The heart of the game

To experience cricket in Barbados is to feel the game at its purest, most joyous

Kings of good times at the Kensington Oval © Getty Images

An old friend, some home-cooked dinner, chatting about the old times by the sea with a beer or two kept me going till I realised that it was about 1am and that I had get to the other side of the country to get to my apartment. All right, it was only Barbados, which is roughly the size of Mumbai, with a population about one-hundredth that of Mumbai. My friend's apartment was at the far end of St Lawrence Gap, the hub of Barbados' nightlife, but the road was fairly desolate when we got out. He offered to drive me back in his rented car, but I chose to take a taxi instead.

The car I hailed wasn't actually a taxi, in the sense that it wasn't a licensed one. We haggled about the fare - no taxis, even the licensed ones, have meters in the West Indies. The driver had a scraggly face, an unkempt beard, and looked slovenly. My friend nearly persuaded me out of the car, but the driver intervened: "This is Barbados, not Jamaica, he'll be safe."

After I settled in, my friend called me on my mobile phone to tell me that he had taken down the number of car. If he had meant to reassure me, he only ended up making me uncomfortable. I stole a glance at the driver. His eyes were shot, and he looked both drunk and drugged, swaying from side to side. And he seemed set on killing me. The roads were dimly lit and he swerved around the bends at high speed, overtook cars on narrow lanes, and nearly bumped into a large van.

And then I spoke the magic words. "Do you like cricket?" I asked. For the next 20 minutes, he spoke non-stop. The car settled into cruise mode as he offered his views on how coaching had confused West Indian batsmen, on the role of Brian Lara, and on how the ICC had taken the culture out of West Indian cricket grounds. He was thoughtful and articulate and spoke with passion. He carried on for over 10 minutes after we reached my apartment, and left reluctantly when I said I had to make an early start the next day.

Cricket in Barbados is a passion very different from what you feel, say, on the streets of Mumbai. There is a deeper, almost intellectual quality to it

Taxi-driver stories from the West Indies are a cliché, but when you are in a taxi in Barbados, you also begin to comprehend what cricket means to the locals. It is a passion very different from what you feel, say, on the streets of Mumbai. There is a deeper, almost intellectual quality to it. The average cricket supporter in India is a hero-worshipping loyalist of the Indian cricket team, who treats every failure of his side as a personal betrayal. In Barbados you are more likely to find the cricket lover whose affection for the national team is tempered with a broader understanding of both the technicalities and the traditions of cricket.

Barbados is cricket's most natural habitat. The game is seamlessly part of the country's culture in a way that will be impossible to find in any other part of the world, India and England included. It has integrated itself into art, music, architecture and language.

Driving around the country, you will come across several roundabouts named after legendary cricketers. There's a charming university ground named after the three Ws, and even the cover of the local telephone directory bears cricket imagery. All this without a trace of put-on or a whiff of marketing.

It's because cricket defines Barbados. And if you care to look deeper, even the reverse is true. To be in Barbados is to come in contact with cricket in the most pure (not in the sense of the MCC coaching manual), joyous form. All you need to do is walk on to the beach with a bat and ball in hand. In no time you will be joined by players of varying ages and sizes, all trying to bounce you, pulling and cutting with a flourish, and chattering ceaselessly.

Barbados has produced more than 40 Test cricketers, the most of any of the Caribbean nations, and a lot for an island with a population of just over 250,000. About half of these are national heroes. For perspective, Mumbai has produced close to 50 - and that includes Douglas Jardine.

Cricket still resonates on the radio, in homes and in cars © AFP

Walk into the gleaming new Kensington Oval and you are immediately in the presence of these legends. The grand pavilion is named after the three Ws, and the players' pavilion bears the name of the greatest cricketer ever: Garfield Sobers. Wes Hall and Charlie Griffith, the fearsome fast-bowling duo, have a stand for themselves, as do Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes, another legendary pair. And when batsmen at either end look up at the sight-screen, they find themselves confronted with either Malcolm Marshall or Joel Garner, a chilling reminder of an era in which West Indies battered every other team into submission.

More than anything else the Kensington Oval was the symbol of West Indian invincibility. They didn't lose a Test here between 1935 and 1994, and between 1978 and 1993 they won 12 in succession.

The match-winners have disappeared now: not since Marshall has Barbados produced a cricketer even approaching greatness, but the love for the game still burns bright. Excessive regulation and overpricing of tickets kept the locals away from their beloved Oval during the World Cup, but the sound of cricket still resonated on the radio (another great West Indian tradition), in homes and cars. And it didn't matter if West Indies were not playing.

For anyone who professes a love for cricket, Barbados is a pilgrimage.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo. This article first appeared in the print version of Cricinfo Magazine