I daresay bonny Barbados and some blazing cricket in its final fortnight might retrieve disenchantment with the 2007 World Cup. But I doubt it. Bob Woolmer’s calamity still beggars belief but, that apparent outrage aside, the event as a whole has been one of drawn-out, sanitised tedium. The manner in which the colourfully spontaneous joie de vivre of Caribbean cricket and its crowds has been drained from the whole occasion has made old hands weep for what was and what might have been. On television, the group matches have been played out, mute and inglorious, to tier upon tier of empty seats — scarce a trumpet blast heard, nor joyous rhythm of drum. Friends over there tell me it seems as if laughter, even, has been banished; certainly all ‘real thing’ calypso jollities are purged. Local cricket lovers have been totally priced out of the market, and I fancy those thousands of expected tourists sensed the mood and steered clear. The game’s governing body, the pusillanimous International Cricket Council, will in due time doubtless pronounce from their (as Wisden calls it) Dubaiivory tower block that, thanks alone to them, everything went swimmingly.
Never was the overall torpor of the enterprise more evident than in last week’s two top-of-the-bill contests in St John’s, capital of Antigua. They played in a swank new out-of-town stadium built by the Chinese. Hardly anyone turned up; colourful seats, sure; colourful atmosphere, nix. The vast car parks were completely empty. Sky Television’s director did his level best — but failed totally — to represent the sprinkling of spectator tourists as a vast, rapt throng. I thought fondly of the splintery old Recreation Ground, now forlorn and forgotten a few miles downtown. The fabled field hasn’t a long Test match history, but it exudes a warmth and charm close to the imperishable essence of Caribbean cricket. I was at the very first Test held there, just a quarter of a century ago at the turn of March and April 1981: not a seat empty, standing-room five deep, an unforgettable five-day jump-up: steel bands, disco dancers, calypso poets, an authentic rafter-packed folk festival — and not a jot of it a distraction, everything an enchanting enhancement to the fiercely committed ebb and flow of the cricket down there as Boycott and Willey each scored noble, fighting-yeoman centuries for England and, inevitably, local monarch Richards imperiously scored a gilded, glistening one to celebrate the honour and official esteem the occasion had bestowed on his island.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, and first-class cricket begins at Lord’s this weekend: MCC vs Sussex. It is 60 summers now since I first watched, enraptured, a full day’s play in county cricket (Glos vs Middlesex at Cheltenham), and 40 since I first reported on one for a national newspaper. In a wonderfully evocative piece in the new Wisden, Dicky Rutnagur, Telegraph eminence, moistened my eyes by recalling the cast-list of inmates of those first pastoral press-tents into which I so tremulously ducked: ‘amusing eccentrics, grumpy old men, a prankster with great imagination and mastery of accents, chaps with gargantuan thirsts and raging libidos, experts in composing expenses, a few dandies and a Walter Mitty or two… Lively banter, and frequent bursts of laughter until writing time arrived …or a highly charged and entertaining row erupted, sparked off by one or other of the hotheads.’ Ah me, and dammit, I suppose the simple fact is that all cricket, big and small, anywhere and everywhere, has totally, irrevocably, changed.