May 2017 Volume 14

Tales from Sabina

Ray Ford
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I remember even seeing ice-skating there,” recalls Mr. Donovan Davis, former Track & Field coach at Kingston College High School (KC), on being asked about Sabina Park. And, “I remember when Pat Rousseau put-on a benefit match for Clive Lloyd at Sabina. He brought down a man with a jet-pack - the first time seen in the Caribbean,” recalls former Jamaica and West Indies fast bowler, Michael Holding.

Beginning on April 21st, when the West Indies host Pakistan there for the first of a three Test match series, Sabina Park will be seeing its 50 th Test. On entering the ground from Emerald Road to the south, and as viewed from the parking lot to the west, the back of the Kingston Cricket Club (KCC) pavilion which overlooks the grand old lady, could use a lick of paint. But nevertheless, when one enters the ground, it gives the feeling of entering some famous cathedral, because, the ground is full of historic and storied memories. From Andy Sandam’s 325, to George Headley’s 223, to Collie Smiths’s 104, to Garfield Sobers’ 365, to Lawrence Rowe’s 214 and 100 not out, and to Brian Lara’s 213 and more, Sabina Park is saturated with historic Test cricket feats. But to Jamaica and Jamaicans, Sabina Park has been much more.

In its illustrious history, besides cricket, it has staged boxing, dog-shows - as the Jamaica Kennel Club still does in the autumn, field hockey under the watchful eye of Utpal Ganguli, lawn tennis, schoolboy football, schoolboy track & field, and of course, at least one ice-skating exhibition. As for tennis, “I remember seeing international tennis stars, the likes of Althea Gibson, Darlene Hard and Betty Rosenquest play there,” Mr. Davis also reminded. Gibson won the French Open in 1956, Wimbledon in 1957 and 1958, and the U.S. Open in 1957 and 1958; Hard won the French in 1960, and the U.S. in 1960 and 1961; whereas Rosenquest raked as high as No. 7 in 1954. In essence, Sabina Park was stage, to several displays by world-renowned sports people in several fields. And to the many youngsters who attended an event at Sabina Park most left with some dream and/or, with some idol.

“As a seven year-old, in 1955, when I saw Collie Smith make that 104 against Australia,” recalls one of my KC friends Las Talbot, “I wanted to bat like he batted. He was my hero.” Similarly, when I myself attended my first Championship Sports for schoolboys held there in 1962, which KC dominated, I saw the fleet-footed Tony Keyes run. I knew then, that I wanted to attend that high school. The die was cast and the seed was planted. KC would go-on to win Champs for thirteen (13) more consecutive years – still a record, and one which might equate to that fifteen-year run, when beginning in March 1976, the West Indies dominated world-cricket.

It’s written that the piece of property now known as Sabina Park was a 30-acre estate first purchased by a Robert Fairweather in 1840. It came into being when the Kingston Cricket Club, founded in 1863 built its first pavilion at Sabina in 1880. The ground hosted its first first-class game in 1895, and its first Test match – West Indies v England – in April 1930.

With the addition of cricket, Sabina Park to Jamaica back in the day was like what the National Stadium is to the country now. Sabina began being the premier venue for Boys’ Champs back in 1910, and remained so until 1962. Champs remains a rite of passage today, as it was back then. Not only for star-athletes like Dwight Anderson, D.P. Beckford Jr., Earl Belcher, Carl Belnavis, George Bowden, Dwight Campbell, D. Davidson, Lindy Delapena, the Dujon-brothers, Barclay Ewart, Lloyd Goodleigh, Frank Hall, Lyndie Headley, Teddy Hewitt, Errol Huie, Dennis Johnson, Leroy Keane, Louis Knight, Vin Lumsden, Pat McGlashan Snr., R.A. Mahfood, Tony Matthews, two-time Olympians like Lennox Miller, and Herb McKenley, Cosmond Vaughn, Mabricio Ventura, and Keith Young. But for politicians and diplomats-to-be, like Harvey DaCosta, Ken Hill, Laurence Lindo, Douglas and Norman Manley, Edgerton Richardson, and Donald Sangster. And, might I now take the time to recall the great feats at Sabina Park, of my long-time KC friend Mabricio Ventura, in both schoolboy track & field and in schoolboy football?

