OWZAT!Wandering up to the crease, hearing the thwack of willow on leather.
Had it not been for our two boys’ passion for the sport, it’s likely that cricket for me would still be one of those impenetrable games during which, as one bemused American once said, ’22 men stand around for five days with no guarantee of a winning result.’
As it is, over the years, I have become a devoted supporter of the England cricket team, except when they are playing the West Indies, where my loyalties are severely tested. Our boys had no such qualms. Their cricketing heroes were West Indian, like Curtly Ambrose, Viv Richards and Brian Lara. And, looking back, I can see why. These players had style, confidence, an intimidating arrogance and they could bat and bowl. Added to which, cricket played on a West Indian ground is completely different from anything you’ll experience in the UK (apart from the famous Oval ground in South London which is always host to the final test in a five test series).
First experiences are often the most vivid and so it was when John and I decided to take a short break from toiling on the building site at Isles Bay Plantation and treat ourselves to a few days of cricket at the Antigua Recreation Ground (the Rec), a small 9,000 seater in the centre of the island’s capital St. John’s. “You wan noisy stand?” the ticket seller asked, peering through her tiny window. Of course we did. Bottles of Red Stripe in hand we made our way through the crowds, most of whom were sporting the plum coloured West Indies insignia. The noisy stand, impossible to miss, turned out to be a two tier wooden structure, no seat numbers, just wooden benches. We squeeze in beside an excited restless family who generously make room for us.
“Your first time?” the older man asks. Is it that obvious? Suddenly the speakers burst into life and the ground is assaulted with calypso music introduced by one, we later learn, DJ Nigel ‘Chickie’ Baptiste. Everyone in our stand gets to their feet swaying, clapping and dancing. Below us a white bearded man saunters onto the pitch wearing what can only loosely be described as a Pantomime Dame outfit. The more our stand cheer and whoop, the more outlandish the dancer Laban ‘Gravy’ Benjamin becomes. I discover, many years later, that Gravy marked his retirement by parading across the Rec outfield during an interval dressed in a fully accessorised bridal gown.
And then it’s the arrival of the teams. Drums beat, trumpets blare and Chickie’s music gets louder. After every over, back comes the music. Can you imagine the atmosphere at that ground after a wicket falls?
Cricket for us at Antigua has never been the same since and, because the Rec closed many years ago, to be replaced by a much more modern, soulless ground out of town, probably never will be.
Every time I hear the opening bars of the BBC’s Soul Limbo music introducing a cricket feature, I am transported back to Montserrat and its beautiful five acre cricket ground Sturge Park, its boundaries formed by the Caribbean, the island’s capital Plymouth and the Soufriere Hills. Its existence is due to the philanthropy of one Joseph Sturge VI, a lifelong Quaker who worked tirelessly for, and was a prominent figure in, the anti-slavery movement. After slavery was abolished in 1834, Joseph Sturge visited Montserrat in 1836 and led a vigorous campaign lobbying for the complete cessation of slavery in all forms on the island. In 1857, along with other members of the family, he established the Montserrat Company which at its peak owned a dozen estates on the island, making it the largest landowner, producing lime juice, cotton and sugar.
In 1936, 100 years after Joseph VI’s first visit to the island, the company gave the people of Montserrat five acres of land near Plymouth to be used in perpetuity as a public open space. Not surprisingly, it was called Sturge Park. Today it lies buried under nearly forty feet of volcanic ash, now as hard as concrete, which was thrown from the volcano during the various eruptions that began in 1995.
But in 1989, there was no talk of volcanoes.
One particular weekend that year the major pre-occupation was the forthcoming cricket match between Montserrat and the neighbouring island of St. Kitts. This was a game not to be missed. We arrived early and made our way to the stands built in white painted concrete. Beside the building, dozens of stall holders offered an eclectic choice of merchandise. Bottles of shampoo, individually wrapped boiled sweets, garishly iced cakes and throat-burning hot sauce, sat alongside piles of barbequed chicken and fish. The liquor stalls, I noticed, outnumbered the others by two to one. Children everywhere. One little girl in particular I remember who wriggled furiously as her mother tried to braid her halo of tight black curls.
