It has long been reported that cricket, once the Caribbean’s favourite sport, is dying there: that American pastimes such as basketball and baseball have stolen the younger generation’s affection. And yet watching the West Indies play at home remains the holy grail for many a cricket fan, particularly an English one who grew up in awe of Brian Lara and Viv Richards, and the passionate, expressive style in which they played.
Six years ago, I finally made my pilgrimage. England were due to play a Test match in Antigua, and I had decided to spend the week before the game in Trinidad, a place I had often heard described on the radio when listening to matches. On my second day on the island, I was in the capital, Port of Spain, and walking past a high wall covered in advertising hoardings, I heard a noise from the other side I was sure I recognised. Thwock. There aren’t many things that sound as distinctive as a cricket ball being hit.
I saw an open gate and thought, in the way that obsessives sometimes do, that I’d just take a peek. And there beyond were the cricket nets, and a painted sign announcing “Harvard Club”, and a couple of young men in leg pads wielding bats. More stood chatting, waiting for their turn to bowl.
My ludicrous love of the game caused me to stand transfixed, determined to watch just a couple of deliveries, and then – when I realised how good the batsmen were – just a couple more. Soon a slender figure had detached himself from the group and ambled towards me with a smile: his name was Robin, he said, and he was the club secretary, and could he help me?
He was in his early 20s at most, with a shy demeanour and a fringe that clung to his forehead. And yet there was an earnest pride about him; when I said I sometimes wrote about cricket, he quickly informed me that Harvard had been Brian Lara’s first club and pointed at various players – most no more than teenagers – telling me that this one had represented Grenada, that one the Windward Islands, another one Canada.
I asked when I might return to watch a game. “Tomorrow!” he said. “You must come to our Friday night lime!” I knew enough to know that “lime” meant hangout, and that this was an invitation to experience Trini culture that I couldn’t possibly turn down.
Arriving the next evening, I could hear the soca music from halfway down the block, overlaid with shouts and noisy excitement. An intergenerational crowd was gathered around the clubhouse, where someone’s playlist was being transmitted through large speakers. They faced an enclosed basketball court where a small detachment of players moved around in a sort of Brownian motion, following the trajectory of a tennis ball. I heard it hit hard, and saw it bounce off the fence into someone’s outstretched hand. A huge yell went up around me – I couldn’t tell if that was six or out.
“We call it cage cricket,” Robin told me, “it’s a Trini thing.” It was good I was dressed in shorts, he said – I’d be expected to play. Everyone had to take their turn. But first there was food: a vast spread laid out on trestle tables, sticky barbecue chicken legs with rice, pasta with peas, wrapped roti stuffed with curried potato and veg, all transferred generously on to my paper plate. I couldn’t imagine how I was supposed to run around after all that.
We sat and watched the game, which took place to an endless soundtrack of teasing, baiting and laughter. Parents and grandparents shouted their encouragement, amazement and pleasure; a little girl, too small to play, rode her pink bike around the outside of the court. Robin told me about his work day, fixing IT problems at the Archbishop’s Palace around the corner. I told him I had seen that building – its curious red-and-white turreted tower stood next to an even more grandiose building, the strange Scottish folly of Stollmeyer’s Castle. Together they looked out on to a wide parkland known as the Savannah.
“The Savannah is where we play most of our proper matches,” he said. “But tonight is less about the cricket, more about community.” And so when I was called on to play – even though I’d never been any kind of athlete – I picked up the bat, and stood at the crease. The bowler went easy on me, I know – the ball arced towards me as if through treacle – and still I barely got wood on it.
Yet as I sprinted down the court, a noise exploded around me as if I was scoring the winning run in a World Cup final. I even heard people yelling my name – “Go Emma!” – and wondered how they even knew it. And I realised that Caribbean cricket wasn’t just a sport, it was an attitude. And that wasn’t going to be in danger any time soon.