West Indies v England, 3rd Test, Barbados, 3rd day April 3, 2004

Bajans bank the bucks



Echoes of Edgbaston at the Kensington Oval © Getty Images

The one result no-one expected in the Bridgetown Test, as the third day began, was a draw. But the greatest confrontation of the series - the one between the West Indies board and the English spectators over admission charges - can probably now be assessed. And both sides, in different ways, have lost.

The thumping premiums demanded by the board for tickets bought outside Barbados failed to produce the threatened boycott by visitors. The ground has been booked solid for every day except the last (which may never happen). And local supporters, as is now the norm in Bridgetown Tests against England, have been totally outnumbered by English visitors.

By charging foreigners prices that have edged close to $200 a day - far more than ever gets charged even in England, until now the most expensive place in the world to watched cricket - Caribbean cricket has eased its pressing financial problems. The payday here, and for the Antigua Test, is unlikely to be repeated this side of the 2007 World Cup. The board was right to the extent that the market was strong enough to bear the cost.

This is a bonanza that makes a difference not merely to the game but to the whole economy of the islands. Every hotel bed on Barbados has been filled - assuming the late-night boozers do get back to their rooms eventually. Tourist officials do not expect this to happen until England's next Test here.

Against that, it is clear a great many visitors have found their own way round the price structure. The trouble with differential pricing is that it is a recipe for smart people to evade the system. Some 60% of the tickets were supposedly held back for Barbadians and other Caribbean nationals, and sold at normal prices.

Though they were officially restricted to four tickets each, shrewd Bajans were able to grab the maximum for all their family members, and sell them on for less than the official prices, enabling them to turn a tidy profit and their English buyers to save on the official cost.

There will still be a legacy of ill-will that may well linger at least until the 2007 World Cup, when England will in all probability be seeded into a group based in Barbados to try to maximise tourist revenue yet again.

And the dual structure has certainly not brought Bajans back to the ground (though they are still following it avidly via TV and radio), so there is still what you might call cultural damage. Every Test ground has its own unique flavour. And the atmosphere at Kensington Oval is now uniquely insipid. Take away the palm trees, the rickety stands, the heat and the flying-fish sandwiches, and this could easily be Edgbaston.

The low stands to the right of the pavilion remain mostly occupied by locals. But the old sounds of the Caribbean - the wit, the songs and the cheering - are entirely drowned out. Almost every other section of the ground is dominated by British tourists turning various shades from pink to scarlet. And three of them are given over to the mostly young, hard-drinking shouters colloquially known as the Barmy Army. For an outsider, though, it is not easy to judge which might be the official army and which might be organised by rival warlords.

The real Barmies seem to be in the Michie Hewitt Stand, where a cheerleader with his back to the cricket leads them in chants which even to the trained ear are barely comprehensible. The look of utter bewilderment on the faces of the Bajan minority is hard to convey in words.

Hundreds more were in the new Carib Beer Stand, getting through can after can of lager in the one section of the stand without shade. This is what anyone with experience of the tropics would call truly barmy. One group was dressed as schoolgirls; another, looking a touch more realistic, was in a neat uniform of panama hat, blue shirt and ties, doing passable imitations of MCC members. They were shouting and chanting as loudly as their rivals.

The locals were equally bemused why, on an island where even the stuffiest Brits dress down, anyone would decide to dress up to watch eight-hour days in baking weather. The British used to send anthropologists to tropical islands to fathom the quaint customs of the locals. Now they send the people with the quaint customs. This method of cricket-watching is, I suppose, part folk-ritual, part quasi-religious cult, part harmless fun, part boorish idiocy.

But successful tourist destinations like this one long ago learned to shrug their shoulders at their visitors' antics, and count their money. And, one way and another, it has been rolling in like billy-o.

Matthew Engel is the editor of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack, the 2004 edition of which is published next week.