The electronic score board, a gift from a pop star cricket enthusiast who had fallen in love with Montserrat while recording an album at George Martin’s AIR studios, still hadn’t been connected, but the manual one, despite the fact that some of the players’ names couldn’t be spelt out in full, due to the disappearance of some letters, continued to serve its purpose.
Nobody could have asked for better weather. A cooling breeze propelled the Disney like clouds. The outfield looked springy and green and the pitch at that very moment was being lovingly swept by a man with a broom made of twigs.
Montserrat won the toss and chose to bat. The St. Kitts team sauntered onto the field, hats and caps at rakish angles, Rasta sweat bands on their wrists and reflective sunglasses lending an intimidating air. A huge cheer went up as Montserrat’s opening batsman appeared. He swung his bat high in the air, savouring his popularity as he made his way to the crease. The music blared and the single TV camera zoomed in as the island’s hoped for successor to their cricketing hero Jim Allen, stood proudly in front of the stumps, lowered the chin strap of his helmet and executed a few swings of his bat. The music stopped and the crowd fell silent as they watched a six foot four streak of energy run towards their man, challenging him to deflect a rock hard leather coated orb of cork hurtling towards the stumps at over eighty miles an hour.
The ball thwacked resoundingly onto the bat and our man followed through with an exaggerated swing. We all gasped as the ball disappeared into the glare of the sun. A six seemed inevitable. Had it not been for an alert outfielder, who leapt into the air, caught the ball on its descent and managed to avoid being propelled into the non-paying crowd watching from under the shade of a tamarind tree, it would have been.
Once again, music blasted from the sound system and the few St. Kitts supporters who had made the pilgrimage, waved flags and blew whistles and prepared to savour the humiliation of Montserrat’s No. 1 batsman’s ‘golden duck’ on his long walk back to the stands. Used to images of defeated but plucky English batsmen making their way as inconspicuously as possible off the field, John and I couldn’t believe our eyes as our batsman walked off to a hero’s farewell.
Neither of us can remember who won the match, but it was an unforgettable experience.
The last fixture at the park was a match between Montserrat and Antigua and Barbuda in May 1997, the pyroclastic flows from the volcano making it too dangerous to play on any more.
There are now two cricket pitches on the island. One in the village of Salem (only half a mile away from Isles Bay Plantation). Not as big as Sturge Park, it still has a pretty stand, a media suite and, of course, room for the ubiquitous food and drink stalls. It also offers spectacular views of the volcano and the Caribbean. There’s an early photograph during the first eruptions in 1995 of a cricket match in play with huge volcanic ash clouds exploding in the background. That’s cricket for you.
The other field, a much newer addition, has been built at Little Bay, in the north of the island. Again it sports spectacular views and can accommodate larger crowds.
As I write in late January, 2019, the West Indies team are again in their ascendancy …day three of the five day test being played at the Kensington Oval in Barbados … “Holder’s 150 takes West Indies lead to 561” …”England without a wicket on day three.” “a 381defeat in first Test”.
I leave the last word to one of the UK’s leading commentators, former test match cricketer and Captain, Mike Atherton writing in The Times …”Batting in the kind of floppy hat that former West Indies stars Roy Fredericks or Clive Lloyd might have used, Hetmyer looks a dasher full of flair and self-belief and thrilled the crowd with his strokeplay.”
And what of Montserrat’s cricketing future? Will it once again be able to produce the likes of Lionel Baker and Jim Allen? It may yet have a long way to go, but the country was well represented by individual players who took part in last year’s Leeward Island Senior Men’s 50 Over Cricket Tournament, not least Jaison Peters who picked up three awards – Best Wicket Keeper, most runs for Montserrat and most valuable player – and Deno Baker who came a close second with two prizes for his bowling skills.
With a population of only 5,000, with such results, surely the future augers well?