield and bowlers' run-ups were so plainly unfit. They were made, in the most literal sense, of sand, and that is where the administrators of the West Indies Cricket Board and, to a lesser extent, the International Cricket Council must have buried their heads in the weeks and months before the match took place.
Matters moved swiftly following the abandonment and the ARG, despite its rudimentary feel, was quickly back in service. The swelling of pride and goodwill was immediate and enormous. If the ground itself was a hive of activity and determination, people milled around outside beaming with pride.
One chap, sporting the colours of the Labour Party (a general election is imminent), smiled broadly and happily pronounced: "The game is back in its rightful place." People were glowing again, and if the ground is not full to overflowing today and thereafter it will never be full again.
Officially, the match starting today is the Third Test, the one on Friday having been abandoned as a draw. If it is wonderfully uplifting to see spirits so transformed and the genuine sentiment that a wrong was being righted, it is still an imperfect solution.
The likelihood is that the match will not run its intended course of five days, and might well be done sometime on the third. But the alternative, simply to withdraw from the contest at the new ground and decamp to Barbados for the next Test, was rightly rejected.
It seems that the main propulsion for restaging the match was provided by the presence of some 5,000 England fans, all of whom flew in for the game. England knew something was up when their fast bowler went down a foot-deep hole during a warm-up game of football, but they couldn't be sure. As their captain, Andrew Strauss, put it, they had to suck it and see.
The England and Wales Cricket Board, who had formally expressed their concerns about the state of the Sir Vivian Richards Ground on the eve of the match, were anxious that a Test match should still take place on Antigua. Noble as that might be, there were also sound cricketing reasons for the move.
In an age when Test cricket is hanging on for grim life while Twenty20 in general and its swaggering senior son, the Indian Premier League, in particular are claiming time and attention out of all proportion to their true quality, what happened onFriday was catastrophic.
It was breathtaking to hear Dr Julian Hunte, president of the West Indies Cricket Board, apologise for the abandonment, accept responsibility and confess his embarrassment in a most blithe fashion. But when it was put to him that the turn of events was sufficient for him to consider his position, he simply swatted the question away.
Yet this went beyond embarrassment. It was a cock-up waiting to happen because the WICB seem to be in the business of only making cock-ups – from their relationships with sponsors to their running of the grassroots game in their various territories. Victory in Jamaica eight days ago camouflaged the shortcomings but it did not make them vanish, and cricket in Antigua is in a sickly state.
The ARG, dilapidated and neg-lected if still loved, is used most often these days for football. The halfway line runs across the pitch where today's Test match will take place, and the pitch markings are cut deep into the turf. This is what happens, however, when you remove cricket's soul, and in Antigua the soul was placed firmly at the ARG, which looms large in the middle of the capital, St John's, five minutes' walk from everywhere.
England had no hesitation in asking for the match to be moved and Strauss was enthusiastic about it yesterday. What a turn his tenure has already taken. Having taken over in the most unpropitious circumstances when his predecessor, Kevin Pietersen, and the coach, Peter Moores, were deposed because the breakdown in their relationship became public, he then saw his side bowled out for 51 runs to lose the First Test in Kingston by an innings and 23 runs last week. And now this.
"I think it's the best situation available, but it's not ideal," he said. "We practised at the Recreation Ground a few days before the Test match and the wickets seemed very playable. The outfield was not brilliant but certainly not dangerous to the bowlers, so it's a better solution to what we had first time.
"There is a bit of pace and bounce in it, to be honest," Strauss added. "It didn't misbehave but there's certainly more in it than the other pitches we've played on in the Caribbean.
"Clearly they will be getting the heavy roller out to make the ridge where the halfway line goes as less pronounced as possible. Clearly they will be making the wicket as durable as they can all today. If it's like thenets we had, it should provide some entertaining cricket."
He smiled knowingly as he uttered the last sentence. Entertaining cricket could be interpreted as a euphemism for 20 for 5 after 70 minutes' play. In a way, this is what England want. The worst possible surface would be the ARG of old, where the team winning the toss were almost guaranteed to be able to bat half a lifetime, with one of them probably scoring a double hundred, and barring the opposition being bored to defeat, a draw would be all but nailed on.
"Any wicket that offers the chance of a result is good for us, being 1-0 down in the series," he said. "If it's got pace and bounce, we have got bowlers who can exploit that. You pick the team for the conditions and you'd be pretty stupid not to do that. So we'll have a look today, see if it's likely to play similarly to how it did in the nets, and pick the XI from that."
That was as close as he could get to saying that James Anderson, who was recalled to the team on Friday because of his ability to reverse-swing the ball, might be omitted today instead of Stephen Harmison. There is definite carry in the wicket and Harmison may well relish the prospect of unsettling the opposition.
Harmison had covered himself in glory after the abandonment on Friday. Though he must have been hurt at being dropped, it was his suggestion that the England players go into the stands to mingle with the disap-pointed fans. It is how to win hearts and minds.
Whether any side can be ready for today is an open question. Maybe they have to be ready. "It's one of those situations a little bit like the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, where your normal day-to-day routing is thrown out of sync to quite a large degree," said Strauss. "But we've had yesterday afternoon to come to terms with it.
"That's what we do as cricketers, we travel round the world and play at different grounds all the time. We can't use that as an excuse. We just need to make sure come Sunday morning that we're ready to go."
There were immense strategic difficulties in moving the match. The television operation alone meant the shifting of 400 boxes and 17 tons of equipment. This normally takes at least two days and something had to give, in this case the umpire review system being used as part of the ICC trial in this series. Strauss agreedthat there would not be "massive disappointment" among the players.
At the ARG, because the chosen pitch is not quite in the centre, two new sightscreens had to be hurriedly erected. Two steamrollers, normally used on roads, were brought in and were run for hour after hour around the outfield.
Yesterday one of them went up and down the pitch. Green grass clippings were being thrown down by the bucketload to conceal the football- pitch markings. Men were carrying paintbrushes hither and thither, windows were being cleaned. It was like getting the house ready for the return of the family.
It is three years since a Test match was held at the ARG, when Wasim Jaffer made a double hundred and West Indies, nine wickets down, just held on in a thrilling finish. In the match before that, eight hundreds were scored. Ten of the 21 matches have been drawn.
The international cricketing history of the ARG ground is not long, but the place is part of the fabric of this island and of the daily lives of its citizens. The cricket match which is due to be staged there from today may well not last for the full five days. However, it is being played and, with fingers crossed for a safe passage, it may mark a rebirth.
Harmison set for reprieve
England are likely to make at least one change in their team for the so-called Third Test which starts at the Antigua Recreation Ground today. Stephen Harmison seems certain to win the quickest recall in Test history after sitting out a match that lasted only 10 balls on Friday. The dramatic abandonment of the Second Test at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium because of the dangerously sandy outfield was followed swiftly by the equally astonishing announcement that a new match would take place at the ARG. Conditions at the first ground seemed as though they would favour reverse swing, but the ARG looks as if it will be fast and bouncy. The England captain, Andrew Strauss, said: "Players are reasonably understanding that you pick the XI that will give you the best chance of winning the Test match. Different conditions can mean different personnel, but of course it's not ideal being picked for a Test match and then two days later not being picked." Owais Shah will, however, keep his place at No 3 in the batting order ahead of Ian Bell, who has been dropped.
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