Made in Taiwan
How did an oriental rivalry save the World Cup?
Exactly a year ago I was sloshing through the big watery mud-patch that formed the outfield of Grenada's Queen's Park stadium. Looking at the pile of rubble that the construction crew was trying to fashion into a stadium, I thought Grenada was heading for major embarrassment. No way could they finish in time for the World Cup.
How Taiwan saved the Cup
But with a Chinese-led crew working 24/7, they did it with five weeks to spare. The big moment arrived on February 3. The great and the good assembled for a ceremony in which the prime minister received from the Chinese ambassador the keys to the stadium, built (at a cost of £20m) and paid for by China.
Then disaster. The police band struck up the national anthem of Taiwan, a diplomatic faux pas equivalent to Ricky Ponting leading his side out at a packed MCG wearing an England shirt.
China does not recognise Taiwan as a country - regarding it as a renegade Chinese province - and, one by one, it has been prising away the countries that do. In this wrestle with Taiwan for overseas influence, financial aid is an important instrument. Hence China putting up the money and the project-management expertise for new stadiums in Grenada, Antigua, St Kitts and Jamaica.
A big deal
For the eight Caribbean host countries, the World Cup is about far more than cricket. The governments see it as a once-in-a-generation opportunity for economic growth in some very poor areas; Jamaica's GDP per person is £2,256 a year, or 14% of the UK's.
From Jamaica down to Guyana, the investment shows in new roads and hotels - even a new hospital on Grenada, the first to meet international standards. If you haven't travelled though Grantley Adams airport in Barbados for a few years, you'll hardly recognise it. No more bone-jarring ride from Montego Bay to Ocho Rios along Jamaica's north coast. There's a new paved road. As the Trinidad comedian Paul Keens-Douglas would say, "Is World Cup do dat".
The Caribbean Tourism Organisation estimates the total World Cup-related investment at well over $1bn (£500 million) - equivalent to a third of the annual income of Barbados. "There's no doubt in my mind that a number of the projects that are being developed now either would not have happened or would have happened a long time down the road," says CTO chief Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace.
It's certainly a big deal for hoteliers. Tourism is the region's biggest industry, generating 16.4% of earnings and employing 15.4% of the population. Those numbers are much higher for the smaller islands, where tourism provides up to two thirds of income. In St Lucia, where England will be based for the first round, they can't wait to welcome the biggest - and highest spending - travelling support in cricket. Barbados may have the final, but it is St Lucians who reckon they've struck gold.
Will they be ready?
New stadiums have been built in Antigua, Guyana, St Kitts and Jamaica (for the opening ceremony only). The quaint old grounds - Kensington Oval in Barbados, Sabina Park in Jamaica and Queen's Park Oval in Trinidad - have had stands torn down and rebuilt. Grenada's Queen's Park was so badly damaged by Hurricane Ivan in September 2004 that it should be considered a new stadium.
Dan Lockerbie, an American engineer who has been a stadium and operations planner for football World Cups and the Olympic games, is the man hired to make sure the grounds are ready. "We have no issue with any stadium or fear that they will not be ready," he says. "You're never going to get me to give a complete bill of health, but certainly we're feeling comfortable."
End of the disco?
But getting the grounds finished is not the only challenge. There has been a complete overhaul of the old stadiums, and two of the most distinctly Caribbean, the Antigua Recreation Ground and Bourda in Guyana, are being retired as international venues. The Bourda had the flattest of tracks and fans who couldn't get in would watch from the trees at the Regent Street end; at the Recreation Ground, Brian Lara set two Test batting records and Viv Richards hit the fastest Test hundred in front of his ecstatic fans.
The atmosphere of the Recreation Ground will not be forgotten by anyone who likes the Caribbean vibe - the blast of music from Chickie's Hi Fi that was instantly stilled as the bowler approached delivery stride and piped up again as the ball was fielded and relayed back to him.
Fours and sixes from West Indies brought down the house - almost literally. The wooden stands seemed to sway a bit to the beat, and experiencing the vibe from the new, more structurally sound, Sir Vivian Richards stadium should be a good thing. And while Bourda is a great example of Guyana's historic wooden architecture, surely no one will miss its crampedness.
But can these new stadiums, these bowls, like the Sir Vivian Richards stadium, generate the same atmosphere? The organisers hope so: plans for six of the grounds, including Antigua and Guyana, feature a party stand.
"In Antigua they have tried to replicate what used to happen at the Recreation Ground," says Colin James, a local cricket journalist who has covered matches at every major ground in the region. "The party stand is going to be an integral part of the new stadium and Chickie's Hi Fi will be the in-house DJ. There's even going to be a beach."
It's not just about the Caribbean vibe though, but also the rustic charm of the old grounds. "It will take some time for people to get accustomed to the change," James concedes. But we won't know until it all starts. Let the games begin.
Orin Gordon is a journalist working for the BBC World Service and is originally from Guyana