April 3, 2007

The abandoned home of Antiguan cricket

It's been almost ten months since the Antigua Recreation Ground hosted its last Test match. On June 6 last year, Fidel Edwards clung on for a draw against a striving Indian attack, and within hours the strains of Chickie's Disco had echoed for one last time through the streets of St John's, and the gates were padlocked on 25 years of history.

The vibrancy of that final send-off was a testament to the beloved status of "The ARG" - home of Antiguan cricket since time immemorial, and a Test venue since 1981. Perched in the heart of the capital, and wrapped in a higgedly piggedly maze of walls, gates and wooden fencing, it was a venue that, for all its shabbiness, still drew the curious to investigate what lay within.

This was truly a ground where vice and virtue met as equals. On the one side looms the wooden spire of St John's cathedral, ravaged by the elements but still retaining a certain magnificence; on the other lurks the barbed wire and ramparts of the island's prison, whose inmates used to double as the ARG's groundstaff -for many years under the watchful eye of Malcolm Richards, father of Sir Viv.

Now the ground is deserted, a husk of a bygone era left to rot even as the world's eye is cast across the Caribbean. For all the bold talk of regenerating cricket in the region, if the Antiguan experience is to be believed, the crass combination of greed and neglect has damaged the game beyond repair.

The ARG still has its uses. Before the World Cup it was the venue of a tri-series tournament between Bangladesh, Bermuda and Canada, and it will still be used when St Kitts, Nevis or the Leeward Islands come to play. But its days as an international venue are over, even though on Sunday, when the nets at Antigua's new ground were still too damp to use, it was ready to step in and provide practice facilities for the Bangladeshis.

By the time I made my visit, the place was deserted once again - save for a lone and lonely watchman sitting on a bench beneath the Viv Richards Pavilion. This was Amazon, a fixture at the ARG since 1978. A professional signpainter by trade, his was the honour of adding every new centurion to the pavilion honours board - 54 in all in a quarter of a century of Tests. He used to be the scoreboard operator as well, though his most recent duty was to paint the sightscreen black for the benefit of the netting batsmen.

"I see everything here," says Amazon, as history dances across his face and with it the instinctive feel for cricket that once defined the Caribbean. "The first Test century by Peter Willey. The second by Viv Richards. The third by Geoff Boycott. I see Richards' fastest hundred; Lara's innings, the highest run-chase, 418. And I see eight centuries on this ground as well. In one match. South Africa against West Indies 2005."

The ghosts of the game are everywhere as we wander out into the middle. On either side of the pavilion stand the hulking great scaffolds of the Andy Roberts Stand to the left and the "Gravy Stand" to the right, as nicknamed in honour of the legendary cross-dressing contortionist, Labon Kenneth Blackburn Leeweltine Buckonon Benjamin, who entertained the crowds for 12 years from 1988, before bowing out in a wedding-dress at the start of the new millennium.

Over at fine leg is the Richie Richardson Stand, flanked on either side by the bleachers - the cheapest wooden benches in the baking hot sun - and the open-air press hut, with its four rows of white desks: inadequate, it was deemed, for the demands of the self-proclaimed third biggest sporting event in the world. The creaking facilities had long been in need of a facelift, but the ground now seems even further removed from the shiny sanitation of the new stadium. The sheen of rust and woodworm is now destined to take a more permanent hold than ever.

"They could have rebuilt it," says Amazon. "They could have close Factory Road and Coronation Road, move the prison, expand the ground. They could have done that, but there was no planning. Instead they use all that money to build a new stadium. I thought it was a good idea until the games started. But the atmosphere's no good. The ticket prices are too high. You can't walk in with anything. You got a bottle of water, got to take off the cap. You can't go out to get food. You get nothing."

The perimeter of the ground is a jumble of discarded advertising hoardings and boarded-up snack-bars, where cricketing murals fade away on whitewashed stone walls. Rubbish has gathered by a hole in the fence, while tumbling out of a disused groundsman's hut is a pile of soggy clothing - incongruously ordinary, as if the discarded possessions of someone whose entire life had once been invested behind those wooden slats.

"It's more than sad what they done," says Amazon. "It doesn't leave me anywhere. They offered me a job at the new ground, but I decline it. So did a lot of people. I feel left out, after all the work I do for cricket throughout the years. I never been to the new ground. I know where it is but I never been, and I've no intention of ever going."

Outside the ground, on a roundabout where traffic never seems to pass, stands a large educative message on a billboard. "The Eight Blunders of the World," announces the sign, before listing in bold yellow lettering the deadly sins of modern-day living. For some reason, after what I've witnessed within the ARG's walls, "politics without principle" and "commerce without morality" strike a poignant chord.

Andrew Miller is the former UK editor of ESPNcricinfo and now editor of The Cricketer magazine