May 2017 Volume 14

My Sabina days

Michael Holding
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Reprinted from ESPNcricinfo

One of West Indies' all-time great fast bowlers remembers the ground in his boyhood and Test cricket days

Sabina , that is how we called it, although a few shortened that to just Bina.

The first time I met Andy Roberts was at Sabina Park. Both of us were the 12th men for our teams: Andy for the combined Windward and Leeward Islands and me for Jamaica. In the early days when the players used the Kingston Cricket Club pavilion as their dressing rooms, there were these green benches players could sit on to watch the games. We sat on that green bench for the entire game and that was the beginning of our relationship.

Right from the time I was a schoolboy at Kingston College, which is about half to a quarter of a mile down the road from Sabina Park, I used to go there on a regular basis. School ended pretty early, so us guys interested in cricket would take a walk and try and sneak in somehow and spend about sixpence (two cents now) to watch Test cricket from the bleachers area.

There were trees planted around the bleachers, which apart from adding to the aesthetics provided a bit of shade from the boiling sun. Then there were the light pylons used for night activities at the ground. Sabina those early days was not just a cricket ground but where most other sporting activities also took place before the national stadium was built in 1962. Guys would climb the trees and the pylons and watch cricket. Sadly, they are no longer there.

I played my first competitive game at Sabina in the Sunlight Cup final in 1970. The Sunlight Cup was the competition played by schools in Kingston, and St Andrew and St Catherine, the adjoining parishes. That game included names like Norman Henry, the captain Zadoc Henry, Ray Ford, Jeffrey Stewart and Devon Barnes for Kingston College while Wolmer's School had in their line-up Phillip Rae, son of the legendary West Indies opening batsman and administrator Allan Rae, and Jeff Dujon , who went on to play many Tests for West Indies.

Being a fast bowler in the Caribbean there were only two pitches we wanted to bowl on, Sabina and Barbados

My maiden first-class match at Sabina was against Barbados in 1973. There was talk making the rounds about this youngster playing for Jamaica while still being at school. So I thought to myself I had to show these people that I truly belonged in the team, and how fast I was. I had to run in and bowl really fast, which I wasn't prepared for, but I tried to do it to impress. The pressure was on.

By the time I bowled about four overs, I was out of breath. I remember walking down to fine leg and leaning up on the wire fence and thinking, I'm out, that's my lot, I can't go any further. I was hoping the captain, Maurice Foster, would not call me for another over. But he did. I cannot remember what happened in those six balls because I was dead beat.

All I was trying to do was get through those six balls, because surely he wouldn't ask me to bowl another, at least not until much later. That episode made me realise I was nowhere near fit enough to bowl effectively at first-class level. Schoolboy cricket is certainly different to representing your country. It took me another two or three years to get close, and I didn't actually get to full fitness until Dennis Waight joined the West Indies' Packer team in 1977.

The unique thing about Sabina was the nature of the pitch. It had true pace and bounce, at least most of the time. History will remind us that one of the occasions when it didn't was 1968. I was 14 and it is one of my earliest clear memories of watching Test cricket. There was none on television, so it was at Sabina or nothing.

It was West Indies against England . The pitch cracked up terribly, much too early in proceedings. It disintegrated. Garry Sobers and Seymour Nurse went out in the second innings and scored resolutely and rapidly under very adverse conditions, which allowed West Indies to declare, though they had followed on. On the scheduled final day there were riots due to a disputed umpiring decision and the game was extended into a sixth day. West Indies scrapped and scrapped, but in the end it turned out to be a pretty tame draw.

"The unique thing about Sabina was the nature of the pitch. It had true pace and bounce, at least most of the time"

The other exception I remember clearly was when India toured in 1976 . Incidentally it was also the first time I played a Test match at Sabina. We all know the incidents (five Indian batsmen were marked "absent hurt" in the scorecard) left a bad taste in the mouths of quite a few people, but I remember the match for a more happy reason.

I had walked in to bat alongside Deryck Murray . We had lost the previous Test, in Trinidad. I remember asking him between overs at one point: "Deryck, do you think we are going to really lose this Test as well?" He said, "Yeah, but you have to just try and fight." I made a half-century (55), and along with Murray and the lower order pulled back the West Indies. We ended up winning the Test eventually. So that was my first experience of joy at Sabina - and batting.

