Two Test matches are currently underway at two historic venues. The Queen's Park Oval is hosting its 60th Test, and Kingsmead its 42nd. These games are the grounds' first ever Tests played in August. Both matches have been ravaged by rain and the inability of the grounds to cope with its effects.
Only 22 of the scheduled 360 overs have been possible on the first four days of the Port-of-Spain Test between West Indies and India. Allowing for the loss of two overs for an innings break, only 102 of a possible 270 overs have been possible on the first three days of the Durban Test between South Africa and New Zealand.
Overnight rain in Durban meant no play was possible on Sunday, the scheduled third day, despite uninterrupted sunshine. In Port-of-Spain, rain ended play 22 overs into day one, and no play has been possible thereafter, even though days two, three and four have been mostly sunny. Both venues have struggled to deal with staging a Test match at an unusual time of year for them.
It is the middle of the wet season in the West Indies, but it is becoming increasingly common for cricket to be played in this period here. Traditionally West Indies have played their home Tests in the first five months of the year, but they are increasingly being squeezed out of having a proper home season. January, February and March clash with home seasons in Australia, India, New Zealand and South Africa, and most of the world's top players now play the IPL in April and May.
The IPL has affected the early part of England's home summer, with touring players often arriving just in time for the Tests, having had no time to transition from T20 to five-day cricket. But it has not affected the July-September period, which is when England play the bulk of their home Tests, including the more prestigious ones.
West Indies, on the other hand, have had to move their home Tests into the most unfavourable months of the year. Until 2008, only four of West Indies' 48 home series had started after 1 June. Since the start of 2008, eight of their 15 home series have begun in June or later, in the rainy months. In the ongoing series against India, rain has washed out 90 overs or more in three of the four Tests.
South Africa's home Test series, meanwhile, have almost always begun between November and March. They have played one series that started in April - in 2006 - and one, now, in August. Both times New Zealand have been their opponents, suggesting a scheduling compromise between two southern-hemisphere teams reluctant to travel overseas during their traditional home seasons.
Where West Indies would have known fully well they were in for rain when they scheduled the India series in July-August, South Africa may have been caught off guard by the weather. On average, August is the driest month in Durban, and July isn't far behind, but the city withstood severe flooding in late July, and the wet weather has continued into August.
The ground certainly hasn't shown itself to be fully prepared for the possibility of rain. Only the pitch and the rest of the square went under covers when it rained in Kingsmead, and the outfield was exposed to the elements. It did not help that the outfield had only just undergone an extensive re-laying process, and was perhaps not in the best shape in terms of drainage.
Members of the Queen's Park Oval ground staff, meanwhile, reckoned its outfield has been among the quickest-draining in the Caribbean, ever since it was re-laid in the lead-up to the 2007 World Cup. When asked how it was still unfit for play despite all the sunshine it had basked in, they said the humidity and lack of breeze could have slowed down the evaporation, but mostly they blamed the scheduling: it had rained almost every day in the week leading up to the Test.
Still, knowing that the ground was due to host a Test in the wettest month of the year, the authorities could have been better prepared. There was no Super Sopper at the ground, and until day three, by which time the damage had already been done, the run-up areas had been left mostly uncovered. On Sunday, members of the Queen's Park Cricket Club - which owns the Oval - met to discuss the events of the first four days. They said they would wait until the end of the Test match before releasing their official statement. It should make for interesting reading.
"Traditionally West Indies have played their home Tests in the first five months of the year, but they are increasingly being squeezed out of having a proper home season"
At a wider level, the events of Port-of-Spain and Durban point to a disregard, from all the boards concerned, for common-sense scheduling. The WICB should have known August was a particularly bad month to stage a Test in Port-of-Spain. CSA should have known it was probably unwise to stage a Test match at a venue that had only finished re-laying its outfield seven weeks previously. They could possibly have given Durban an extra couple of weeks by scheduling the first Test in Centurion, where the outfield was re-laid in April. They may not have anticipated the rain, but they would probably have known overs would be lost, with bad light a definite possibility, given the earliness of South Africa's winter sunsets.
Really, the lesson ought to be to schedule Test cricket only within its traditional seasons. Perhaps that is no longer possible, given the unmanaged jumble of three formats and franchise cricket all over the world. In that situation, the least the boards could do would be to equip their grounds to a basic minimum standard.
Should that basic minimum standard include a Super Sopper? It's a debate for another day, but as things stand, the ICC's Standard Test Match Playing Conditions do not mention mopping and drying facilities at all. As for covers, Law 11 only mandates that they "totally protect the pitch and also the pitch surroundings, a minimum 5 metres either side of the pitch and any worn or soft areas in the outfield", and also for the "bowlers' run-ups to be covered in inclement weather, in order to keep them dry, to a distance of at least 10 x 10 metres".
Fast bowlers' run-ups are usually longer than 10m. In an interview with the Guardian in 2002, for instance, Brett Lee said he had shortened his run-up to "21 metres and 30 centimetres". The covers at the Queen's Park Oval certainly protected the last 10m of the run-up areas, but in a belated recognition that this may have been inadequate, the ground staff brought in new covers on day three to lengthen the covered portions. Perhaps the ICC could increase the minimum requirement too. Perhaps it could even mandate that the entire ground - as at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata and at certain Sri Lankan venues - be covered, or at least a larger portion than just the square be covered.
If the stadium authorities cannot afford this, their national boards probably can, and it should be the boards' responsibility to ensure the best possible facilities for Test cricket. The WICB and CSA definitely have fallen short at Queen's Park Oval and Kingsmead. At a time of declining interest in Test cricket in both regions, it feels like neither board has done as much as it could to support the format.