FAZEER MOHAMMED: Caring for the foundation
IN BETWEEN THE inevitable showers this weekend, Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago are renewing an age-old cricketing rivalry at a Queen’s Park Oval venue that has all the atmosphere of a deserted place of worship.
This is nothing new. Even in the decade of incomparable dominance by the West Indies in the 1980s, the Port of Spain ground would usually be occupied by a mere scattering of diehards for regional fixtures.
It didn’t matter if Viv Richards and the might of the Leeward Islands – as it certainly was then – were in town. So rest assured that anyone conjuring images of a “full house” at Queen’s Park Oval for so-and-so four-day battle over the past 30 years is flat out lying.
When Brian Lara first signalled his sumptuous talents at senior level with a classy innings of 92 against the likes of Malcolm Marshall and Joel Garner in 1988, the trickle of spectators only increased slightly as a few fans of the 18-year-old hustled into the ground to see if the left-hander could complete a maiden first-class hundred in just his second match. It didn’t happen, and before he was properly back in the dressing room ruing his dismissal, the Johnnys-come-lately were off to whatever else prioritised their attention that weekend.
Now there’s not even that. No ebb, no flow, nothing except, again, for the even fewer devotees who are probably echoing the same lamentations of three decades earlier while also grieving for their fellow cricket fanatics who have since passed on. Yet this is not intended to be a sad story of yearning for glory days long since passed but one of coping with reality.
Queen’s Park Oval, like almost every other venue in the region, is not alone in this desolate experience when it comes to the four-day game. With one or two notable exceptions, Test cricket is played all over the world to a backdrop of empty seats.
While there remains more than just a passing interest for significant numbers in the different population centres where the game has deep roots, the world has long since sped away from a pastime that is not so much entertainment but an ancient tradition that still means a lot to enough of us to keep it on life support.
Many won’t go to watch even a bit of play anymore, or bother to catch some of the coverage on radio, assuming there is any. Still, for more than a few, it is a source of quiet consolation for them to hear through some medium that the home side are capitalising on a Bajan team missing nine of their first-choice players who are on West Indies duty in Zimbabwe. Or maybe they will be quietly cursing under their breaths on learning that exactly the opposite is true, that the visitors are maintaining their recent dominance over the home side.
Anyone expecting the first-class format to surge back into the regional consciousness because of the introduction of franchises and the return of pink ball day/night matches would be guilty of gross underestimation of the situation. Even if all the top players were on show, even if they were wearing brightly-coloured clothing and performed to the accompaniment of loud music and scantily clad dancing girls, there would be little or no change to the atmosphere of emptiness.
First-class cricket’s very structure conspires against any sort of entertainment appeal. However, because it is such a fundamental element of the game – here as in everywhere else – it must be preserved and protected to ensure that the abundant talent which has always existed in these parts is given the opportunity to develop and flourish, even if, ultimately, the rewards are enjoyed by franchises on the other side of the globe.
Professionalising the competition was obviously a step in the right direction, although the manner in which some of the funding was realised by significant cuts to senior West Indies players’ contracted fees represented a glaring – and embarrassing – example of the almost complete breakdown in trust, not just between the players and the administrators, but the players and their own supposedly representative body.
Ultimately, the measure of the value of the regional game is performance at international level. A Test match victory at the end of the Pakistan series in the United Arab Emirates and an encouraging start to the tri-nation One-Day International series in Zimbabwe may have a few more taking notice of the results and top performances around the territories to see who is capable of challenging the incumbents.
Even if the corporate Caribbean continues to look away – and that may also have to do with faith in the administration – West Indies first-class cricket, without the long-gone boisterous atmosphere and calypsos about cockroaches and fowls, must be sustained as the nursery for talents not yet refined.
Fazeer Mohammed is a regional cricket journalist and broadcaster who has been covering the game at all levels since 1987.