A test match in Antigua

The Guardian, May 2 1998

The American actor Robin Williams once denounced cricket as ‘baseball on valium’, a game of tedium and cucumber sandwiches. Robin Williams knows nothing.

When the English cricket team come to Antigua, it is a Big Thing. The government declare a public holiday, five different radio stations broadcast live commentary, a crowd which accounts for one third of the entire population of the capital city of St John’s hits the ground and in the seething streets outside, an old lady leans out of her car window, with a blue bonnet on her head, to tell me: “You gonna get your ass kicked today.”

We are two tribes. The Antiguans come pouring out of their wooden shacks – bare-chested boys in baggy shorts, women with enormous bags stuck on top of their heads, old men with stubbled chins and flat caps – and take up their seats in the big Double Decker stand with the long, hard wooden benches, and in the Bleachers, the cheap seats where the sun pours down all day.

The English clamber out of air-conditioned coaches clutching Mike Burton travel bags and bristling with sunburn, evidence that they are all newly arrived off the plane from Gatwick as part of the booming new trade in sports tourism which builds package deals around sporting events. They file into the brand new stand with the hospitality rooms and the moulded plastic chairs.

There are security men on each stand to keep us apart, but soon they relax, and something that looked impossible begins to happen as the English start to seep out of their compound, to explore the alleyways and open spaces behind the Bleachers and the Double Decker – to enter a different world.

It’s like an Arab souk. There are people selling everything – barbecued chicken, live chicken, souvenirs, sweet potatoes, news paper, toilet paper, Red Stripe beer. In fact, it’s soon clear that we’re afloat on Red Stripe beer. There are two men on stilts, several dozen in multi-coloured wigs, old ladies selling peanuts, old men playing dominoes, smoke from the braziers, smoke from whatever they’re smoking. And music. The place is ringing with rhythm.

Some of it comes from the Bleachers, where the the Rumble Iron Band have taken root, with three kettle drums, six hub caps, a side drum, two cow bells and scores of people clapping and jumping and thumping anything that comes to hand to produce a storm of sound. There is more sound from people with trumpets, a man with a conche shell, several bugles, numerous ghetto blasters. But most of it comes from the Double Decker stand, where the legendary Chickie is at work.

He is a DJ by profession, a cricket-lover by birth, and, with the blessing of the authorities, he has wired the whole stand for sound. There are a dozen or more massive black speakers – each one of them the size of a refrigerator – strapped to its outer rails. When Chickie hits the volume, the whole stand shakes and everyone inside it shakes, too.

By mid-way through the first morning, the Double Decker is madness on legs, a boiling mass of flesh, as the two tribes begin to merge – Rastamen; the Barmy Army of hardcore English supporters; huge old ladies with children crawling over them like cats in a tree; a rather prim English couple, he adjusting his spectacles, she in her pink summer-fete hat with a scarf around the brim – all jigging and jogging and joining in the riot. And maddest of all the jiggers and joggers is Gravy, apparently a very ordinary middle-aged Antiguan man when you meet him outside the Double Decker in his blue jeans and trainers, then disappearing and returning a few minutes later to join the madness wearing black patent leather shoes with square heels, white tights, white calf-length dress, bright red and green petticoat and long silver woolen plaits twisted into his black beard.

The music is massive. Almost all of it is Soca, a kind of calypso which is often devoted to the gentle art of wining – nothing to do with bottles, simply the business of a man standing close behind a woman and grinding his groin against her swaying backside. In the West Indies, everybody wines. And in the Double Decker, everybody sings about it.

In gaps between play, Chickie gives us a blast of David Rudder with his Soca High Mass begging the merciful father to forgive him his daily weakness because “most of us just want to wine and have a good time because we’re feelin’ fine.” And we all chant: “Ah. Ah. Men.” Then Chickie switches to Alison Hynds – “Make the girl dem bend right over.” And we punch the air and chant “Grind me, grind me, grind me.” And David Rudder sings “Give praise, children, give praise.” And Chickie plays the one about the plumber who came to fix the woman’s tap, and she wanted him to pull it out and turn it around and push it back in. And we all chant: “Woah, yeah, the water running.” And Ship Ahoy. “All Aboard! Carnival Approach! All Aboard! Time to Rock This Boat! “ And then we bark in lunatic unison through the chorus of Who Let The Dogs Out, the most infectious song in the Caribbean.

