Inspiration at Sabina Park
I remember a few years ago, hearing the great Anderson Montgomery Everton Roberts complain about the North Stand at Sabina Park.
For Andy Roberts, the huge stand, which was built as part of expensive preparations for the 2007 ICC Cricket World Cup, was a monstrosity which had blocked out an important source of inspiration for players. He was referring to the players’ view of the towering Blue Mountains.
I have to confess I was astonished. The way Roberts explained it, every time he turned at the southern end to run in to bowl, the wind rushing over his right shoulder, he would look up and get fresh impetus from those glorious mountains.
How, he wondered, could the local authorities not have understood the value of that magnificent view?
Listening to Roberts that day brought back to mind arguably the fastest bowling I have ever witnessed.
It was April of 1977, and the West Indies and Pakistan had come to Sabina Park for the fifth Test with the series tied at 1-1.
Roberts had been magnificent all season. Injury had removed Michael Holding and the youthful Barbadian Wayne Daniel, who had made his Test match debut the previous year at Sabina against India on a pitch of dubious quality. So now, Roberts had with him two new giant fast bowlers, Colin Croft and Joel Garner. The two had immediate impact with their bounce, pace and penetration — Croft eventually ending the series with a record-equalling 33 wickets.
There was great concern in Jamaica because the West Indies had come to Kingston without a Jamaican in the side. Holding was injured, the iconic Lawrence Rowe had fallen prey to yet another ailment/injury, and Maurice Foster, a prolific champion in regional four-day cricket, had been left out after failing with the bat in the first Test, though he did get three wickets with his off spin.
There was fear of a Test match boycott and there was even an organised protest. Yet Jamaican cricket lovers, enthralled by the contests in the series up to then, flocked to Sabina in great numbers to watch, not protest.
Fast bowlers apart, they came to watch outstanding West Indian batsmen on the verge of greatness: Vivian Richards, Gordon Greenidge, Roy Fredericks, Alvin Kallicharran and of course the commanding leader Clive Lloyd. The Pakistanis had a fine pace/spin attack but mostly cricket watchers wanted to see their gifted stroke makers, names such as Majid Khan, Zaheer Abbas, Haroon Rashid, Sadiq Mohammed, the captain Mushtaq Mohammed, Asif Iqbal and Wasim Raja had captured the public’s imagination.
West Indies batted first and made 280 on a pitch made difficult on the first morning by preparation moisture as that magnificent fast bowler Imran Khan took 6-90. Greendige, bringing his immaculate technique to bear, made 100 before falling to the tall, slender and pacy Sikander Bakht. I remember well Greenidge, time and again, up on his toes, sometimes in mid-air, cutting Imran’s shorter deliveries at the top of the bounce, down into the ground, well short of gully to the third man boundary. Today, batsmen play the upper cut; not Greenidge.
I remember well Roberts’s warm-up bouncer to Majid Khan at the start of the Pakistan first innings. An aristocrat among batsmen, Majid, wearing a white, wide-brimmed hat pulled low over his eyes, seemed to swivel in slow motion, casually, elegantly, dispatching the ball to the backward square boundary. I still remember the long, low unprintable exclamation as the Sabina crowd witnessed that imperious hook stroke. I still remember the deafening roar when Roberts’s follow-up bouncer, so fast, the eye struggled to follow, slammed into Majid’s shoulder, his bat coming through far too late.
And how will I ever forget Zaheer Abbas limping off the ground, his back pad twisted around by a Roberts thunderbolt that would have uprooted middle and leg.
Most of all, I remember an extraordinary second innings battle between Roberts and Asif Iqbal. Pakistan, eventually defeated by 140 runs, had their backs to the wall at 51-4 when Asif strode to the crease. Renowned as a magnificent stroke maker, he was yet to have an impact on the series. Everything changed as he proceeded to play perhaps the finest innings against fast bowling ever seen at Sabina.
With Roberts getting the ball to fly from the hard surface and Croft and Garner finding steep bounce as well as pace, Asif cut and hooked with great certainty. He eventually made 135 – falling to the wrist spinner David Holford — but those who saw it knew that innings was worth many more. Somewhere along the way, Asif made the decision he would take on Roberts on his own. So he would hook behind square to the man on the boundary and cut to the man at third man, but there he was with his hand upraised to the likes of Wasim Raja and Imran Khan. The others were free to face Croft, Garner, Holford et al; Asif would not allow them to contend with Roberts.
He would end with second innings figures of 0-57 from 18 overs, following 2-36 in the first innings. Roberts went without a wicket in that second innings, only because of Asif Iqbal.
I have seen Patrick Patterson, Michael Holding, Jeff Thompson, Malcolm Marshall and others bowl with searing pace at Sabina. None bowled faster than Roberts in that Test against Pakistan in 1977.
When West Indies express pace bowler Shannon Gabriel turns at the southern end in the first Test against Pakistan starting Friday, he won’t see the Blue Mountains. He will see the towering North Stand. Hopefully he will see enough West Indian supporters to lift spirits.
Yet, even if only a handful of supporters turn up, Jason Holder’s young team should take inspiration from their extraordinary performance against India here last year. Holder himself should take heart from memories of his 34 overs of disciplined fast medium bowling, on or around the off-stump which kept India’s gifted batting order in check during their 500-9 declared off 171 overs. He got just one wicket; at another time Holder may well may have collected five.
Gabriel also had just one wicket, but he should remember how he troubled all the Indian batsmen with his consistent pace and control.
Most of all, young West Indian batsmen should remember the verve and courage with which they played on that last day against India last year to save the Sabina Test match. To my dying day, or until my mind goes, I won’t forget Jermaine Blackwood repeatedly dancing down to hit champion spinner Ravi Ashwin into the North Stand, nor will I ever forget Roston Chase, time and again, gloriously on driving Amit Mishra against the spin, in that wonderful last-day century. They fought like tigers and made us all proud.
Holder and his men lost the Test series to Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) late last year. But when they convincingly won that final Test — led by the cool-headed Kraigg Brathwaite and Holder’s second-innings five-wicket haul — a rare accomplishment for any non-Asian team in the UAE, they proved they belonged.
Now, yet again, Holder and his men must fight like tigers at Sabina Park.