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In the Caribbean, Cricket is About More than Just the Game

You can't truly understand the Caribbean until you've seen a cricket match. Though we can't promise you'll understand the cricket match.

I could hear the sound of soca music and laughter long before I reached the gate. In England, supporting your cricket team tends to be a sedate, restrained affair. At some venues, spectators sit demurely on the sidelines of a manicured green, occasionally appreciating the players’ efforts with a smattering of applause. But in the Caribbean, where cricket was historically the game played by most children in their backyards, it’s a different matter. And here, at the Harvard Sports Club in Port of Spain, Trinidad, men and women stood at an open-air bar, their hands sticky with barbecued chicken, good-naturedly—but extremely loudly—heckling the players as the game took place on a basketball court in front of them.

A bespectacled guy named Robin, who worked in IT at the nearby Archbishop’s House, explained to me that the game on the basketball court was called “cage cricket,” a miniature version of the game, unique to the island. Because it uses a tennis ball instead of a hard one, it is something anyone can play, even, apparently, me. I had come to the Caribbean to watch cricket, but after a couple of bottles of the local lager I found myself not only standing on the court but also being named team captain.

Fortunately, the real leadership would be assumed by a tall athlete named Kegan, one of the club’s star players. He made me stand at a fielding position called—in the cricket tradition of giving ridiculous names to elements of the game—“silly mid off.” It’s about three yards in front of the batsman and just to his (or her, when I batted) right, in line with where you would most naturally hit the ball. I realized that it wasn’t that Kegan thought I was a good catcher, but he figured that the opposing players wouldn’t want to risk hitting the ball too hard at their female guest. Thankfully, he was proven right—after one of my teammates caught the ball for an out, it was our turn at bat.

In an actual match, a good individual score is anything above 50 runs. When it came to my turn to bat, I watched the bowler—the cricket equivalent of a baseball pitcher—jog a few short steps toward me, ball in hand, his arm swinging up over his head. I stood in front of the stumps—the three 28-inch-high stakes I was trying to keep the bowler from hitting. The ball came arcing out of his hand. It landed on the ground a foot in front me and bounced up to shin height. I swung my bat and tried not to close my eyes. The ball hit the wood with a pleasing clonk and scuttled away, past a fielder. I ran to the other end of the court as fast as my legs could carry me. The crowd outside the cage cheered as if I’d just beaten Barry Bonds’s home run record. It was as close to being in a Hollywood sports movie as I’ll ever feel, and I loved it.

I’d known these folks only a matter of hours, but their enthusiasm made me feel as if I belonged. Looking at the excitement around me, I wondered why cricket in the Caribbean, at the national team level, was considered to be in such a bad state.

I’ve been in love with the game of cricket since I was a teenager in England and was smitten by its quirky charm and its combination of physical exertion and chesslike strategy. It could take weeks—or longer—to explain the arcane rules and language of the game in its entirety. As with baseball, America’s pastime, it can confound those who didn’t grow up with it. But for those of us who follow it religiously—in England, Australia, India, South Africa—our passions run at fever pitch, and especially for English fans, watching cricket in the Caribbean is a life goal. Unlike other countries’ cricket teams, West Indies is multinational. It draws players from as many as 16 Caribbean countries, and for nearly 20 years, into the early 1990s, it was consistently one of the strongest in the world. The Windies, as the team is known colloquially, also garnered a reputation for featuring some of the most flamboyant practitioners of the game. There’s an expansive, dancelike freedom in their swing as they strike the ball, which has earned the description “calypso cricket.”

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I had come across the Atlantic because England’s national team was touring the Caribbean for the first time in four years and was scheduled to play a three-match series against the Windies. The first game of the series was to be held in Antigua, and thousands of traveling England fans were expected to overwhelm that tiny island. So I’d headed first to Trinidad, instead, where my initial experience of Caribbean cricket wouldn’t be among a crowd of people that looked exactly like me.

Still, I was worried I’d waited too long. In the past 10 years, the sport had been in a steep decline in this part of the world. The West Indies team had fallen down in the world rankings. There were rumors that the game was losing popularity to other sports. Tall kids who might once have grown into terrifyingly fast bowlers were now more likely to run up and down the basketball court, and the ones who were good with a bat turned to field hockey.

While in Port of Spain, I made an afternoon visit to the Queen’s Park Savannah, a vast park that, decades ago, heaved with bodies, cricketers and fans alike, games overlapping each other. I found just one match going on, and I was the only spectator. But even there, the players evinced a West Indian swagger, swiveling their hips as they swung at the ball and holding each pose long after they’d struck it, as if they were playing to a crowd of thousands.

