June 7, 2006

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan on India in West Indies 2006

The ARG's colourful presence lives on

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan
Labon Kenneth Blackburn Leeweltine Buckonon Benjamin, or Gravy to the cricketing world, is one of the most famous characters at the Antigua Recreation Ground
 © Siddhartha Vaidyanathan
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Not only did the last five days produce great cricket but, personally at least, introduced one to the joys of the Antigua Recreation Ground, or ARG to most. When a stadium's farewell assumes as much importance as a cricketer's, you know that there must be a special allure that draws in people.

The fact that it's centrally located is vital, with several people passing by the ground daily, even if there is no match going on. Viv Richards's association with the ground started even before he began playing. With the Antigua Grammar School, where he studied, being close by, and the local prison, where his father worked, adjoining the ground, Richards was bound to be an ARG regular. Incidentally, during the early years of the ground, the entire ground staff comprised inmates of the adjacent prison.

The Rec, or 'pasture' to the old timers, also attracts through its characters. One of the most famous characters at ARG is Labon Kenneth Blackburn Leeweltine Buckonon Benjamin, or Gravy to the cricketing world. Since 1988 to 2000, he entertained the crowd through his dancing and theatrics. While announcing his retirement in 2000, he walked around the stadium in a wedding gown, making the occasion one to remember.

"Everybody came to the edge of the stands to watch," he recalls, "because it was the end of Gravy's career." Gravy has continued to attend Test matches, taking charge of his stall near the Viv Richards Stand, but has ceased to be the mass entertainer that he once was. As you enter the ground, the first banner you are likely to see involves Gravy. "Will Gravy be back for the World Cup?" it asks. Keep your fingers crossed for that one.

Joseph Warner - the gigantic gatekeeper at the Antigua Recreation Ground
 © Siddhartha Vaidyanathan
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There's Joseph Warner, the gigantic gatekeeper, who's been working at the ground for the last 23 years. He considers the ground special because of the "carnival like atmosphere" and the "fantastic music" that's played. Warner decided that the Test match against India would be his last - "I am retiring from Test cricket. I will go along with the ARG."

And then there's Chickie, the chief DJ, at the party stand. He has a reputation as an impresario and the "Chickie Posse" has an ardent following. Operating from the West Indies Oil Co. grandstand, he makes sure that there's never a dull moment when cricket isn't taking place. The music usually plays before play, at the fall of a wicket, at the signal of a boundary, through each adjournment and into the late evening.

Chickie knows his cricket. He developed an interest for the game at the Antigua Grammar School, where Richards studied as well. When Richards made his never-to-be-forgotten 56-ball hundred, Chickie played the famous "Captain, the Ship is Sinking" number, taking a dig at David Gower. Colin Cumberbatch, the veteran photo-journalist who's lived in Antigua for the last 25 years talks about Chickie's craft: "He knows his cricket. He always makes sure that the speakers are at an elevation, so that the breeze, that usually blows from only one side, takes the music away from the field of play. Because of this, the players don't get annoyed by the music. When an over is about to start, Chickie knows how to fade the music down. He will do it without affecting the listener, and without affecting the players."

Over the years, characters like Mayfield and Pepe have regaled the audiences and it's understandable why the locals feel so close to the ARG. The Vivian Richards Stadium may develop it's own allure, but as Andy Roberts, one of Antigua's mot famous sons puts it, "They don't make them like the Rec anymore".

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is a former assistant editor at Cricinfo

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