Ends: Blue Mountains End, Headley Stand End
Home Team: Jamaica
Test History: 45 Tests; 22 home wins; 10 away wins; 13 draws
Last 10 Tests: 5 home wins; 5 away wins
Last 10 tosses: 9 batted first (4 wins, 5 defeats); 1 bowled first (1 win)
Situated in a somewhat suburban part of Jamaica's capital Kingston, Sabina Park has a rich history and a mean reputation to match the island's tough capital.
Its location in the city's driest microclimate resulted in the hardest and fastest surface in the Caribbean for many years, making it a fearsome place for visiting sides facing up to unrelenting Windies quicks. But the pitch has slowed in recent times, and attempts to reverse the trend through re-laying the wicket have for the most part proved fruitless.
This change is mirrored in the stands, which underwent a significant upgrade for the 2007 World Cup. The capacity of the ground was increased from 15,000 to 20,000 as new concrete stands were erected, but this came at a cost. Views of the picturesque Blue Mountains to the north of the ground were lost to patrons in the George Headley Stand, while the popular 'Mound' Stand in the East was replaced by the 'Party Stand'.
Fortunately the members pavilion, a charming old wooden building which lies square of the wicket on the West side, remained untouched. Legend has it that no member is allowed to utter a woman's name in the pavilion or else he must buy drinks for everyone there, a tradition which stems from an unfortunate incident where a man mentioned a lady's name in reference to having had a liaison with her. The lady's husband happened to be sitting right behind him.
The ground hosted its first Test in 1930 during the West Indies' first home series, and has since seen contrasting fortunes from the first Test triple hundred (by Andy Sandham 325 in 1930) and Sir Garfield Sobers' then-record 365 not out against Pakistan, to the embarrassment suffered when the 1998 Test between England and West Indies was abandoned on the first day with the pitch deemed too dangerous to the batsmen. And then there's England's disastrous 51 all out in 2009, of course.
Last Time Out
June 2011 saw India beat the Windies by 63 runs. Afterward, India skipper Rahul Dravid said: "The pitch in 2006 was a lot more difficult. This was a great cricket wicket, that one had lots of shooters and lifters. Kudos to the groundsmen."
The pitch was not kind to the batsmen during that Test, and the first innings brought India a mere 246 all out, with only Suresh Raina and Harbhajan Singh contributing meaningful scores. Fast bowler Fidel Edwards took four wickets, and Ravi Rampaul three. Given that the former has replaced the latter in the squad for the upcoming Test, the selectors might take note of this stat.
The West Indies' reply was abject, with only Adrian Barath scoring a half-century. Of that batting line-up, only Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Darren Sammy remain in the regular side, and Chris Gayle has returned, so they will hope to avoid such a poor score again. All four Indian bowlers on offer took wickets in those 67-odd overs bowled.
That left India with a lead of 73 before they went out to bat again, but again they failed to post a high score and were all out for 252. Sammy and Devendra Bishoo took four wickets each and Rahul Dravid saved the Indian blushes by scoring the only century of the match, making 112.
The Windies needed to score 326 for victory, and never came close. While nearly all of their batsmen, including much of the tail, got starts, they failed to convert and were all out for 262. Seamers Praveen Kumar and Ishant Sharma added three wickets apiece.
Home skipper Darren Sammy rued the poor batting, and grew annoyed at the constant reminders of Gayle's absence: "The batting has not been the problem only this series; it has been plaguing us for the last 10 years. Maybe I could have Garfield Sobers, Viv Richards, all of them. I think whoever is picked for West Indies, if you are a batsman the onus is on you to make a difference."
He will be thrilled that this time around he will won't have to face that barrage of questions, and that his batting order has some semblance of form, because they're going to need it on this tricky wicket.
"The first time I visited the West Indies, I was astonished to see how the Sabina Park wicket was rolled in Jamaica. It was not parallel, nor horizontal, but zigzag! One could actually see the reflection on the surface. It was hard, true and bouncy, and didn't deteriorate as much even towards the end. It was probably the fastest wicket in the Windies then. It was subsequently relaid and lost its original pace and bounce. Once, in fact, the surface was so poor that I had to call off a Test match between England and West Indies after one hour. Today, it has improved slightly, but still hasn't regained its original form." - former international umpire S Venkataraghavan tells OutlookIndia.
"In our conditions, Narine is unplayable. Especially, when we post a good total. I know what he is going to do. Any situation, you can call on him, and it is good to have someone like that in your team who you can turn to at any given time. Playing here at Sabina, the pitch always offers something for the bowlers early on and then gets better for batting as the day progresses." - West Indies captain Darren Sammy sings the praises of Sunil Narine.
"I hope I can continue here in front of my home crowd by trying to get at least another century. The last time I was here, the aim was to get a start and stick in, and fortunately for me I was able to do that and entertain the crowd." - West Indies batsman Chris Gayle is eager to build on the ton he scored in the one-dayers in front of his homecrowd.
Happy Hunting Ground
Shivnarine Chanderpaul sports the best record here of the current crop. He is eighth on the all-time top-scorers at Sabina Park with 604 runs, including two centuries and three half-tons.
One would be more inclined to tip Chris Gayle or Marlon Samuels to do well this time out, given their centuries here during the ODI series and Gayle's general imperious form of late.
Bowling-wise Fidel Edwards has the best figures here, having taken 25 wickets in six Tests at an average of just over 22. He is not certain of playing, though, having replaced the injured Ravi Rampaul in the squad. However, he might crack the nod for the playing XI ahead of fellow pace ace Tino Best.
New Zealand don't have much of a track record here. They last played a Test here in 1985, when most of their current squad weren't even born. BJ Watling, ruled out of the Test series opener, made a half-ton in the first ODI here, though.
While inclement forecasts isn't usually something to worry about in the Caribbean, this Test has rain forecast for nearly every day. Of course, that might just mean that there will be a late afternoon shower for 20 minutes, but the percentages are rather high, and day five looks a bit more severe.
The teams will have to make sure to use every hour of non-rain well, and the bowlers will look to use the cloud cover to their advantage on a pitch that used to be known for its pace. By the time Monday arrives, if the forecast is to be believed, and there isn't a result imminent, there may not be one at all.
If the weather plays along, and we don't lose too much time, the side who gets in properly could do some damage. The Kiwis have a tendency to lose early wickets, and the Windies may use the unpredictable nature of this wicket to skittle them out as soon as possible, especially if Kemar Roach and Narine are on song. New Zealand haven't been able to play those two all month, no matter the wicket.
Getting Gayle out early will be vital for the Black Caps, because he loves batting here and if he gets in he will go big. And with a newly-confident Kieran Powell alongside him, that opening stand could set some records again. Marlon Samuels is also in good form, even though he didn't fire in Antigua, and Assad Fudadin is coming off a half-century and will be eager to build on that.
It's tough to see New Zealand winning this one, given their ineffectual bowling all tour, and they will need Ross Taylor and/or Brendon McCullum to lead from the front on what has gone from a good bowling wicket to a poor anything wicket, to what now seems to be a good batting track.