Stephen Thorpe watches some former greats at the Antigua Independence Festival
JK probably had it right. The oldest swinger in town, captain of an Old England XI for the inaugural Antigua Independence Festival, was in jovial mood before the start: "I had to dissuade the lads from nets this morning, I didn't want us peaking too early". John Lever always liked a challenge, and here was another, charged with contesting an opening 2020 floodlit exhibition match against the might of the West Indies circa 1990. "Our batting looks a bit thin too, we'll probably open with Syd Lawrence and Gouldy and hope for the best". However, when the opposition's nine, ten, jack reads Greenidge, Richards and Kallicharran you know you've got problems, and the batting order is the least of your worries. Sir Vivian, the Master Blaster, the King, yet merely "de Bull" on home turf, was even lamenting a misplaced favourite bat but in the end it barely mattered.
The steadfast umpire Ian Gould, the former Middlesex and Sussex wicketkeeper, would disagree. "I haven't played since retiring in 1990, and the last time I faced Colin Croft he hit me on the nut with a beamer. He meant it as well. I've never been the same since." "Gunner" held no fear, strapped on his pads and strolled out to face the less troublesome prospect of a new ball propelled by Curtly Ambrose and Joel Garner. There is something endearing and timeless about the greats, creaking limbs and all, at a parade of faded talent and Curtly did not disappoint in a tidy first foray. The tall destroyer hasn't changed much either, if anything he's added a couple of inches though that might be the illusion of a quixotic new hairstyle, and he doesn't like playing, preferring instead the company of his bass guitar.
England built a surprisingly solid foundation reaching 42 before Syd fell for 33 leaving Chris Lewis and Mark Ealham to pepper the night sky with a volley of sixes. IVA Richards, taking time out from a boundary side conversation, nonchalantly pocketed the first, one handed, to the crowd's unbridled amusement then Kalli staked a late claim to Man of the Match with three cheap wickets as the innings subsided to 143 for 6.West Indies made heavy weather of the target after a shower hampered the bowlers but eventually edged home by five wickets with two balls to spare. The Sidebottoms, pere and fils, opened the bowling for the first time together in a competitive match, then Syd delivered a rapid 12 balls, one of which castled Sherwin Campbell while John Snow, Neil Foster and Neal Radford all showed undiminished appetite for the game. Junior Murray was run out for 55, Jimmy Adams worked it around for 29 then Radford claimed two late wickets including Carlisle Best, possibly the only man ever to open his Test account with a six (hooking Ian Botham off his third ball at Sabina in 1986.)
More than the cricket, this was a celebration of independence 24 years after Antigua shed its loyalty to Britain and the impressive new Stanford Cricket Ground was a fitting venue, a magnificent 5000-capacity theatre which has already hosted first-class matches for the Leeward Islands. Funded by the Texan financier and philanthropist Allen Stanford, it also embraces a high tech gymnasium and pool complex, with a West Indian Hall of Fame in its startling Sticky Wicket building. With the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium just under construction at North Sound in readiness for the World Cup, spare a thought for the former arena in St.John's--the ramshackle Recreation Ground (ARG), scene of two of the most celebrated feats in Test history, the fastest century off balls faced and the highest individual score, by Richards and Brian Lara respectively. Gone but never forgotten.
A combined Legends XI, strong Barbados and Antigua sides and the Lashings International team squared off in the subsequent 2020 jamboree in which there was only ever one likely winner. Indeed, the main event was a serious contest, won in the end at a canter by a well-organised professional effort from the Lashings outfit. Of course any side boasting over 200 Test caps and with one of its personnel alone (Grant Flower) with over 250 ODIs to his name must have a fair chance, and so it proved. It's the sort of team that doesn't need a captain, but they had one anyway in the redoubtable Adams which is never a bad thing. Courtney Browne, the wicketkeeper-batsman and former Barbados captain, shocked everyone in announcing his retirement from all cricket prior to the competition then turned out for Lashings, who also welcomed Lewis and Vasbert Drakes, in the Final. Ryan Hinds took over but his lacklustre side were easily dispatched in the semi, allowing an Antigua XI to feature in the showpiece match.
They did well to restrict Lashings to a below-par 147 for 7 but lost four quick wickets in reply and finished twenty short. The tourists fielding was outstanding, a vital factor in this format, underpinned by the Essex quartet of Graham Napier, James Middlebrook, Ryan ten Doeschate and Flower, plus the Kent vice captain Min Patel. Robert Joseph, the burly young Antiguan quick nurtured by Lashings who has already played for Kent, did the early damage and looks a decent prospect with a hint of the raw Patrick Patterson. Lewis reckoned the pitch was possibly the best he had ever played on (had he forgotten his last appearance in Antigua in 1994 when Lara made 375? Understandably, he may have). "It comes on to the bat but bowlers can get something from it too; the lights are excellent, and only slightly difficult facing spin off a shiny surface".
Curtly effectively opened and closed proceedings after a storming last-night set with the Dread and the Baldhead band, though Richie Richardson was the undoubted star of the entire extravaganza--the visionary organiser, player, commentator, general factotum and allround good egg. From Napier though came the quote of the week--at an august gathering of the good and the great, he wondered aloud whether Viv "had ever captained West Indies?" Ok Napes, go and make the tea now, then brush up on your history. You need help.