Barbados: Treasure island for cricket tragics

IN Barbados, they still love their cricket as much as when Sir Garfield Sobers dominated, writes Sam Vincent in this travel piece with a twist from The Australian.

Think of him as their Don Bradman. The boy, not from Bowral but Bridgetown, Barbados Sir Garfield Sobers is arguably cricket’s greatest all-rounder a swashbuckling batsman, athletic fielder and jack-of-all-trades bowler.

Like the Don, Sobers carried the hopes of his compatriots through tough times (not the Depression but the early days of independence from Britain); like the Don, he rose from humble beginnings to dominate at the game’s highest level (while Bradman famously practised with a stump, golf ball and water tank, the young Sobers scraped melted tar off the road to use as a ball).

If popstar Rihanna is the darling of Barbados, Sir Garfield is the island’s favourite son. Everywhere you go in Barbados there is cricket.

The nation that produced Sobers and Weekes, Worrell, Walcott, Haynes, Garner, Greenidge and Marshall boasts more Test cricketers per capita than any other country, and it’s easy to see why.

Whether kids on the beach being scolded by their mum for playing while their dinner goes cold or well-lubricated barflies arguing over who should open the batting for the West Indies, everyone here seems to have leather and willow on their mind.

The West Indies side is drawn from several Caribbean islands but Barbados, the easternmost, has always produced the bulk of its players despite having a population of just 280,000.

For a cricket tragic like me, coming here is like being an alcoholic let loose in one of the island’s many rum distilleries.

The spiritual home of Barbadian and West Indian cricket is Kensington Oval, a Chris Gayle slog away from the glittering waters of the Caribbean Sea on the outskirts of Bridgetown, the national capital.

Many will remember Kensington as the site of the 2007 World Cup final between Australia and Sri Lanka, a match that ended in farce with Sri Lanka (unsuccessfully) chasing their target in near darkness as a storm approached.

When I visit, guide Gregory Armstrong (“a handy fast bowler in my day and not a bad bat either”) assures me the lights erected since the 2007 fiasco will prevent a recurrence of that scenario when Australia tours in March next year.

Empty stadiums can be dull but with Armstrong’s passionate guiding, Kensington Oval is brought to life.

From the vantage of the gleaming new George Challenor Stand, Armstrong points out the shack outside the ground’s southern end where in the 1950s lived the Goddards, a cricket-mad family with 10 boys and one girl (I wonder whether Mr and Mrs Goddard only stopped procreating once they had accrued a starting 11).

Renowned scrooges, the Goddards built themselves a backyard grandstand higher than Kensington’s fence so the whole family could enjoy matches without paying the entry fee.

Moving on to the hallowed turf itself, Armstrong points out the spot where a Brian Lara cover drive raced across the boundary on a muggy March day in 1999, sealing a stirring Test victory against Australia that many consider the West Indies’ best ever.

But it is when we look back at the empty stands that Armstrong gets most emotional, his eyes glazing over as he recalls the 2007 World Cup when, as the tournament’s principal venue, Kensington Oval became the focus of the cricketing world. “To see Kensington packed with people of all nationalities,” says Armstrong, “my word, it was quite the scene.”

Across the road from Kensington Oval, opposite a statue of a smug-looking Garfield Sobers steering an invisible ball through the covers, I head next to the Legends of Barbados Cricket Museum, a shrine dedicated to the best of Barbados to have worn the maroon cap of the West Indies.

Housed in a 19th-century colonial mansion, the museum opened last year and showcases 42 “legends”, a status achieved through meeting four criteria: having played for Barbados, having played for the West Indies, having retired and being alive.

Each is celebrated through plaques, press clippings and photos (particularly impressive and imposing is the life-sized cutout of opening bowler Joel “Big Bird” Garner, just as tall as his Sesame Street namesake).

But the most interesting section of the museum concerns how this most formal of sports took root in the laid-back West Indies. The story of West Indies cricket was once the story of race relations in a slave economy. The first games of cricket played in Barbados were between white sugar planters pining for the old country.

Soon their slaves wanted to play too, so inter-slave matches were organised by their owners.

As the game developed and clubs were formed, cricket in Barbados became stratified along race and class lines, with some clubs reserved for white masters, others for working-class whites and mixed-race “coloureds”, and others for black West Indians.

Though race has long since ceased to define membership to these clubs, the teams still exist, and on my last day in Barbados I watch two of the island’s most famous sides Spartan and Empire lock horns in a semi-final.

Anyone who attributes the West Indies team’s current on-field malaise to a lack of interest in cricket here should come to Bank Hall, Empire’s home ground.

A small oval surrounded by swaying cabbage palms and shaded by a leaden breadfruit tree, when I arrive its two corrugated iron-roofed grandstands are packed with fans loudly cheering on their home batsmen. Many of the predominantly male crowd hold transistor radios broadcasting the match; all nurse glasses of iced rum.

As the only white man at the ground I attract attention, a situation I diffuse by talking cricket with the passionate fans beside me.

When I ask one dreadlocked Rastafarian why Sulieman Benn, an immensely talented but ill-disciplined spinner, is playing for Spartan here today rather than with the West Indies squad touring England, he replies: “Sulieman be good, but he a rude boy!”

With Empire’s batsman reaching lunch on 105 for the loss of two wickets, I leave the stand and follow the boundary to the scoreboard where I see another Rastafarian and another, and another.
The men are lying in the grass cutting up avocados and sharing a joint. Rastafarianism, a marijuana-loving, vegetarianism espousing faith that views the late Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I as the messiah, is more common in Jamaica than Barbados, but the local community seems to have all come to the cricket today, in the process combining two Caribbean religions.

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