Sympathy for the logistically challenged of Jamaica

cricket proves its absurdity
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The Independent Online
I regard cricket with the same feeling of bemused curiosity with which a eunuch must regard sex; it is clear from the way that they behave that others enjoy it very much, but I somehow lack the equipment myself with which to appreciate it. There is a certain quality to the crack of leather on willow that leaves me entirely unmoved.

Nevertheless I have always thought of this as the most contemplative of sports, one in which the passage of time was relatively unimportant. Cricket lacks the chaotic urgency of soccer or rugby, or indeed, of tennis. Once or twice a year - and planned many years in advance - a group of Australians will pitch up in Leeds, or Englishmen in Kingston, and spend a few days bowling, batting and fielding. Nothing could be simpler.

It is this leisure which makes the debacle in Jamaica so hard to understand. For a long time now everyone has been aware that, in the last week of January 1998, the West Indies would play England at the Sabina Park stadium in Kingston. All that was needed for the match to go ahead was two teams, a minimum of two bats, some balls, some umpires, the requisite stumps and bails (I hope this is not getting too technical), and a bit of field. With grass on it.

This, of course, has turned out to be the sticking point. In the critical gap between the two wickets (mini-Stonehenges constructed by laying the bails on top of the stumps), there is no grass. Not a blade. Instead there is an arid area of parched, cracked, dry soil. It is as though someone had deliberately lifted a section of Death Valley, and laid it carefully in the centre of the pitch. All that was missing was a bleached cow's skull.

Even that might not have mattered. According to the experts grass, while desirable and aesthetically pleasing, is not actually essential. The problem with the Sabina strip is that it is not flat. And, in cricket terms, it is not flat like the Rockies are not flat. So although a layperson such as you or I might look at it and say, "that seems to be pretty even," a cricket expert will quickly spot the tiny bumps and ridges that render the strip un-playable.

Why unplayable? Is this not another of those absurd excuses cricketers use - like rain - to get out of playing? Do soccer players refuse to come out of the tunnel if it snows? Do indoor tennis players stop because of excessive heat? Do rugby teams walk off when they think the mud has become a little sticky and is mussing up their nice stripy shirts? They do not.

And yet cricketers will not play when it rains, will not play when there is "bad light" and, as we now know, will not play if the pitch fails to be flat enough. For someone like me who is used to battling against the odds in my job (terrible deadlines, complicated word-processing packages, mad management), this all smacks of a moral weakness.

This is, however, unfair. The problem with cricket is that the ball that practitioners use is incredibly, preposterously hard. And some bowlers throw it with immense force - particularly those who believe that they are repaying some terrible debt from colonial days. Bad light will mean that the batsman cannot see the ball at any point in its trajectory. The first he knows about it is when it stoves in the side of his head. Likewise, a bumpy strip can cause the ball to rear up erratically at wild angles, striking the batsman in all parts of the body.

Now, all this may come as a surprise to you or me, but you would would not expect it be much of a surprise to, say, the West Indian Cricket Board, who have had - as I explained earlier - a great deal of time to prepare for the match with England. Yet what has happened can only be compared with, say, the failure to book a referee in time for the FA Cup Final, or forgetting to buy nets for the courts at Wimbledon. It represents a failure of epic proportions.

There can only be one result. Yesterday morning I heard the dignified and saddened tones of the West Indies chairman accepting full responsibility for the disastrous abandonment of the match. My heart went out to the poor man. I wanted to put my arms around him and tell him that it would be all right. That I believed that he had done all he could.

And I wondered whether the problem wasn't that cricket is too demanding a sport. The provision of all the things that are necessary: clear skies, rainless days, bumpless pitches - and all together on a particular day - may strain organisation in logistically challenged places, such as Jamaica or England, to breaking point. And for what?

Meanwhile the Jamaican team is preparing for its first appearance in the greatest sporting tournament on the planet - the soccer World Cup. There will be no flinging of lethally hard balls, and concomitantly no worrying about bumps and clouds. The team's training takes place amongst mounds and divots, and increasingly the Jamaican people have taken the soccer players to their hearts.

They are right to. For the final truth about cricket, which the Kingston episode only confirms, is that is a rather silly sport.