An intriguing triangular series in the Caribbean offered me a handsome opportunity to visit the Providence Stadium in Guyana, and in doing so, fulfil a personal mission of watching cricket at every single current Test ground in the world. I will always rue a missed opportunity to go to Pakistan when they did host internationals, but over nine years, having taken enough airplane flights to feel guilty about climate change, I have managed to make it to all the rest of the cricket countries and their Test grounds. A stadium on the border of the Amazon rainforest seemed suitably obscure for the prized final scalp.
Guyana is on the mainland of South America and is a Caribbean nation by virtue of its shared history with previous English colonies that are fairly close by in the actual West Indies.
Imperialism and slavery were ugly beasts all right but we can be thankful for the resultant pollination of cricket. Guyana is the only English-speaking country on the continent and it feels a little strange that cricket is the main sport in a land whose neighbours are Brazil, Venezuela and Suriname. Incidentally, I learn while writing this that Clive Lloyd, of Guyana, who has done as much for West Indies cricket as anyone else, is not one of the 11 West Indian cricketers to have been knighted.
Guyana is a unique melting pot of peoples from the Amazon, Africa, India and Europe, and the population is sometimes regarded as the most physically attractive in the world. A claim that is a little less difficult to substantiate is that the country is widely believed to make the world's finest rum: the aptly named El Dorado 15-year-old version has been voted the world's best four years in a row and tastes like liquid gold.
I arrived a couple of days early and borrowed a rusty old bicycle from my Airbnb host. As I cycled around I couldn't help but notice that it felt as if I were in the islands rather than in South America. Jamaican dancehall and soca blared out of old stereos, and jerk chicken was common on menus. Digicel is the main mobile network, and the beer brands are Banks, Carib and Stag. I felt right at home.
Georgetown is a charming city at the mouth of the Demerara river. It was evidently laid out by the Dutch - canals bisect streets with names like Vlissengen Rd - and was once described in the Handbook of British Guiana as the handsomest city in the West Indies. While there are remnants of more affluent days, like a beautiful cathedral that is one of the world's largest wooden buildings, the capital screams out for a lick of paint. Still, national pride is everywhere, and although a month or so had passed since the Jubilee celebrations of independence, most houses and shops are still proudly displaying Guyanese flags.
The zoo houses jaguars and two-toed sloths and some of the most magnificent animals I've ever seen but they are kept in the most appalling conditions. Given entry costs only a dollar, there is understandably no money available for a long-planned and needed makeover.
Sugar is not the profitable commodity it once was, and political strife and corruption have made it difficult to make the most of the other natural resources. Crime levels are quite high and tourism quite low. Guyana is not a tropical beach destination, and I was clearly enough of a novel attraction as I cycled bare-chested for people to shout "White boy!" at me several times a day. At first I was a little intimidated but after a while I learned that this was mainly affectionate, so I carried on more bravely down the back streets. One night a drunk man yelled at me indecipherably and it felt like I might be in a spot of hot water, but it turned out that he just wanted to ask where I was from. When I said South Africa, he laughed uncontrollably and said, "The gods must be crazy" - a reference to the '80s comedy about bushmen.
Each of the teams won and lost a match at Providence, where the wicket was so slow that the highest score of the three games was 191. When West Indies were playing and there was no rain about, the crowd was fairly big and the atmosphere fun.
I did my first international cricket radio commentary stints and made Guyanese friends I look forward to seeing again. One night I sat between former South Africa spinner Robin Petersen and West Indies legend Jeffrey Dujon, who has more technical insights into spin bowling than anyone I've ever met, and we spent 40 minutes talking about how best to bowl to Chris Gayle. Not surprisingly, we didn't come up with a definitive answer.
I took a short flight into the Amazon to see Kaieteur Falls, the world's highest single-drop waterfall. Fun fact: one doesn't need bug spray in this part of the Amazon because there are so many insectivorous plants around that they eat the bugs before they can eat us!
It was then time to move on to St Kitts. It is never easy (or cheap) to get around the Caribbean, and LIAT, the Caribbean airline, has long been mocked as "Leave Island Any Time". I learnt a new use for the acronym, however, when I was separated from my suitcase for three days: "Luggage In Another Terminal".
St Kitts and Nevis is a lovely little country of only 50,000 or so people in the East Caribbean archipelago, with a tiny little cricket ground to match. But though Warner Park's straight boundaries are only about 50 metres long, setting the stage for scores around the 300-run mark, you need to get a significant percentage of the population into the ground to fill it up. This dawned on me when I saw a newspaper headline that claimed that 8% of Iceland had been in a football stadium in France during a Euro football game.
The "citizenship by investment" programme in St Kitts means that there are plenty more opulent beach houses than there are expats in them. A St Kitts passport apparently gets you into over 100 countries without a visa, perhaps because it is too small for most countries to bother with having a visa office on the island, and that is often how these reciprocal visa situations work. In any event, if you are suddenly worried about the long-term usefulness of your UK passport, you can throw a non-refundable 250,000 East Caribbean dollars into the "sugar diversification fund" or spend $400,000 on a villa, and voila, a St Kitts and Nevis passport is yours.
It turns out that local games of cricket are not screened, in an attempt to encourage people to go to the grounds. Not that the broadcasting companies are exactly keen to telecast games. In Guyana I was told no radio station was even prepared to buy the radio commentary rights for the season, the price of which was only $25,000 for ten tri-series games, four India Tests, and all of the Caribbean Premier League.
Once again, each team won and lost one of their second round of round-robin games, which meant we were all excited at the prospect of arriving in Barbados with all three teams still able to make the final.
Barbados also celebrates 50 years of independence from Britain this year, and is known as the Jewel of the Caribbean for jolly good reason. Turquoise beaches and catamaran cruises abound. It is the most developed tourism destination in the region, and also has a substantial enough population (280,000) that you feel like you are in a real country with a real city and a great vibe, yet is still small enough that you bump into the odd familiar face every day.
Equally importantly, Barbados is the venue of the Kensington Oval or "Lord's of the Caribbean", which is not only the best stadium in the West Indies but is also by far the most sporting surface, with its pace and bounce offering something for batsmen and bowlers alike.
I led a tour group of 20 friends who flew in from around the world for a week at the "Jiminy Cricket and Rum Diaries Tour of Barbados". A good time was had by all, and the only disappointing aspect for most was that the WICB was unable or unwilling to organise the famous party stand at the Oval in time for the games, and that South Africa were unable to make the final.
The West Indies is most people's second team however and it was great for the tournament - and indeed cricket in the region - that the stands were nice and full at the final, where all the stands became party stands. The tri-series format is a good one, though a downside is small crowds at the neutral games. It was also a reflection of the times that local fans seemed far more excited about the upcoming CPL than they are about ODIs against Australia and South Africa.
West Indies cricket moved into the 90s this year, and making the final of this tri-series ahead of South Africa will go some way in consolidating confidence in a side that has had very little success in recent times in the ODI and Test formats.
In a rum shop disguised as a bakery in the lovely village of Conaree in St Kitts, I met a man who was closing in on the nervous nineties himself. I told him that he hardly looked a day over 70, as we bought each other a fourth beer. (I had gone to buy bread but he recognised my voice from the local radio broadcast and we got chatting.) He smiled and said, "Got ta keep going boy, just got ta keep going." I sure hope to the crazy gods that they do.