Obviously people would remember that Test mainly due to the injuries carried by many Indian batsmen. I did my bowling from the southern end, which is now the George Headley Stand end. There was a little bit of a ridge bowling towards the Northern Stand. Balls hitting that area would take off awkwardly. Vanburn Holder hit that ridge and the ball climbed up to hit [Brijesh] Patel's chin. The ball had pitched short of good length - it was not a bouncer - and Patel was playing forward.

The pitch did not misbehave in the first innings. Both teams batted smoothly, but by the latter half of the match, the pitch had dried out, it got a bit quicker and it started to misbehave a little bit.

Even since then, and till the 1980s and 1990s, the Sabina pitch offered good pace and good bounce. The pitch had absolutely no grass. The way the curator, Charlie Joseph in my time, prepared it, which included spinning the roller on the surface to give it a sheen, got it to a point where you could almost see the reflection of your face in it. That is how shiny it was. And it was so hard that I can't remember any bowler having a problem with the foot-holes.

Those days it was not common practice for groundsmen to repair foot-holes during games, but it wouldn't have been required at Sabina anyway, because the pitch was so firm. You could see the scratch marks but not much else.

I thought to myself I had to show these people that I truly belonged in the team, and how fast I was. I had to run in and bowl really fast, which I wasn't prepared for, but I tried to do it to impress

My initiation at Sabina at first-class level might have been painful, but I have some joyful memories of Caribbean cricket there. One of them was sitting watching from the outside as Lawrence Rowe made 214 and 100 not out on his Test debut . I was just enamoured by the way this man was batting - I do not remember him missing one ball throughout that match against New Zealand. Then there was Brian Lara and Jimmy Adams batting big against Australia in 1999 to dominate and help West Indies to a ten-wicket win.

I played five Tests at Sabina. The other Test I remember among them came against India again, in 1983 . That match was shaping up to be a draw. A lot of fans had already left the ground on the final afternoon. But Andy Roberts put down a fantastic spell of fast bowling and made the Indian batsmen fight for every run. That brought us right back into the Test match. India were all out for 174, leaving us very little time to achieve the target. We needed runs at a very quick rate. It was Viv [Richards], later joined by Jeffrey Dujon, who finished off the job, making it a very exciting Test.

Being a fast bowler in the Caribbean there were only two pitches we wanted to bowl on, Sabina and Barbados, because the others pitches were considered batsman's paradises. Antigua - look at the amount of the world records set there batting. Bourda (Guyana) was again another batsman's paradise in our days. West Indies no longer play at that particular ground but I used to joke, whenever I used to do commentary on Test cricket there, that if they ever were to put up honours boards at the ground listing batsmen's and bowlers' achievements of centuries and five-wicket hauls, they would need an entire wall to list the century-makers, while the bowlers would need just a matchstick.

Queen's Park Oval (Trinidad) was not a very good pitch at all those many years ago. Balls would creep along the ground at times. In fact, if my memory serves me right, I got John Wright of New Zealand out lbw once with a bouncer… that hit him on his ankle! So as a fast bowler you would look forward to Sabina and Barbados.

"Unlike in the present, in my day there were no big, high stands, with people looking down into the playing area"

But neither of those venues are what they used to be. In fact, the cry around the Caribbean these days is that the inconsistency in the playing surfaces does not encourage good cricket, and hence do not enhance proper development. Another hindrance to our cricket these days. But I digress.

Sabina has never been an imposing venue, but none of the Caribbean grounds really were. Unlike in the present, in my day there were no big, high stands, with people looking down into the playing area. The light pylons were the tallest structures around. What made Sabina attractive, apart from the cricket being played, was the view of the scenic Blue Mountains as a backdrop when you looked from the south towards the north.

The idyllic picture of Sabina in my mind will be of trees and the light pylons skirting the bleachers area. Of people in the trees and sitting on the pylons. Sellout crowds enjoying a day of cricket in the sun. Not for me the high stands of this day to the north, blocking the view of the mountains. The Blue Mountains would be part of my picture, but as we know, it's called progress. In my mind, not all progress makes things better.

As for the pitch: dark-coloured, hard, shiny, with true pace and true bounce. West Indies playing Australia or England, with fast bowling on both teams, and some dashing batsmen to face it.

Michael Holding took 249 Test wickets and 142 ODI ones for West Indies in the 1970s and '80s. He was speaking to Nagraj Gollapudi, senior assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

Holding gets Paul Downton of England in the Sabina Park Test of 1986 © Getty Images

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