Poor pitches, poorer opposition and cows on the wicket have made pre-Test games in the Caribbean entirely unpredictable
From Mike Gatting’s shiner to Andrew Flintoff’s pedalo England’s visits to West Indies have rarely been free of memorable incident, with even the humble warm-ups reliably producing drama, interest and controversy. England are due to arrive in Barbados on Friday for their latest tour and it would be no surprise if the first days were to throw up a few dramatic moments – and perhaps a bit of comedy.
So intriguing have previous warm-ups been that on the one vaguely recent occasion when they were not particularly compelling, the lack of interest was itself interesting. That was in 1990, when England prepared for a Test series against a side packed with fast bowlers and exclusively right-handed batsmen with a series of games against teams stuffed with spinners and southpaws.
Nearly 60% of the bowling they faced before the international action started was slow, though it was not obvious whether this was to prevent England honing the most useful batting skills or to make them look better than they were in the hope of selling more tickets for a Test series that might be competitive.
“Four years ago England were blitzed into submission, even before the first horrible Test in Jamaica, by a combination of quick bowling, poor pitches and non-existent practice facilities,” Mike Selvey wrote in the Guardian. “This time the West Indies board, mindful as much of the need to market the series and of the potential English whinge factor, has bent over backwards to accommodate. [But] the tourists look as ill-prepared for the first Test as they were in 1986. It has just been less painful.”
The 1986 tour was perhaps the apogee of comedic preparations. There were terrible performances with Matthew Engel suggesting that their “opening game, against the Windwards, looks nice and gentle” and then watching England lose it by seven wickets.
Preparations for the second game, against the Leeward Islands, were hampered when “practice had to be scrapped because a herd of cows had chosen to wander over the only available wicket” and with the ground softened by rain it was some time before “the hoof holes were repaired”.
They then very nearly lost to the Leewards, with seven batsmen dismissed in single figures and England 22 runs from victory with two wickets remaining when the game ended. “England left for Jamaica looking every bit as silly as they did when they arrived from St Vincent,” wrote Engel.
Bruce French, England’s back-up wicketkeeper, had to miss that game after being bitten by a dog while jogging (the dog, which had apparently done that kind of thing before, was put down). “This tour,” Engel surmised, “is starting to feel a little shambolic.”
The following year French went on the tour of Pakistan, got hit on the head by a ball thrown by a spectator, was hit by a car on his way to hospital and then, on arriving, walked into a light fitting.
The most famous of England’s warm-up woes came in 1994, the tour that would include Brian Lara’s triple ton but that started with Chris Lewis coming down for breakfast on the morning after their arrival with his head freshly shaved, spending the day practising without a hat and ending up with sunstroke, ruling him out of the tour-opening match against an Antigua XI.
“The funny thing was, he’d got Devon Malcolm to shave his head for him,” Keith Fletcher told the Guardian. “Devon’s blind as a bat anyway, so Chris had all these little bits of toilet paper stuck all over his head where Devon had nicked him. My initial reaction when I saw him wasn’t to worry whether he might get sunstroke, it was to laugh.”
In the Guardian Selvey described “a tour whose tide has been going out so far and fast it might be Weston-super-Mare rather than the Caribbean”, on which “England’s batsmen plumbed depths that make the Puerto Rican trench seem like a sandy ripple on Grande Anse beach” – and that was before the Tests began and England emphatically lost the first three. In the last of those, set an achievable target of 194, they were bowled out for 46.
The outfield grass was so long that it “might have passed for golf-course rough at the US Open but was inappropriate for a cricket match”. David Lloyd, the England coach, decided it was worth having a word with the groundsman. “Why don’t you lower your mower blades?” he asked. “My mower,” the man replied, gnomically, “is metric.” When England returned to Jamaica for the first Test, the pitch was so poor the match was abandoned after 56 minutes.
When England last visited, in 2015, they scheduled two warm-up games, both against a St Kitts Invitational XI. The first was so one-sided – the hosts were bowled out for 59 in their first innings and reduced to 24 for six in their second, leading the Guardian to call it “an utterly meaningless contest” – that in the second game Jonny Bairstow, Joe Root, Jonathan Trott and Gary Ballance batted for both teams. This time we called it “a farce of a non-event”.
Next Tuesday England will play the first of their two warm-up matches, both against a West Indies Board XI in Barbados. What could possibly go wrong? Actually, don’t answer that.
- This is an extract taken from the Spin, the Guardian’s weekly cricket email. To subscribe, just visit this page and follow the instructions.
- Source: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2019/jan/08/the-spin-england-west-indies