And soon these choruses have become the sounds of cricket, not just for the Antiguans but for the sun-burned Englishmen as well. And something strange begins to happen.

Maybe it was beginning to happen anyway, because cricket is a strange game. It’s so difficult to play, so skillful that more than any other game its spectators revere its best exponents, no matter whose side they are on. We still want to win, but very close behind that, we want to see Brian Lara bat like a whirlwind in white, we want to see Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh loping towards the English batsmen like assassins, even if they do destroy us in the process.

When the English batsman Nasser Hussain sweeps the ball high over his left shoulder towards an empty space in front us and we watch Roland Holder start to run to his left to cover the impossible distance, then to sprint, then to throw himself into the air, swooping like a swallow with both hands outstretched, scooping the ball from the air just as it falls to the grass then – no matter whose side we thought we were on, no matter how much damage he has just inflicted on England – we all simply rise and cheer the brilliance of the moment. All of us.

During the lunch break on the Sunday, I wandered off into the big, old colonial Cathedral just next to the ground, where the morning service was just ending. I sat at the back, hoping no-one would take offence at my scruffy shorts and tourist bag, and I watched the end of the service and gazed up at the memorial plaques for Victorian men and women who had died thousands of miles from their homes, until I realised that I had been spotted. A priest in all-white robes was approaching me. He looked severe. I gathered my bag and prepared my excuses as he leaned down at the end of my pew and whispered in my ear: “You tell me the score?”

So maybe it was already happening, that the cricket itself was bringing the tribes together. But now the Soca does the rest. Strange encounters start to take place – like this one, between the middle-aged English tourist with his belly bulging through his bright blue shorts and the Rastaman in a faded orange shirt, who start talking in the mayhem and find that they both live in Birmingham (in very different ways), and they talk about cricket and about Chickie, about how long it took the Rastaman to grow his dreads down to his waist and what they do for a living and the English guy says he’s a quantity surveyor working for the local authority and the Rastman says he’s gotta tell the truth, in fact, he sells drugs, grass mostly, and neither of them bats an eyelid.

Everybody is suddenly everybody else’s friend. There is no crime, no violence, no rip-offs, no hassles, just joy. It is a riot with a grin. Mervyn Richards, brother of Viv, the great Antiguan batsman, told one of the local newspapers: “I went to the Antigua Recreation Grounds to attend a party, and a test match broke out and lasted for five days.”

By the final day, we are all one audience together. We all know England cannot win the match but we also know that they might just hang on for a draw and that, if they do, they might just save the job of their captain, Mike Atherton, who may not be a great winner but who is a decent, likeable man, whose misery in adversity is painful to see. As the final hour closes in, England seem to be succeeding, salvaging pride and their captain’s reputation. Then suddenly the wickets start to fall. And a new wave of madness spreads through the ground.

A vast woman has come into the stand to collect empty bottles. She finds a whistle and suddenly, without warning, in the middle of us, she starts to dance, with the whistle in her mouth, blowing out a noisy rhythm, while she flicks her mighty hips and ripples her arms and rolls her head from side to side, all of it with surpassing elegance, her face all wreathed in joy. We have only three wickets left. We still have 45 minutes to play. Maybe the rain clouds hovering in the east will sweep in and save us. Gravy doesn’t think so – he’s dangling upside down from the rafters in his petticoat, a sure sign of excitement.

The West Indians are crowding the English batsmen. Every ball is an ordeal. There is a disturbance from the Bleachers, where the Rumble Band are playing. It’s the Bottle Woman. She’s dancing again, like a great fleshy volcano blowing her joy over everyone around her. Carl Hooper bowls to Graham Thorpe. Cheers for Thorpe. And for the Bottle Woman, too. Now it’s Courtney Walsh racing in to Andrew Caddick – and he’s caught behind. “Whoah, yeah, the water running.” Gravy is strutting like a stallion.

