Few Tests have been shorter, but none have brought so much opprobrium onto officials and administrators as the opening match of the 1997-98 series between West Indies and England at Sabina Park. After little more than an hour, during which time England's physio had been on the field six times to tend to batsmen, the umpires took the unprecedented step of abandoning the match after consulting with the captains.
The real question was, should the game ever have been allowed to start?
Three months before the Test the square at Sabina Park was dug up and relaid, and the contractors had barely finished before the concerns started emerging. But Charlie Joseph, the groundsman, and George Prescod, the Jamaican board chief executive, maintained it would all be fine come the day.
When the England squad and accompanying media took their first look at the new pitch they were appalled. "It would appear [the pitch] was replaced by a cowboy gang of tarmac layers of the sort who will skim your drive with a quarter inch of blackstuff in return for ready money," wrote Mike Selvey in the Guardian on the eve of the match. "They seem to have put down a thin veneer of clay straight on top of a deliciously verdant outfield. The teams can expect uneven bounce from the start… and if it has any pace it could get nasty."
Alan Lee in the Times wrote: "Most of the tour party have never seen a pitch quite like this. It is arid, cracked and corrugated and the kindest of assessments would conclude that the recent relaying programme was hideously mistimed."
Even to the inexperienced observer, it was clear all was not right. There were cracks - one, possibly more accurately described as a fissure, was about a quarter of an inch wide on a length just outside off stump. The surface, a reddy-orange colour, appeared to be barely held together. One unnamed former West Indies Test player went as far as suggesting conspiracy theories, telling the Mirror that the groundsman had been instructed not to fill in the cracks, adding: "It's going to be lively. It could come down to the survival of the bravest."
Former West Indies opener Easton McMorris, the ground supervisor, was clearly a worried man. "It's a relaid pitch," he said. "We're hoping either side can make 380 on it. We think it will hold together."
Mike Atherton, England's captain, was diplomatic at the pre-match press conference. "I don't wish to prejudice the pitch, because surfaces often play better than they look… but runs are going to be at a premium." Privately, he described it as having more undulations than Epsom on Derby Day.
It was also rumoured that the surface was so bad that the umpires - Steve Bucknor and Srinivas Venkataraghavan - had consulted with Barry Jarman, the match referee, regarding their own concerns.
"The pitch was like crazy paving," Nasser Hussain later claimed. "They were on their hands and knees the day before, trying to fill in the gaps with Polyfilla or whatever they could find. We knew with the bowlers they had it was going to be hard work."
On the first morning Atherton ambled out to the middle early on as Joseph and his staff were putting the finishing touches to their preparations. He looked on in disbelief as a piece of string was laid from one set of stumps to the other, to check the alignment. "The string touched the ground in parts, but there was a three-inch gap elsewhere," he later recalled. "It merely confirmed the undulations that were obvious to the naked eye."
Atherton won the toss and batted - "on the basis that things could only get worse" - and within an over it was clear the pitch was every bit as bad as expected. He faced two balls that hit roughly the same spot; one flew over his shoulder, the other shot past his ankle.
The first hour was about self-preservation more than anything else as Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose steamed in with their tails up. Atherton and Mark Butcher were caught in the close cordon off successive brutal deliveries from Walsh.
Butcher had only been drafted in an hour before the start, after Jack Russell had gone down with a gastric illness. He had not faced a ball in the middle since the squad had left London. "Walsh ran in gently but as soon as it hit the pitch it just flew vertically at me," Butcher said. "I managed to get the end of the handle on it and the ball went straight up in the air. As it was going straight towards my face, that was pretty good. When I walked back into the dressing room the first person I saw was Adam Hollioake, who wasn't playing. He just looked at me and started laughing."
Half an hour later Hussain, welcomed to the middle by Stewart with the comment "It's Saturday, it's eight o'clock, it's the National Lottery," nicked a routine delivery from Ambrose. "I just got a normal ball that didn't do anything, I just nicked it and pretended it was a minefield." England were 9 for 3 in 35 minutes.
On his return to the dressing room, Atherton asked Hussain if the pitch was really as bad as it looked. "Nah," Hussain replied, "it's far worse." Atherton discreetly headed off to look in Jarman's room to check he was watching what everyone else was. He need not have worried. As early as the third over Jarman was communicating with the umpires via his walkie-talkie.
Meanwhile, Alec Stewart had been joined by Graham Thorpe. "If you get hit," Stewart told him, "go down and we'll get the physio out again." The pair were subjected to some horrible blows to hands and body, and Wayne Morton, the England physio, seemed to be on the field as much as he was off it.
Back in the pavilion, the concerns were mounting. John Crawley, the next man in, chain-smoked and muttered: "Jesus, someone's going to get killed out there". When one Ambrose delivery rasped past Thorpe's head and over the wicketkeeper for four byes, Crawley yelled: "For f***s sake… this is ridiculous," causing his team-mates to collapse with nervous laughter.
Stewart just stood mid-pitch and stared at a massive hole that had been blown into the surface by a ball. Ambrose, standing next to him, just shrugged. "There's nothing I can do about it." The next delivery cracked Stewart on the hand, and out jogged Morton again. Stewart recalled that every time a batsman was hit, the bowlers would ask if they were okay. "That showed how unreal it had become."
The first ball of the next over proved to be the final straw as Thorpe was struck on the elbow by another delivery that spat off a length. "I went down and was rubbing it, but as I was about to get up Stewie told me to stay down," Thorpe explained. "Stewie was exaggerated everything that was going on. He spoke to both umpires and said: 'This is a farce'."
As Thorpe was tended to by Morton, the umpires signalled on the drinks cart and engaged in another long chat. As they did, Stewart signalled for Atherton to come out to join them.
He met Brian Lara, the West Indies captain, on the way out. Lara had only just been appointed to replace Walsh, a decision that made him far from popular among many West Indies fans. He agreed with Atherton that the pitch was unfit, but baulked at being the one to make the call. "Shit, you'll have to do it," he told Atherton. "It's my first game as captain and they already hate me here."
Stewart ambled over to his captain and told him: "I don't mind a challenge but this is ridiculous." After almost ten minutes of discussion, the umpires took the players from the field to the bemusement of the crowd. An hour later, after consultation with the ICC in London, the match was abandoned.
Informing them of the abandonment, England manager Bob Bennett told the squad they must not comment on the pitch, a request greeted with ridicule as they all realised it was likely to be the only thing that any of the reporters wanted to know. "What do you want us to do," Hollioake asked, "sing its praises?" Common sense prevailed and the instructions were amended to a request that they keep their heads down.
Negotiations continued long after the half-full ground had emptied, and it was eventually agreed that an extra Test would be played in Trinidad. Back at Sabina Park, Joseph was inconsolable. "The pitch was just not up to standard, it was horrific," he said. "I am crying tears and blood. People have come from England just to watch this match. My heart goes out to them."
The press in the Caribbean did not hold back. "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," fumed an editorial in Jamaica's Gleaner. "They deserve no better than what they have just managed to do to Caribbean cricket overall."
Atherton returned to the ground the next day to have another look at the pitch and under the baking sun it had got even worse. "It was definitely the right decision," he reflected.
The Jamaican Cricket Association acted swiftly, digging up the square and trialling various types of clay until they got one that worked. A year later the ground hosted a Test against Australia and Steve Waugh, the visiting captain, was full of praise for the pitch. The damage to the game in general and Jamaica's reputation in particular was far more lasting.
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Opening Up by Michael Atherton (Coronet 2003)
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Playing For Keeps by Alec Stewart (BBC Books 2004)
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