Zimbabwe v West Indies, 1st Test, Harare, 3rd Day November 6, 2003

Roller mania

Zimbabwe v West Indies, 1st Test, Harare, 3rd Day

The first Test between Zimbabwe and West Indies at Harare Sports Club almost came to an untimely ending before the start of the third day's play, thanks to a freakish incident that seriously damaged the pitch.

Play was due to start at 9.30, half an hour early, to make up for time lost on the second day. All was normal as the time approached, with the ground staff rolling the pitch and the players practising on the outfield. Then Zimbabwe's Trevor Gripper unleashed a well-timed drive that sent a practice ball scudding on to the pitch - right in the path of the roller.

The operator had no time to stop, and a split second later the ball lay embedded in the pitch - short of a length to a left-hander at the City (southern) end of the ground. The dent was about an inch deep, and any ball pitched in it could fly anywhere, an obvious danger if bowled at speed.

Fortunately the Royal Harare Golf Club adjoins the ground, and an urgent request was made to borrow an auger, with the idea of lifting out the damaged area and replacing it with a similar piece from just behind the stumps. After all, if entire pitches are transported these days, why not a small fraction of a pitch?

Robin Brown, the HSC groundsman and a former Zimbabwe opener from the eighties, was in charge of operations. Wisely he wanted to be sure it would work before risking the operation on the troublesome area in mid-pitch, so he tried it first behind the stumps and then in the middle of the pitch, but at the side. After all, the pitch here was much harder and drier than anything likely to be found on the golf course.

When this was successful, the final operation on the damaged portion of the pitch was made. With a bit of cleaning up, the area was invisible and appeared to be thoroughly firm. Gundappa Viswanath, the match referee, gave the go-ahead, and play finally started two hours late. If any ball was pitched on that particular spot during the day, it was not obvious.

This was a successful venture into unknown territory, and the Zimbabwe Cricket Union sighed a huge sigh of relief - if the match had had to be abandoned, the financial loss would have been appalling. But what if it had not been successful? There is nothing in the laws of cricket that would cover such a situation. But would the ICC approve a common-sense approach, should a small area of a cricket pitch be damaged beyond repair?

Flexibility and common sense. These were exceptional circumstances at Harare, which fortunately had a happy ending. But it would be a shame should a whole Test match be abandoned due to an irreparable mishap to a tiny area of the pitch. It would also be annoying if the match referee had to waste time in lengthy communication with ICC headquarters to get permission to work around a unique situation that was not covered by the laws.

Let us hope flexibility and common sense may be given free rein in unusual circumstances. Viswanath showed he possesses these by altering the time of the lunch interval today, a sacrilege that was strictly forbidden at Zimbabwe's Lord's Test this year, when after a late start half an hour's play was possible before the players had to troop off so as to take lunch at the appointed time. And the world did not cave in at Harare.