Now a Rastaman has risen to the Bottle Woman’s challenge. He’s gripped her from behind and he’s wining her haunches, almost disappearing into her bulk, as the cheers rise up around them and Gus Fraser comes into bat and scores a streaky four runs off the edge of his bat and the rain starts flicking down and two naked Englishmen leap onto the pitch and streak across the playing field in different directions while the police run after them and Chickie plays “Give praise, children” and we all chant “Ah Ah Men”, and over to our left the Rastaman is not just wining the Bottle Woman but has climbed up on top of her, and he is simply riding her mighty rump while she bends forward with her face on the bench, still blowing her rhythm on her whistle and, back on the field, the cops catch the streakers and Courtney Walsh comes in once more to bowl to Gus Fraser – and he’s caught! Pande-bloody-monium. Gravy’s up in the rafters. Everybody’s hopping, like fleas in a carpet. They all know there’s only one more English batsman to come in, and it’s Phil Tufnell, impish, fiendish Phil Tufnell who bats like a sparrow with a broken wing. And what’s worse – the rain has stopped. “All Aboard! Time to Rock This Boat!”

Now an Antiguan in a red sun-hat has taken over from the Rastaman, dancing face-to-face with the Bottle Woman. For half a minute, she lets him alone and then she reaches down and picks him up bodily and wraps his legs around her girth and carts him away as though she were dancing with a baby. Massive applause. Tufnell limps to the wicket. We all cheer him like a hero; we don’t mean it. One of the streakers is marched out of the ground, now wearing patriotic Union Jack underpants, the Rumble Band are drumming like rain, Tufnell stands to face Courtney Walsh thundering towards him, all around the ground people are screaming like childbirth, they’re wailing and singing and waving their flags, and the man in the red hat has clambered down from the Bottle Woman and slowly, unbelievably, madly he reaches his arms around her, strains back on his heels and to a crescendo of wild applause, he lifts her off the ground. “Who let the dogs out? Woof. Woof-woof. Woof-woof.”

Phil Tufnell plays and misses, plays and survives, Graham Thorpe hangs on for Jesus, the rain cloud has drifted back over the ground, the Bottle Woman has disappeared into the madness, Courtney Walsh comes running in once more with the wind in his hair and victory in sight, there are people roaring – not shouting words, just roaring through open throats – there’s the Rumble Band, the conche shells, the Red Stripe bottles and the trumpets, all blasting and battering around the ground, and Courtney bowls, and you don’t need to see the pitch and you don’t need to look at the score board, because the final, physical eruption of thirteen thousand men, women and children all yelling their souls out while Chickie hits us so hard that it makes our chests shake, all tells you just as clearly, that Tufnell has done what he was bound to do – he’s out, gone, finished, and the West Indians have just won the game. “Grind me, grind me, grind me.”

A lot of men in suits line up in front of the pavilion and start making speeches. A lone streaker hits the ground, but the police soon grab him and, infected by the madness, they then march him stark naked with his tackle swinging, straight through the middle of the suits making speeches, straight past the live television cameras.

Mike Atherton does his best to look brave, but nobody’s fooled. The West Indians take the prize. Brian Lara leads them on a lap of honour around the ground and as they run smiling through a shower of adulation, the television screen above our heads shows us Atherton with his sad, boyish face reading out his resignation.

It is over. Chickie will play his Soca late into the night, West Indian radio stations will throw open the airwaves for calls of congratulation, the British press will spend several more days chewing over the remains, but this Big Thing has ended. The Antiguans go back to their wooden shacks, the tourists to their air-conditioned isolation, the one barely surviving off the small change spilled by the other. For a moment there, we were all together, all friends, all equals, all exultant. But that was cricket. The real world is different. Robin Williams knows nothing.