From the Savannah, I made a pilgrimage to the island’s main cricket stadium, a few blocks away. As the site of one of England’s worst-ever defeats, the Queen’s Park Oval has lived in my imagination since I first started following the game. I was 14, listening to the radio late into the evening as England’s players were “bowled out” with their second-lowest score in history, and I had pictured the Oval ever since as a place of pain, humiliation, and ritual gladiatorial death. So it was a shock when I arrived to a modest, pretty stadium with an old, painted scoreboard and tiered grandstands framing a sky of white fluffy clouds above. There was no game on, and devoid of players and spectators, the manicured green fields, or “ground,” looked like a perfect place for a picnic.

The Oval Cricket Heritage Museum in the pavilion was open. The curator, as ancient as much of the memorabilia, took the time to talk me through the autographed bats and team photos before thoughtfully signing me into the members’ bar so I could have lunch overlooking the ground. A plaque at the entrance detailed the many items not allowed inside—flip-flops, tank tops, hats, caps, short pants, miniskirts—and I was told that only nine years ago, the list had included women. Still, the older gentlemen who sat at the bar eating curry seemed to take my intrusion well. One, named Bryan, had played for the West Indies team in the 1960s. I asked him why Caribbean culture has traditionally expressed itself in such a swashbuckling style of cricket, like the one I’d seen the young men playing on the Savannah. He attributed it to the islands’ wide ethnic mix and geographical size. “We want to show off,” said Bryan. “We’re living on a small island, and we want to be recognized.”

My experience at the Harvard Sports Club had confirmed that the West Indian style was still alive at the grassroots level. Robin, who had introduced me to cage cricket, had suggested that I drive to a village called Preysal in central Trinidad. “It’s a cricketing heartland,” he told me, “and it was settled largely by immigrants from India, so the best place to eat is always in somebody’s home—get yourself invited for dinner.”

Along the highway were signs of Trinidad’s optimism for the future: houses in various states of construction and the gleaming orange bowl of a national cricket center. Yet the narrow road into the village, lined with simple cinder-block homes, was like a portal to an earlier era. A pair of young girls playing in the street kindly asked me if I needed directions, and when I pulled up to the cricket club, it was with a strange sense of homecoming: The tidy outfield looked surprisingly like an English village green.

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There was a game going on. The local Preysal team was being held in check by a team from a nearby village. Alongside a row of subdued cricketers on the pavilion’s concrete steps sat an older gentleman the players referred to respectfully as “Teach.” Mr. Baksh had been, until his retirement several years ago, the head of the village school and de facto cricket coach to the village boys. He told me how his uncle had revived the Preysal club in the 1930s, and offered to show me around. “You know Denesh Ramdin?” Teach asked. I did: Ramdin had been the captain of the West Indies team. “His family lives here. I’ll show you where he grew up.”

Imagine, if you will, that a friendly stranger offered to take you by Tom Brady’s family home. You’d say yes, of course, but you’d probably expect little more than the muted thrill of encountering a gated wall, perhaps catching a glimpse of a roof above it. Now imagine you pulled up outside and your new friend started calling for Brady’s mother from the street, and she came out, delighted by the visit, and beckoned you both inside for sodas. Imagine you stood admiring a cabinet of Brady’s high-school trophies in the living room, while his father lay sleeping on the floor.

Switch the names, and that was what happened within 10 minutes of my meeting Mr. Baksh. Denesh Ramdin himself wasn’t around. He was in Antigua, my next port of call, but his mother was more interested in telling me about Teach than about her son. I stood in the small living room, with its faded pink walls and its battered old sofa, sucking brightly colored soda through a straw, and listened to stories of how many local kids he had helped into college, jobs, and better lives. When I asked about the trophies, Mrs. Ramdin smiled with modest pride for her famous son, but said that she had a daughter, too, who was doing very well in her exams. Teach had helped her just as much.

In this village, where age and education were revered, Teach counted as the celebrity. I found myself invited back to Teach’s home for a traditional Trinidadian meal of dhalpuri roti filled with chicken and potato stew, and fruit from his garden, fulfilling Robin’s suggestion with no effort on my part. Teach proudly showed me his “special wall”—one side of the basement was entirely covered in cricketing memorabilia and photographs of his Preysal teammates down the years—and his wife kissed my cheeks and fussed over me in motherly fashion. Everything about the house was smartly arranged, as if Mrs. Baksh constantly expected guests, and every time there was a lull in conversation, she would hurry to the fridge to see if she could tempt me with something else to eat. My new friends were as uninhibited in their welcome as any West Indian cricketer would be in his play. If Robin and his cage cricket teammates had made me feel part of the community, now I felt like a beloved member of a family. I didn’t ever want to leave.

I experienced a bit of culture shock the next day, when I flew to Antigua on an island-hopping plane filled with English fans on their way to the big match between England and the West Indies. I was suddenly surrounded by my own kind. An invisible yet urgent tension seemed to invade the aircraft as the passengers fretted about the space in the overhead bins and talked noisily about the tickets they held— or hadn’t yet bought—for the games.

