Once upon a Caribbean cricket holiday
The once mighty West Indies team might well be in terminal decline - in Tests if not in T20, where the incentives are a little more tangible, more easily grasped - but that has done nothing to dull the appeal of cricket in the Caribbean for the hundreds of Brits venturing out there with marble flesh, primped flags and whimpering livers, swapping Andover for Antigua, Grantham for Grenada, and Barnsley for Barbados to take in a Test match or three.
Twenty years ago this month, 16 of us embarked on a university cricket tour and discovered that there's nowhere quite like the West Indies for playing and watching the great game.
Our adventure started in the less exotic climes of Leicester Forest East motorway service station, having managed to bag a short-term contract conducting traffic surveys there to help fund the trip. The idea was to work in three half-hour blocks - main road, slip road, rest - then do the same in the opposite direction, repeating that until the 12-hour shift was done. The reality was a tad more resourceful and "efficient", albeit perhaps at the cost of some accuracy (apologies if this has caused you to sit endlessly in an M1 traffic jam, which is pretty much everyone, ever): we had one man counting both motorway and slip road, and for an hour at a time, so that they could then go and rest for two hours, before repeating southbound.
Some people worked 24- or even 36-hour shifts, which is approximately 35 hours longer than I would spend at the crease across my four innings over in the West Indies. The glassy strips and tiny (or absent) sightscreens, the steady trickle of sunscreen and sweat into the eyes, the big guys bowling wheels, the hangovers - all made crease occupation somewhat complicated. Alarmingly for our upcoming BUSA (British Universities Sports Association) campaign, my aggregate of 26 runs (at 6.50) eclipsed that of three of our 1st XI's top six. But then no one goes on a Caribbean cricket tour to play cricket.
A highlight of the trip - aside from confounding odds of 66-1 to win an uber-laddish competition I knew nothing about - was meeting Brian Lara in the famous Harbour Lights (coincidentally, where the aforementioned bump-and-grind-assisted accidental bet win was set in motion). He was just off the back of his annus mirabilis: the 375 in Antigua, followed by a record-breaking season for Warwickshire (first ten Championship innings: 147, 106, 120*, 136, 26, 140, 501*, 19, 31, 197). I was just off the back of several bottles of Carib and umpteen rum punches, and buttonholed him lairily: "Hi Brian. So what's the secret? One word." (I was talking about batting, although, given the company he was keeping, he could have been forgiven for thinking I was asking for amorous advice.) "Is it footwork? Technique? Confidence? Concentration? What?" "No man, just smack it around."
A couple of days later Lara was out in the middle of Kensington Oval, just smacking it around in the company of Carl Hooper as West Indies recovered from 6 for 3 to take lunch at 120 or so without further loss. It was without question the best session of cricket I have seen live. Hooper, in particular, treated SK Warne like a net bowler, sweeping square when the man was fine, fine when the man was square, launching him over mid-on when mid-off was up, and inside-out over mid-off when he came round the wicket. Phenomenal batting. The ultimate (big) cat and (trapped) mouse. What would have been greeted in the shires with a polite ripple of applause here produced something akin to the body-spasming rapture you see at televangelists' sermons.
Indeed, the most enjoyable part of the Test was simply becoming part of the great eccentric tableau of a West Indian cricket crowd. This is the land of Gravy, after all - a supporter given a lap of honour (with him in wedding trousseau and pads) at the Rec when he retired his unique freaky-dancing crowd-rousing act; a supporter with his own ESPNcricinfo profile. A particular marvel are the peanut salesmen, lugging their stock on the shoulders, flicking flat throws 30 rows back and catching a dollar as it's returned less accurately.
Spotting us bustle in on the first day, 14 pink faces (plus Raja and Khawar) in red polo shirts, the locals in the wooden-terraced bleachers of the old Mitchie Hewitt stand assumed we were supporting Australia. We assured them we were supporting Windies (technically, it was anyone but Australia), and inserted ourselves in the now languorous, now exuberant rhythms of things.
The second day of the game, April Fool's, happened to fall on the 21st birthday of one of our number, Stu Blake. Pushing the outer limits of the student imagination, it was decreed that at every break in play Stu would have to down a (small-ish) funnel of beer: approximately three bottles of local froth. This he did on a small photographer's perch at the end of the stand. It was not a scene to greatly tax future anthropologists.
The Bajans round about us - initially bewildered, though increasingly tickled, it seemed, by our endless and occasionally comic anti-Australian jibes - started to enjoy the hourly wee spectacle of enforced inebriation, eventually forming a boisterous crowd-within-a-crowd to cheer on the hardy drinker's one-way ticket to unconsciousness, his passage into adulthood.
By the evening session, so raucous had this embryonic ritual become that the players themselves - huddled to celebrate a wicket or having a scheduled drinks break - started to look over and see what all the noise was about. Sky's cameras picked out the red blodge.
The noise was about nothing more than the joy of being part of the life of a crowd, its hugger-mugger of laughs and gasps and sighs, its evanescent bonds, its characters and its character - about being tugged this way and that by the rhythms of the game or the buzz of the refreshments. And where better than the Caribbean to melt into a cricket crowd?
Scott Oliver tweets here