Deja vu for Flower at Sabina Park

2009-02-10 00:00

WATCHING his team capitulate for 51 runs, must have felt a bit like déjà vu for caretaker-coach of England Andy Flower. In 2000, he was captain of our Zimbabwean Test side who, chasing a total of 90 runs for victory, were dismissed for just 60 at the very same ground, Sabina Park.

Zimbabwe were faced with the stealth and guile of Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh on a rapidly deteriorating wicket and in conditions that appeared to be custom-made for the legendary pacemen.

What seemed a small total at the outset soon became momentous as they scrapped and scrambled for runs, which seemed nowhere to be had. Some balls would roll on the ground while others would fly over the batsmen’s heads from a good length. It was a frightening experience as we watched the wickets tumble and with them the chance of a rare Zimbabwean Test victory.

The timing of England’s annihilation couldn’t be worse considering all the on- and off-field developments of late. I feel for Flower and Andrew Strauss, who have heavy-weight pressure on their shoulders. The British press have crucified their team, calling them spineless, gutless and leaderless, and have done their best to make much of a rift that has allegedly appeared in the team, although Flower has been quick to dismiss this.

An added distraction has been the mega-dollar auction of some of the English players involved in the Indian Professional League, which can’t have helped the team’s focus. Strangely enough, the only player who seems to be handling the pressure is Kevin Pietersen, and if anyone could have an excuse for poor form, it would be him.

England’s collapse is not unique on the wickets of the West Indies and it reminds us how tough it is to tour there. There will be no comfort for England in knowing that the English team touring in 1994 were bowled out for 46 at Port of Spain or that in 2004 the West Indies themselves were dismissed by England for just 47 runs at Sabina Park.

There is very little grass on the pitches of the West Indies. The wickets get a good initial soaking, but as they dry, the top forms a crust a few centimetres thick. The pitch has the appearance of a great batting wicket, and it is for the first two days. But by the third day the moisture has been sucked out of the wicket and the crust begins to break up and crumble as it takes wear and tear, especially from the West Indies quicks. The result is a surface with cracks, broken up areas and a few good flat areas.

It’s obvious then, that batting first and making large totals is crucial. The team batting second will be under pressure as the pitch will already be misbehaving.

But this is what makes playing Test cricket all over the world so exciting, as pitch preparations vary immensely from country to country and even region to region. Truly great cricketers should succeed on all surfaces.

Zimbabwe were able to put our crushing defeat at Sabina Park behind them quickly, but then they didn’t have the world’s media reminding them how bad they were as England do now. Andy Flower, with his experience as an ex-Test player and captain, who knows just how it feels, could be just what England need to re-group and focus on the second Test in Antigua.

• Neil Johnson is a former Natal, WP and Zimbabwe all-rounder who lives and coaches in Pietermaritzburg.

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