In 1957, Ventura won the Class II 100 yard in 10.2 secs; the Class II 220 yards in 22.85 secs; and the Class II 440 yards in 52.80 secs. In addition, in that same meet, he placed second in Class II long jump, and second in the Class II 110 meters hurdles. He played All-Sunlight Cup cricket in 1957, and was a member of the victorious KC Manning Cup football team in 1958. All this before he went on to take-up a football scholarship at Michigan State University, in East Lansing, Michigan, U.S.A in 1959. And so, Ventura can indeed claim to be one of the schoolboy heroes of Sabina Park.

The people’s champ

In April 1930, one month before his 21st birthday, George Headley, recorded the first three-figure score (223) by a West Indian in a Test at Sabina Park. It was against England, and in the same Test that Andy Sandam recorded the world-record highest Test score at the time – 325. And built around that score, Sabina saw the highest ever Test innings – England’s 849 all-out. It remains today, the highest Test total ever in the Caribbean, and the third highest in Tests to-date. But it was Headley, who before his passionate Jamaica-crowd stole the show. According to a Jamaican historian Arnold Bertram, Headley was more than just a great batsman. “The aspiring (Jamaica) middle class found in him the reassurance which they needed. The white upper classes were willing to be proud. But it was to the black masses that Headley had the deepest significance.” And of Headley, Bertram goes on to write: “At a time when the masses yearned for someone to symbolize their aspirations, Headley’s significance went far `beyond the boundary’.”


Jamaica’s next champ was John Kenneth ‘JK’ Holt Jnr. His 152 against the touring MCC side in January 1954 got him into the West Indies Test team, to make his debut against England at Sabina Park, a few days later. It was the first Test match of that 5-Test-match series.

Batting at No. 3, `JK’ seemed set to score a Test century on-debut, and consecutive first-class centuries, when he was given out leg-before by the Jamaican umpire Perry Burke, to Brian Statham, for 94. The Sabina Park crowd was not pleased. So much so, that Burke had to endure house-arrest, to be protected from a marauding Jamaican mob. The Jamaica crowd has never been shy at `throwing bottles’, as they did fourteen (14) years later, when in a Test also against England, Basil Butcher was given out, caught-behind and low-down, by Jim Parks off a sweep-shot played to Basil D’Oliveira. I was there for that, and remember scampering-out of the south-east wooden stand adjacent to South Camp Road, along with two of my KC schoolmates Franklyn Creighton and Ronald Samuels, when teargas was hurled our way.

Jamaica’s next great black-hope was O’Neil Gordon `Collie’ Smith. Like `JK’, before him, Collie’s 169, in a colony match, against a formidable Australia attack, got him into the West Indies-Australia Test in Kingston, in March 1955. The Jamaica wicketkeeper batsman Allie Binns who had made 151, in the same Australia-Jamaica colony match was called up for Test-duty in that match, for the first time as well.

And Conspiracies?

True or not, one who was at that Test match believes, that there was some conspiracy afoot fueled by a fierce inter-island rivalry at the time, to see Jamaicans fail.

“They had already gotten-rid of (the Jamaican) Allie Binns, who made a duck in the first innings, when they promoted to bat at No. 3 for the West Indies, when the highest he had batted for his club-side in Jamaica, was at either No. 5 or at No. 6,” asserts Las Talbot. Binns ended-up making a double-duck, and was promptly dropped for the remainder of that Test series. “And now here comes Collie in the second innings, pushed-up the order to No. 3 the evening, when arguably, the greatest middle order some say of all time – Weekes, Walcott and Worrell – was unbelievably sitting in the pavilion,” recalls Las. Collie not-out overnight, against the much vaunted fast-attack of Ray Lindwall, Ron Archer, Bill Johnston and Keith Miller, went on the next day, to make a brilliant 104.

But before it got to that, “Collie almost gave-up on playing cricket, so distraught he was, when he had made a century in a Jamaica trial match, and the Jamaican off-spinner Reggie Scarlett, was selected over him,” recalls Mabricio Ventura who attended KC like Collie did, in or shortly after Collie’s time. “Collie was all set to migrate,” asserts Ventura, who himself was a Jamaica Colts cricket-squad invitee. But if there were conspiracies against Collie, none was perpetrated by the great West Indian (Sir) Frank Worrell. It was said that in Jamaica domestic cricket at the time, one Canute Barclay, was ranked alongside Collie in talent if not in temperament. And it was Sir Frank who when he was playing for Boys’ Town, chose to push Collie to the fore.

