The legacy of the Kensington Oval April 19, 2007

Where legends are born

Fazeer Mohammed



There probably will never be a cricketing atmosphere to match that of a full house for Test cricket at the Kensington Oval. Click to enlarge © Getty Images

Will the new look inspire a new attitude? Probably not, but it would at least be a small step in the right direction if the players walking out at the new Kensington Oval for the match against Bangladesh had even a cursory appreciation of the significance of the old ground in the history of West Indies cricket. We can dream, can't we?

The fixture against Bangladesh will be the first for a West Indies team since the old structure was torn down two years ago, although the cynics will argue that, based on the evidence of their distressing performances so far in the Super Eights, there is no real 'team' at the moment. Maybe so, but it will be the official West Indies team taking on Habibul Bashar's side, so let's leave those deeper issues for another time. Since the president of the West Indies Cricket Board has chided those of us for apparently rushing to condemn Brian Lara and his squad, there will be ample time when this is all over for proper assessment.

Of course, it could be all over on Saturday with the last of the Super Eights matches against England, so that will give us almost a full month to get on bad before the first Test against the same side at Lord's. So instead of weeping and wailing, let's reflect a bit on the Kensington Oval's long association with the team that has been the object of so much emotion in these parts for so many years.

It may have been quaint, too dilapidated and therefore too unsafe for the modern era, especially with all the 21st century demands placed by the ICC for their global event, but there probably will never be a cricketing atmosphere to match that of a full house for Test cricket at Kensington. One-day cricket, of course, has a more celebratory feel to it with all of the noise and jumping and waving for no apparent reason, but for sheer intensity, I can't imagine it getting much better than Tests at that old ground in Bridgetown. Yes, other established Caribbean grounds like the Queen's Park Oval, Bourda, Sabina Park and the Antigua Recreation Ground will have their own legitimate claims, especially when the stands are full and the contest at its most riveting.

Still, the memories of the Kensington theatre, even the more recent recollections, stand out. With the proximity of the spectators, it was like witnessing gladiators fighting for their lives, with the thousands looking on responding to every thrust and parry, every attack and counter-attack, whether it was [Wes] Hall versus [Bob] Simpson, [Jeff] Thomson versus [Viv] Richards or [Michael] Holding versus [Geoff] Boycott.



Brian Lara's unbeaten 153 in a pulsating one-wicket win over Australia in 1999 was almost the stuff of fantasy © Getty Images

That lethal opening over by Holding to Boycott on the second day of the 1981 Test will remain one of the most talked-about experiences . Even listening to the live radio commentary and then seeing the highlights a couple days later, you could feel the excitement building, culminating in those unforgettable images of the off stump cartwheeling and the fans almost jumping out of the stands in their excitement.

There was also the luxury of being able to sympathise with yet another opponent being torn to shreds in our bastion of invincibility.

For 59 years, West Indies were unbeaten in Tests at Kensington. There were some narrow escapes, none more so than when the last-wicket pair of Andy Roberts and debutant Colin Croft played out the final overs to deny Pakistan victory in 1977. But most times, it was a period of unprecedented domination. Inevitably, the moments become larger than life as time passes. The brief assault by a teenaged Garry Sobers as a makeshift opener on Australia's feared opening pair of [Ray] Lindwall and [Keith] Miller in 1955 hinted at greatness in the making. Lawrence Rowe so captivated the masses in caressing his way to 48 not out at stumps on the third day of the 1974 Test against England that the place was packed beyond capacity for the next day and a bit as he stroked his way to 302.

Two years earlier, in the midst of West Indies' leanest run until the present era, there was also a full house on the last day to see Sobers and Charlie Davis deny New Zealand victory. So the Kensington faithful were prepared to support through thick and thin, although the 1992 boycott of the historic first Test against South Africa will be a blot on their record.

However, the current period has certainly tested their resolve more than any other time. Ever since Alec Stewart's two hundreds saw the English storm the battlements in 1994, many have come and conquered. Yet, even in the midst of such despair, the magic of Lara's unbeaten 153 in a pulsating one-wicket win over Australia in 1999 was almost the stuff of fantasy.

Just a few weeks later, there was also the shame of bottle-throwing that prompted the reinstatement of Sherwin Campbell after he was initially ruled run-out after colliding with the bowler, Brendon Julian. Just to reinforce how desperate the times have become, that was the last West Indian victory in a one-dayer at this ground. Seven defeats have followed since that hollow victory, turning the once impregnable arena into the scene of our latest humiliation.

Victory against Bangladesh won't change anything, but at least the Kensington Oval will be associated with West Indian success once again. Then again, you never know.

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