Where everybody knows someone famous
As far as beginnings go, the trip to the Caribbean isn't the smoothest. First, I have to cancel my flight from New York to Antigua when I am informed late that I need a visa. After running around midtown Manhattan for a few hours on a Monday morning, putting together the visa documents, thanks to helpful folks at the Antigua consulate, I am finally on my way - only, this time via Boston, San Juan (Puerto Rico) and Beef Island (British Virgin Islands). A four-hour trip has turned into a day and a half.
On the way from the VC Bird International Airport to the Sir Vivian Richards Ground, there are no signs that a Test will be underway in a matter of hours. A giant billboard of Sir Viv close to the stadium is faded. I see the New Zealanders having nets, and then run back and forth from the media centre to the WICB office to get my media pass.
On the morning of day two, when I take the elevator to get to the press box, an Antiguan kid - no more than seven - rides with me. He must be related to someone in there, I think. I ask him who he thinks will win the Test. "New Zealand," he says with conviction. Taken aback, I ask why. "You see how well the New Zealanders apply themselves. The West Indians don't seem to be doing so."
A West Indies v New Zealand Test doesn't register high on anybody's interest scale. There aren't more than a few hundred fans in the ground on any day of the match. There aren't a lot of media personnel covering it either. Not even with Chris Gayle coming back and the prospect of seeing Sunil Narine in home conditions. "Oh, there is a carnival in Antigua, and so the fans aren't gonna come." "New Zealand media is more focused on the Olympics." I don't buy the reasons. There is a deeper malaise arising from neglect of cricket.
While taking notes during the match, I hear the unmistakable deep voice booming from the back of the press box. I don't have to turn around to know it is Curtly Ambrose's. He looks as if he can still take a five-for. I happen to be walking alongside to the post-match presentation. He looks at the track, shakes his head in disbelief, and says: "You could play another Test on this pitch."
In the West Indies you always seem to be running into someone who knows someone or is related to someone important. The lady who owns a little grocery down the road from where I am staying in Antigua, Claire, is the niece of Ralston Otto, who is a cousin of Ambrose. The bed and breakfast I stay in in Jamaica is run by the daughter of Hartley Neita, who was a well-known journalist and later a press secretary to a few Jamaican prime ministers. The daughter is the cousin of Jimmy Adams.
It is the 50th anniversary of Jamaica's independence from Britain. The celebrations are in full swing and almost every car has a Jamaica flag fluttering on it. The success of Jamaica in international athletics has given its people a lot of pride and reasons to drape themselves in the national colours. Independence Day is August 6, the last day of the Test match, a national holiday. That should bring quite a few fans into the ground over the long weekend, but no one is sure.
Sabina Park has a bit of an anachronistic feel to it, but it is still quite imposing, as if the ghosts of past West Indian glory still haunt it. A giant white cloth is stretched over the seats at one end to act as a sight screen, while at the other, an entire wall is painted white. As you gaze out from the media box, sitting in not the most comfortable plastic chairs, the view is breathtaking. Against a bright blue backdrop, you see the Norman Manley airport in the distance, with planes coming in to land, the Caribbean Sea, oil tankers, and the cricket. Think to myself: "Life's good."
I take a seat in the media box, next to the one reserved for an HG "Dellmar" Samuels. Dellmar, a crusty old man named after George Headley (HG stands for Headley George), is a freelance photographer who has covered West Indies cricket for more than 30 years. He shows me a self-produced photo book of the World Cups from 1975 to 2003. I flip through the pages that capture nearly all the important moments and ask him why there isn't much on the 1983 final, where India beat West Indies. "Hey maan, why ya joggin' mah brain?" he replies.
Taxis in Jamaica don't have meters. So before you get in, especially for a long-distance ride, fix a price. Having grown up in India, the art of haggling comes easy to me. From time to time, I'll let the cabbie tell me how much it will be for a particular distance. Usually he'll quote three times the actual fare. But once I tell them I have done this before, they let me set the price.
The Test match is hurtling towards a quick finish. Disciplined bowling and a slightly challenging pitch are exposing fragile batting line-ups. I decide to spend 30 minutes in the camera gantry right below the TV commentary box to take in the view. One of the cameramen, Hari from Bangalore, lets me put on the headphones and listen in on the TV commentary as well as the producer's calls. It's a crazy jumble of numbers, letters and colours. "Come in, come in, three, three, five, five, cut to yellow, Hawk-Eye, black, white, seven, seven, five, five." Hari tells me what the calls mean.
New Zealand's second innings ends. Ian Bishop and Jeff Dujon show up for the highlights show, but Bishop seems distracted by the women's 100m final at the Olympics coming up and keeps sneaking looks at the giant screen.
Change of plans. With tropical storm Ernesto - which is expected to strengthen to a hurricane as it feeds off the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea - threatening Jamaica, I rejig my plans to leave by the earliest flight. Weather websites and headlines like "Ernesto: Jamaica next in line" don't inspire much confidence. Choose to get out ahead of the storm instead of waiting for it to pass and be stuck with a possible airport shut-down.