Great feats

It’s been forty-five (45) years since Lawrence Rowe’s immortal Test debut against New Zealand at Sabina. And of Rowe’s batsmanship, Tony Becca recently wrote: “When it comes to elegance and class and style, and `touch’ and artistry, he (Lawrence Rowe) probably has no equal in the world of cricket. He was, barring one or two, second to none.” And of Rowe, in a speech on the evening of January 24, 2015, at the Coral Pointe Plaza in Margate, Florida, Sir Garfield Sobers who was captain of the West Indies team at the time said, “I saw Lawrence play some shots in that match, which I’ve never seen before, and which I have never seen since.” And coming from Sir Garry who has seem them all, that is one high accolade.

But after all the water that has flowed under the bridge, will the name of Lawrence Rowe be on the roll-call of Mark Neita – chairman of the marketing committee of the Jamaica Cricket Association (JCA), as one among `a number of outstanding players to have graced the (Sabina Park) venue’? And if it is, will Mr. Rowe accept? Or will the stylist say, `once bitten twice shy’?

Memories of a legend

Michael Holding the great West Indies fast bowler has his memories of Sabina Park too. “I remember my exuberance when I first got picked to represent Jamaica in Shell Shield cricket.” That was against Barbados in January 1973. “I bowled flat-out for my first four overs, at the end of which, I was dead tired. I leaned-up against the fence at the southern end praying that my captain Maurice Foster would not call me for a fifth. But, he did.”

And of his first appearance in a Test match at Sabina Park, which was against India in April 1976? “I would rather not talk about that. Because my mother did not approve of the way I bowled in that match.”

“What I do remember though,” said the legendary West Indies fast bowler, recently, “is when I bowled Sunil Gavaskar first-ball in the second innings of the Sabina Test in February 1983. According to Ravi Shastri, he had just come off the field and was relaxing in the dressing room in the George Headley stand undercroft. The commotion he heard forced him to come-out to see what was going on, because bedlam had broken-out above him,” said Holding.

Sticking with my hero

So close I was to the action at Sabina on Saturday, February 8th , 1968, that I could hear the KCC pavilion metal-gate creak when Sobers pushed it. And as he leaned forward and began to roll, I could hear his pad-flaps slapping against his thighs. Sabina Park was jamb-packed that Saturday-morning, for that second Teat match in that 1967-68 West Indies-England Test series. And I was one of the overflows, along with my `Fortis’ schoolmates Zadoc Henry and Horace Knight, sitting in ice cream chairs in the grass-knolled arc, just north of the KCC pavilion. One ball – that from the rapid John Snow, and my hero was undone. I remember the expressionless look on Sir Gary’s face as he rolled back to the pavilion. With collar still up, it said, `I am better than this’. In his book `Gary Sobers’ Most Memorable Matches’, of that failure, Sir Gary wrote as much. “I am an eternal optimist.” I am too. And so when the West Indies were asked to follow-on, I `skulled school’ to see my hero strike a magnificent 113 not-out. I was back on the sixth day – allowed for lost-time after a mini-riot - to see Sobers’ classical bowling-mechanics side-on - all rhythm coming up-hill. He took 3 for 33 off 16.5 overs, as the match petered into a draw.

That Test match was also the first in Jamaica, for the great Clive Lloyd. The West Indies captain to-be only got scores of 34 not out, and 7. But his batting cameos displayed immense power-hitting especially off the back-foot to Ken Barrington stationed deep at extra-cover. On its way, one could hear the ball slithering through the grass. Lloyd’s on one-man patrol as the West Indies cover-fieldsman, was also a sight to behold.


To me, Brian Lara to West Indies cricket was like Don Drummond to the Skatalites. Both could at-times, take some cajoling to blow. But when they did, their sounds were mellifluous and uplifting. Before Australia visited, in 1999, Lara was in a stand-off with the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB), at the start of the previous West Indies tour of South Africa. Besides, the side had fallen-apart in the first West Indies-Australia Test in Trinidad. It was as if he was trailing on points in the 15th round of a boxing match, boxed in his corner, and only by a knock-out, he could win the fight. And so, in that second West Indies-Australia Test that March at Sabina, the batting-maestro delivered a knock-out punch.

