Where have all the West Indian fans gone?
The worst possible sight at a cricket ground is the fan stretched out across three chairs, spread out like butter on a warm slice of toast, snoring away to glory, when Brian Lara is out in the middle clouting successive sixes off a spinner. That was just about the scene at the Rose Bowl as Bangladesh took on West Indies. The stands, enhanced to seat 16,000 - a number that is already sold out for the England-Sri Lanka match on Friday - contained largely empty white seats, garnished by the odd smattering of Bangladeshi supporters.
There was a Rose Bowl-record 12,000 people for the India-Kenya game, most of them Indian supporters. The ICC has done its best to put on a brave face through this first week of the Champions Trophy, but the fans just haven't bought it. The preliminary mismatches have done nothing to further interest in the game, and most people around Southampton would have better things to do with £25 - the price of a half-decent seat at the football or a fully decent couple of beers and a curry - than watch Kenya, the USA or Bangladesh getting thrashed.
But the real shame is the complete lack of West Indian support. While you don't quite expect steel bands and a posse full of rum-fuelled Bajans limin' away the whole day, you'd certainly like to see more than the odd aged Hampshire member clapping politely when Chris Gayle blasts the ball through the covers. But if you ask around, people will tell you that the West Indian fan is an endangered species at any cricket ground in England. A combination of high ticket prices, a West Indian team in freefall, and a migration of fans to other sports had meant that hardly any West Indians go to the cricket in England. But it was not always like this.
Reds Perreira, the veteran West Indian broadcaster and administrator, remembers the golden days when West Indies were champions and the stands were packed with their supporters. "Traditionally West Indies have had great support in London - at The Oval in particular - and games up north. But these days the tickets are pre-sold well ahead of time. The average West Indian maybe can't buy his tickets six months in advance. So, the traditional supporter who paid on a daily basis has been virtually priced out. Also, the present generation of West Indian children are more keen on what's happening with football - what Dwight Yorke is up to - whereas if you take 1950, when we won here for the first time, West Indians who were adapting to a new climate and a new culture all of a sudden felt ten feet tall despite the problems they were facing socially."
And then there's also the fact that many West Indian supporters are still stuck on the glory days of the past. "I suppose it's a bit like Brazil in football, or the Boston Celtics or the Chicago Bulls in basketball," says Reds. "The West Indies dominated world cricket for 15 years. These things go in cycles, but we are experiencing too long a cycle. We haven't seemed to bottom out and then begin the upward climb. The future is not really optimistic to a West Indian cricket supporter. We're above only Bangladesh and Zimbabwe in the Test standings, and that really pains the West Indian supporter."
Perreira, who has been touring England as a broadcaster since 1975, talks of the many things ailing West Indian cricket with the sort of passion you traditionally associate with the Caribbean islands. He talks of how boys' schools are struggling to put cricket teams on the field. He talks about how West Indian under-19 players are not as well rounded or technically adept as their counterparts from around the world, and struggle to make it at the highest level. He talks of the ordinariness of club cricket and cricketers because the pitches do nothing for the game.
But beyond all that, is the national team itself. "In the great years West Indians played with a lot more pride and passion even if there was no money," he says. "There was great pride in wearing the West Indian cap. People feel now that is missing and cricketers are in a comfort zone."
Whoever you talk to about West Indian cricket, the words "pride" and "passion" come up. And, like the somnolent spectator lying comatose in front of the press box, you get the feeling it's time the West Indies Cricket Board woke up from its slumber and got a move on.
Anand Vasu is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo.