Upon arrival at Kingston's Manley airport, visitors are given a taste of things to come. Just outside the customs hall, a billboard hovers over the taxi drivers, street vendors and ready-to-pounce scam artists. There's no touchy-feeliness about this sign. It simply reads; 'Welcome To Jamaica. Walk good.' The tourism department official explained that it's simultaneously a safety message, greeting and a warning.
"We want everyone to have a good time in our country," he said, while pointing out the various no-go areas on the Kingston map. "Walk good means go with respect and vigilance. Walk good means have fun but be careful." It's sensible advice. Jamaica may be known for reggae, Rastas and a history-making bob-sled team, but it's also found adverse publicity in an escalating crime-rate and a declining dollar. But while the country struggles with multi-layered difficulties, there is one unifying force.
Yes folks, one-day cricket is in town and today, at Sabina Park, Jamaicans of all religions and socioeconomic backgrounds were forged against a common enemy. According to the locals, those pesky Australians were about to be taken down a peg or six. "We're going to win, no problems," said taxi driver Robert. "This is the continuation of the West Indies' revival." If the crowd was anything to go by, everyone was expecting a victory and everyone had come to the game.
Sabina Park isn't a pretty stadium. The walls are topped with razor wire, the playing area lacks the intimacy of other Caribbean grounds, and the stands are purposeful, rather than architecturally significant. What it loses in aesthetics, however, it makes up for in atmosphere. Put it this way. For those thinking that cricket at S.P. is a peaceful affair, we've got a bridge you may like to purchase. This place is loud, energetic and spontaneous.
By 8.30 am there were scuffles taking place outside the gates. "They're angry that they've missed out on tickets," explained the gate attendant. "It's been sold out for weeks." By 9 am, as the horns, whistles and trumpets begin their assault on the senses, it was standing room only. By start of play, armed guards and combat police were in position, and those considering a pitch invasion had to weigh up the possibilities of out-running the attack dogs.
"She's an Akita," explained security guard Grant, as he gave his dog a much needed drink of water. "On my command she can take down a subject in seconds." Everyone noticed the tooth size. Everyone kept a respectful distance. According to Grant, there were four other canine invader-deterents around the playing area. "We're not expecting trouble," he added. "The sight of the dogs is enough to make people think twice about running onto the pitch."
The Australian fans on the mound didn't need convincing. By mid-morning they'd retreated to the relative safety of the beer, music and above-ground pool. "Come on in, the water's fine," yelled Kip from Newcastle (N.S.W.), who's been part of the cricket circus since the first Test in Guyana. "What a great way to enjoy the game," he added, attempting an Esther Williams-style swan kick.
Cathy from Brisbane, wasn't going anywhere near the pool. "No thanks," she said, taking refuge under a beach umbrella. "I'm not even going to contemplate what's floating in that water." Her friend Rachel was more concerned with the noise levels. "It's deafening," she said, glancing at the overcrowded bleachers. "It never stops. It's driving me crazy, but it's wonderful." The locals, meanwhile, were continuing the party. By lunch time, as the sound of the Bob Marley medleys reached eardrum-piercing levels, there was more shaking and singing than a year's worth of consecutive River Dance performances.
"We Jamaicans love having a good time," said Kingston resident Loreya. "Any excuse will do, but today's excuse is the best. The cricket's in town mon. The Aussies are here. We're going to crush them like bugs." Some New Zealanders who'd lobbed into Kingston for the match were happy to agree with the sentiments. "I'm supporting Windies," said Nick from Wellington. "Anyone but Australia," he added, as the Aussies within earshot sent him withering glances that made Medusa seem like an amateur.
By the time rain interrupted play, the atmosphere had moved from loud, energetic and spontaneous to downright chaotic. On the mound, those who could still stand were congratulated by their friends. In the bleachers, those who hadn't fallen over the balcony should have been presented with medals of honour. By stumps, Sabina Park had lived up to its reputation as cricket crazy Caribbean central. Perhaps the tourism department needs to modify it's official greeting. When the cricket's in town it could read; 'Welcome to Jamaica. Walk if you can.'
Christine Davey is a freelance writer based in Melbourne, Victoria.