Only the most dedicated fan watches every minute of a “Test” match, played between top-level national teams and lasting up to five days. On the first morning of the match, when I arrived at Sir Vivian Richards Cricket Stadium in North Sound, the stands were two-thirds empty, the vibe set mostly by English vacationers. Middle-aged men spread themselves pinkly along the grass terraces, whale-like bellies turned up to the sun. Occasionally they would break into boisterous, tuneless songs dedicated to one or another of their on-field heroes, but mostly they surveyed the action with a quiet equanimity. One of the English batsmen, a small, impish-looking fellow, was tormenting the West Indian bowlers, knocking the ball to all corners of the field. As the day wore on and England’s score grew, the small crowd sank into a collective doze, and I went for a walk around the ground, sampling from stalls that served all sorts of grilled fare, from ribs to lobster to something called johnnycakes, which tasted like savory doughnuts.

On the second morning I did some sightseeing. I started with the Antiguan beaches, which were the peak of fantasy: silky white sand and water like a gemstone. The first time I swam in the ocean, a fish leapt from the water in a silver arc in front of me, as if by appointment. All along the coast stretched the resorts, whose smooth, whitewashed walls swallowed the island’s tourists fresh from the plane and held them in their maw until it was time to release them to their flight home.

I noted the artfully artless arrangements of rustic lounge chairs and the photographer outside a couples-only resort who was forcing honeymooners into relaxed poses, and I wondered what reality looked like in this nation of all-inclusive bliss. Was it Shirley Heights, the lookout point I had visited the night I arrived, where hundreds of tourists crammed onto the cliffs to take unsatisfactory selfies in front of a cloudy sunset, drinking rum punch a dangerous shade of tangerine?

As I traveled the island over the next few days, it was easy to keep up with what was happening in the cricket match. The locals might not have been at the ground in great numbers, but everyone on the island seemed to know the score. England was building a steady lead. The night before the final day of the game, I went into St. John’s, the Antiguan capital, as the working day ended and Heritage Quay—the parade of stores, bars, and jewelry merchants catering to the cruise ships that loomed nearby—was emptying out. I followed the workers on foot as they headed down the city’s grittier streets toward the bus station, past an outsize statue of the nation’s first prime minister, V.C. Bird. Here, among the pizza joints, the marketplace, and the liquor stores, the island seemed to finally burst to life, with a sniff of ganja and a ragged energy. Outside a bar that was no more than a hole in the wall, a drunk swung genially towards me. “How’s the cricket, baby?” he asked. I told him that England was still winning. “Dey not won yet!” he cried. “Not till the last ball’s bowled, baby!”

The next morning I headed to the stadium to see, I trusted, my team complete its victory. West Indies needed to score an almost impossible 438 runs to win the match, but it could still hope for a draw—not by tying the score but by staying at bat until the five-day time limit was up. And that would be almost as impressive as an outright win.

There were more West Indies fans in the stadium on the fifth and final day, but unlike their English counterparts, on this day they did not set up communal chants. Instead, one individual after another took on the role of cheerleader, maintaining a constant stream of bellowed rhetoric from the stands. Ramdin, the West Indies captain, was batting, and each orator addressed him personally. “Allllllll day!” was the catchphrase of one man who waved his baseball cap incessantly, gesticulating with long, limber arms. As the afternoon wore on, he appeared to be getting his wish. The longer Ramdin batted, the more the locals’ hope grew. The crowd swelled with office workers who had left their jobs early and mothers bringing their children straight from school to watch the denouement.

Batting for a draw demands restraint. Scoring runs doesn’t matter: It’s more important
to play the safest shots you can and not get out. But something strange was happening at the Antiguan ground. The closer the West Indians got to saving the match, the more extravagant—and risky—Ramdin and the other players became. Now the ball skidded to the boundary, now it rocketed through the air. And the cricketers’ new mood fueled the crowd. Antiguan flags pumped up and down to the beat of soca, which blasted from a large sound system in one of the stands.

More and more people arrived at the ground to join the party. A troupe of carnival dancers in feathery outfits appeared on a podium, and a couple of cheerful Englishmen in polo shirts stood up to join in their choreography. On the grassy terraces, the West Indies fans were blowing whistles and horns and cheering every delivery that the batsmen survived. As the clock on the scoreboard ticked toward 7 p.m. and the sun began to go down, the West Indies had held on, and England had run out of time to get them out.

With a few minutes still left to play, the England captain walked up to each of the opposing batsmen and held out his hand. They each took it in turn, and shook it. This decorous, almost courtly gesture was England’s way of conceding the draw. I could see my fellow England fans ruefully shaking their heads, but it was hard to feel sorry for ourselves when the West Indian fans looked so happy. They would celebrate this draw with the same panache as their cricketing heroes—and they would go all night.