Of his pluperfect 213, Tony Cozier wrote for The Cricket Monthly, “In its context, with due deliberations and apologies to George Headley, Sir Garry Sobers and a host of other greats, I cannot identify a single innings by any West Indian batsman, in our 71 years of Test cricket, of such significance.” And in-turn, I was privileged to have written for his Red Stripe Caribbean Cricket Quarterly, `Devastating Lara Turns The Tide’.


I consider May 3rd, 1995 – the day Australia pulled the noose at Sabina Park, the beginning of the gradual sunset on what was till then, a glorious period in West Indies cricket. Steve (200) and Mark (126) the Waugh brothers, featured in a 231-run third-wicket partnership to help Australia reach the mammoth and impregnable total of 531. But it was, as I wrote in `More Musings on that Match’ - `the sight of West Indies’ slovenliness was unbearable’. Further to the loss, the West Indies captain Richie Richardson ungraciously chided the victors for (quote): “being one of the weakest Australia sides, ever to tour the Caribbean.” And so in more ways than one, the West Indies began their glide-slope.

But lower yet was, to come. On Monday, March 15, 2004, the WICB, “sincerely apologized to the West Indies public for the shocking performance on the fourth day,” of which was the first Test match of that England-West Indies Test series being played at Sabina Park. It might have been the first time in Test cricket history that a formal apology was offered to spectators for the performance of a national team. The day before, Sunday, March 14, 2004, Messrs Franklyn Morant and Michael Vernon were supposed to join Lannie Walters and myself for lunch at the Kingston Cricket Club.

That lunch, was not to be. Because, as Morant, Vernon and I approached the KCC after the West Indies were routed for 47 in 25.3 overs - their lowest Test-total ever, as I wrote for The Sagicor West Indies Cricket Quarterly: “Like a summer art fair ruined by rain, tablecloths were being ripped off and burners were being fanned out.”

Better lucky than good

In 1967- all of fifty years ago, I was lucky. Not yet a sixteen year old, the KC sportsmaster and cricket coach – Mr. Trevor Parchment, described earlier this year by Tony Becca, as `one of Jamaica’s few good men’, included me in the KC Sunlight Cup cricket team in a play-off match against Kingston Technical High School which was played at Sabina. Two years before, I’d seen the Australian quick Graham McKenzie bowl there, and in him, I saw me. Coming up-hill with long loping strides and sweat-soaked shirt pasted to his back, McKenzie represented to me, what life was all about – hard work, persistence, and, running uphill.

In a losing cause in which I was not overwhelmed, I picked-up four wickets for 40 runs, coming in from my `McKenzie end’. And I remember vividly, three of my victims. Lance Comrie I can see now, missing my yorker, hit plumb in-front, on his instep, and limping-off in misery, out leg-before. Then there were Floydie and Lynden Wright – half-brothers of Collie Smith. I had both caught in the deep, pulling. And twenty-three years later, Lynden had not forgotten.

In February 1990 during the West Indies-England Test, I was invited by John Prescod, Jnr., to the JCA hospitality box to have lunch. On reaching the door Lynden who was holding the gate blurted to my host, “John (Prescod), don’t bring that man in here, because he’s going to talk about it.” The `it’ being, that as his junior both in age and in talent, I had worked him over, and had him aided by that leaping grab at backward square, by the St. Lucian-born, KC all-rounder Jeffery Stewart.

Four years later in June 1970, I was back. That time to play Wolmers’ in a winner-take-all play-off for the Sunlight Cup. I only got one wicket - Phillip Rae ballooning to Michael Holding, but then held-on at mid-wicket, to Harold Richardson’s slap, off our leg-spinner Donald Clare. KC won the Cup, and then beat Vere Technical High School, for the All-Island Spaulding Cup. Against Vere Technical, and with bowling figures of 6-1-11-3, I was in my element.


These days, I feel lucky to be allowed to climb the stairs to the print-press quarters at the northern end of the ground, take-in the magnificent view of Kingston Harbor, and to do my little scribbling. But with privilege comes responsibility. And as LD `Strebor’ Roberts suggested in the preface to his book `Cricket’s Brightest Summer’, I still try `to present in a vivid manner, and to report faithfully, all that is worth reporting’.

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