One of the shortest Tests was played at Kingston on January 29, 1998. Abhishek Mukherjee looks back at a Test match that had to be abandoned because of one of the most atrocious pitches ever used.
England, especially during the 1990s, were used to West Indian fast bowlers running through them. This, however, was something entirely different: they had ambled to 17 for 3 after 10.1 overs when the umpires – Srinivas Venkataraghavan and Steve Bucknor – had to call the Test off.
The local hero, Michael Holding, later referred to the situation as “embarrassing”; he claimed that he had “never seen a pitch as dangerous as that”. He also called the pitch “substandard” and “not fit for Test cricket or even club cricket for that matter”.
Ian Botham went on air, calling the pitch “a disgrace” and added that he was worried that “someone was going to be seriously hurt”.
Michael Atherton, the English captain, exclaimed that that the pitch had more undulations than Epsom on Derby Day while Brian Lara, the West Indies captain, remarked that it was not a “fair surface”.
Barry Jarman, the match referee, mentioned that that the pitch was “horrific” and “nowhere up to standard”.
So what really happened?
The Sabina Park pitch had been dug up three months before the Test and was re-laid. There were speculations whether the pitch would be ready for play, but the Jamaican Board Chief Executive George Prescod and groundsman Charlie Joseph were absolutely certain that everything will be fine. The ground supervisor Easton McMorris, also a former West Indies opener, hoped that “either side can make 380 on it”.
On the day before the Test, Nasser Hussain went to have a close look at the pitch. He mentioned that the groundsmen were on their hands and knees, working profusely, “trying to fill the gaps with Polyfilla or whatever they could find”. It was then that he realised that there was something seriously wrong.
On the morning of the Test, Atherton went for a pitch inspection, and could spot the undulations even with the naked eye. He found the groundsmen laying a string from one set of stumps to the other. He found that the string brushed against the ground only at certain places, while in some others there was a gap of upto three inches. The reddish pitch looked like it was likely to crumble at any moment; there were cracks so prominent that you had to look at them vertically to see how deep they were; and just outside the off-stump at good-length on one end, there was a crack that could easily be called a crevice.
Atherton had no hesitation in batting first when he won the toss. He speculated that the pitch could only deteriorate from that point of time. For England, Jack Russell had been declared unfit with diarrhea, which meant that Mark Butcher had to be drafted in. For West Indies, Nixon McLean was supposed to make his Test debut.
Atherton and Alec Stewart walked out to bat; Lara handed the new ball to Courtney Walsh. The third ball of the match pitched on a good-length and went just past Atherton’s nose – which was when everyone began sensing that something was seriously wrong.
Curtly Ambrose opened bowling from the other end. In the second over Ambrose bowled a length ball that cut back sharply and went through Alec Stewart, just past his right armpit. In the same over another length ball hit Stewart on the shoulder and flew to the slips.
Walsh pitched up the first ball of his second over; Atherton, sensing it was pitched outside off-stump shouldered arms to it; the ball ascended almost vertically, took Atherton’s bat and flew to gully, where Sherwin Campbell took a fantastic catch. Atherton could only stare at the pitch in disbelief.
In walked Butcher, playing his first match of the tour. Once again, Walsh did not bowl short; once again, a length ball rose up vertically and approached Butcher’s face at a menacing speed. Fortunately, Butcher could bring the end of his bat handle just in time to intercept the missile, and the ball ballooned high up in the air to Stuart Williams at third slip.
As Hussain walked out with the score on 4 for 2, Stewart greeted him with the words “it’s Saturday, it’s eight o’clock, its the National Lottery”. Meanwhile, as a dejected Butcher returned to the dressing-room, Adam Hollioake – not playing in the match – greeted him with a raucous laughter.
After that over, Venkataraghavan called Jarman on his walky-talky. Jarman responded that the pitch if the umpires had decided to call the match off, they would receive full support from him. The umpires decided to play on.
The pitch continued to behave like a minefield, and as the batsmen tried to fend the balls off, they were hit on the knuckles and forearms multiple times. The English physio Wayne Morton had to rush to the ground no less than six times, and probably spent more times on the field than off it.
The pitch behaved so inconsistently that even the usually aggressive West Indian fast bowlers seemed apologetic and showed concern for the English batsmen. They bowled a consistent line and length, and generally pitched up, not intending to cause any physical harm to the batsmen. The pitch, however, was not something they could control.
In the eighth over Ambrose pitched one up to Hussain. The ball acted normally, for a change. This took Hussain by such surprise that he was probably shocked and edged it to Carl Hooper at second slip. As Graham Thorpe walked out to bat with the score on 9 for 3, the entire England camp looked concerned: John Crawley, the next batsman, chain-smoked in tension, and muttered that someone might be killed.
Stewart left an overpitched ball from Ambrose in the tenth over. The ball climbed steeply from there and went over David Williams’ head for four byes. It looked so ridiculous that even Ambrose came up to Stewart and apologised. The next ball landed in the same spot and went to David Williams on the second bounce. In the same over, Stewart was hit on his hand twice.
The first ball of the next over from Walsh hit Thorpe on the elbow. He sat down and kept brushing his elbow. Stewart asked him to stay put, and Morton ran out again. Stewart walked up to the umpires and told that the match was “a farce”. The umpires called the drinks trolley in, and had a conversation with Lara. Stewart signaled Atherton to come out as well, and after a prolonged discussion, play was called off. The Test was officially declared abandoned after a conversation with ICC in London. It was the first time in 121 years of Test cricket that a match had to be abandoned due to the atrocity of the pitch.
The 4,000-strong Kingston crowd was visibly upset, but they did not display their usual volatility: they, too, sympathised with the cricketers. They were refunded their ticket prices, though. That was hardly a consolation for the 500-odd English supporters who had flown in from England for the Test.
Within a few hours a decision was made for a replacement Test at Port-of-Spain the next week. England’s tour match at the same venue was cancelled.
The West Indies press held nothing back at the national disgrace. The Gleaner editor wrote “the pitch should now be dug up, and those directly responsible for this travesty of a Test pitch should be buried in the same hole”.
The Jamaica Cricket Association took rapid measures. After numerous experiments they managed to build a pitch that actually won accolades from the touring Australians next year.
There were speculations that the Test should be removed from the annals of history. However, David Richards, the ICC Chief Executive, announced that the Test should be considered valid, and all records should count towards the players’ careers. This meant that McLean, on his Test debut, did not get a chance to bat, bowl or take a catch, just like Jack MacBryan in 1924. However, unlike MacBryan, who played a solitary Test, McLean went on to play 19 Tests.
Brief scores: England 17 for 3 drew with West Indies – match abandoned because of dangerous pitch.
(A hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobiac by his own admission, Abhishek Mukherjee is a statistical analyst based in Kolkata, India. He typically looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – not necessarily as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the game with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a rather steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers the sport has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks and googlies in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in)
Also on cricketcountry.com