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February 14, 2009
England like to warm up before play with a game of football, but on Sunday they will go one stage further as they start a Test match on a football pitch. The centre circle runs through the Antigua Recreation Ground pitch that has been hurriedly prepared following the abandonment at the Sir Vivian Richards stadium but, as with the old stands, manual scoreboard and cramped facilities, everyone has worked overtime to ensure the show can go on.
The grand old girl is coming back to life. The ARG last hosted a Test in 2006 before being mothballed by the pressures of World Cup development, but is now trying to complete a remarkable transformation from a ramshackle relic to a Test arena for the most belated of encore performances. It has been a mammoth task.
Since yesterday's decision to abandon the second Test there has been a round-the-clock operation to try and get Antigua's former international venue back up to standard. Some people were up all night. The outfield, which in parts remained far from ideal, was watered by the fire brigade, the pitch tended by the groundsman.
On Saturday morning the ground resembled a scene from one of those reality TV shows where they set a challenge to rebuild something in a day. Construction teams have worked overtime, the painters were whitewashing the stands (you had to be careful what you leant on) and the TV crews rigged their equipment. Empty beer bottles were cleared away, trees had to be chopped down to create access and an army of people cleaned the ground. Temporary sightscreens were built from scratch and the scoreboard operator painted the player names.
But with less than 48 hours to turn what was, in certain sections, a crumbling stadium into something that can handle two international teams, 6,000 England fans, the local support and the media means that this remains one of the most patched-up Test venues in recent memory. Still, less than a day after the abandonment there was a positive vibe in Antigua.
"This is going to be brilliant," one WICB worker told Cricinfo. "The atmosphere is going to be like the old days. The infrastructure was already here, we are just adding the finishing touches." Finishing touches was probably underplaying it slightly.
The wicket that will be used is the one produced for the team's practice sessions prior to the second Test. The England players said the pitch had been quite spicy in training, and the bowlers were rarely going at full pelt against their own batsmen. Suffice to say we won't see any batting world records this time, but to even make it playable has been a handsome feat. And once again much attention will be on the outfield, which is uneven and patchy, especially on the edges of what has been the football pitch. It will be like a trip back to club days for all the players.
Over the days leading up to this game it was possible to explore the ground in a way that won't be allowed once the security personal have their say by the time play starts. Walking past the dressing rooms there is a flight of stairs that leads into the Sir Vivian Richards Pavilion. On the wall opposite is a poster listing the ARG's long history; Brian Lara's twin world records, Richards' fastest Test century and West Indies' world-record run chase of 418. Round the corner are honours boards of the centuries and five-wicket hauls taken on the ground - there is plenty of room on the bowling board.
The names - from the Viv Richards pavilion, round to the Andy Roberts and Richie Richardson stands - conjure up many memories. What a contrast to the blandly tagged North and South stands at North Sound. For all that the ground will lack top-notch facilities over the next five days, and people won't be as comfortable as they're used to, there is one area where the ARG beats SVR hands down. It has heart and soul.
Close your eyes and you can still see Lara pulling Chris Lewis for four to break Garry Sobers' Test batting record; you can see Lara sweeping Gareth Batty to regain his world record a decade later, and then doing it again to become the first batsman to reach 400 in a Test. There's Richards, too, clattering John Emburey into downtown St John's during his record 56-ball century.
The manual scoreboard that has recorded so many batting feats is stood in the corner, poised for action. For everyone getting used to the modern-style of stadium, these next five days will be a chance to revisit the past. It will even be like that for those watching on TV, as only a limited number of camera angles are available, no referrals and no stump microphones. But just getting any pictures broadcast at all is a huge feat of engineering. Four hundred boxes and 17 tons of equipment have had to be shifted to the capital and there has been a long night for many of the technicians.
The players will be well looked after but they, too, may have to lower their expectations for the next few days. However, to their credit both squads have been keen to get this Test played after the 10-ball shambles on Friday. The facilities, and safety, of the spectators has also been a focal point. The double-decker party stand, where DJ Chicky entertains the masses, has passed a safety check even though FIFA restrict its use during football matches. Capacity is only 10,000, the majority of which will be used to accommodate England fans, but the hope is locals will show their support now the ARG is back in action.
If only they could have redeveloped the ground in the first place, then this situation would never have occurred. However, the lure of Chinese funding, and the chance to build a gleaming new monument to West Indies cricket, proved too tempting. When Fidel Edwards defiantly blocked out a draw against India on June 6, 2006 everyone bade a fond farewell to a famous ground. Tomorrow it will be welcomed back into the fold, but sadly it has come through an act of desperation, not desire.
Stats highlights from the fourth ODI between India and West Indies in Dharamsala