Pitch receives the plaudits of players and public

TONY COZIER

SABINA PARK has produced a wide variety of pitches in its time but nothing like what it served up for the fifth, final and decisive Test.

"I've never, ever seen a surface at Sabina with as much grass as this," Michael Holding, who became one of the great fast bowlers learning the ropes on the ground, said.

West Indies captain Carl Hooper, whose experiences at Sabina go back to 1985 when still a promising teenager, made the same observation.

"It's always been hard with good carry for the fast bowlers but I've never seen so much grass," he commented.

It was enough to prompt India's captain Sourav Ganguly to choose to bowl first on winning the toss for the first time in the series. But his fast bowlers failed to utilise the early life.

After that, the surface became ideal for batting as Wavell Hinds, with his second Test hundred, 113, and his successive partnerships of 111 for the first wicket with fellow-Jamaican left-hander Chris Gayle and 135 with right-hander Ramnaresh Sarwan formed the basis of a strong West Indies position of 287 for four on the first day.

For years, Sabina was identified as a pitch so shiny the batsman's image would reflect off it like a mirror. It was fast, bouncy and true.

After 1968, when it was dug up and relaid, it lost much of its sheen and much of its pace as well.

This is Sabina's 37th Test since the first, between the West Indies and England, in 1930. In that time, it has seen several record-breaking batting feats yet presented three of the most dangerous pitches in the history of the game.

It was at Sabina that Andy Sandham recorded Test cricket's first triple century in the inaugural Test in an England total of 849, still the highest ever made in the West Indies.

In that same match, the legendary Jamaican George Headley, after whom the largest stand on the ground is now named, responded with 223, the first of two double-centuries in the only two Tests he played there.

Five years later, Headley's unbeaten 270 set up a massive West Indies victory.

World War II intervened and Sabina didn't host its next Test until 1948, against England, when Everton Weekes compiled his first Test hundred and the first of five in succession that remains one of the game's most durable batting records.

Batsmen continued to prosper in the 1950s.

In 1953, against England, the famed Three Ws scored hundreds in the same innings for the first time - 237 by Frank Worrell, 118 by Clyde Walcott and 109 by Weekes.

Two years later, five Australians recorded hundreds in a total of 758 for eight declared. It remained a Test record until Pakistan matched it against Bangladesh earlier this year.

In 1958, Gary Sobers who made his debut on the ground four years earlier as a 17-year-old left-arm spinner - amassed his 365 not out against Pakistan that stood as Test cricket's highest individual score until Brian Lara surpassed it with his 375 against England in Antigua in 1994.

Since then, there have been contrasting double-hundreds by Dilip Sardesai for India in 1971, Glenn Turner for New Zealand in 1972, Steve Waugh for Australia in 1995 and Brian Lara for the West Indies in 1999.

Yet, not all have favoured the batsmen. Those in 1968, 1976 and 1998 were downright threatening to limb and body.

The square had been relaid prior to the 1968 Test against England and the upshot was a pitch mottled with cracks so wide they could accommodate a substantial finger.

Batting became a lottery and, after enforcing the follow-on, England were struggling to hold on for a draw at 63 for eight on an unscheduled sixth day when an hour and a quarter was added on to compensate for time lost earlier to a crowd disturbance.

In 1976, there was a ridge that prompted India's captain Bishan Bedi to concede the series-deciding match by declaring with five second innings wickets down to prevent more injuries to his shell-shocked players from Holding, Wayne Daniel and Vanburn Holder.

It was so dangerous for the 1998 Test against England that the match was abandoned when into its 10th over. One ball flew over wicket-keeper Junior Murray's head, others scuttled along the ground. Batsmen were struck and England were four wickets down when the match referee and umpires decided to call the whole thing off, the first time it had ever happened in the long history of Test cricket.

It was dug up and relaid immediately after that debacle and, in the three subsequent Tests since, against Australia, Zimbabwe and South Africa, it has been in fine order and produced three outright results. Significantly, all were in the West Indies favour.

Last year, it was voted by the captains as the best pitch of the five pitches for the South African series.

Now its appearance has changed and, on the evidence of the final Test, it received the plaudits of players and public - West Indians, if not Indians.