It’s difficult to find a word that describes Antigua best. It is a breathtakingly beautiful, almost idyllic small island inhabited by people with an affectionate chord that makes one stop missing home for some fleeting moments. In the capital city of St John’s --- no bigger than Connaught Place but often with roads half the width --- people know each other by their names. Every private car license plate has ‘Antigua Barbuda, Land of Sea and Sun’ etched on it. Nothing stays open apart from restaurants after five in the evening but the nights here are rumoured to be special because of a few clubs hosting some of the best exotic dancers in the Caribbean. In short, it’s a true getaway.
It’s easy to be swayed by Antigua’s laid-back take on life but cricket, especially the longer format, doesn’t seem to fit well here. From the permanently shut down Sticky Wicket stadium that was once the stomping grounds of former American entrepreneur Allen Stanford to the general apathy shown towards Test cricket, everything points to the possibility that Virat Kohli won’t have to think about the 12th man when he goes for the toss on Thursday. The fact that the hugely popular Caribbean Premier League is being held at the same time as a marquee series that is supposed to make up for an accidental snub in the past shows the place of Test cricket here. In fact, there is more genuine concern on how the weekend carnival would pass off.
Sheena, a shopkeeper, was matter-of-fact about why she preferred the shorter formats to longer ones any day. “If it had been a T20 match, I would have watched it. Maybe even an ODI. But who has the time to watch a Test, that too for five days and the possibility that there might not be any result?,” she said. There is not a single billboard on the road from the VC Bird International airport to the city centre that announces a series of such magnitude. And the only people who seem to know the exact details of the tour are, for obvious reasons, the odd porters at the airport and the immigration officials who were seen running around with a list of cricketers and personnel expected to arrive in Antigua.
More surprising though is the fact that there exist people in Antigua who don’t know who Sir Vivian Richards is. Taxi driver Linden Richards --- who also claims to be an ICC umpire --- quickly tried to explain that his friend, seated beside him, was not from Antigua. Nevertheless, it was another proof of how cricket is on the wane in this part of the world. “It’s also about the insularity of cricket nowadays. One can’t justify many of the decisions, like why Denesh Ramdin was kept out of this squad,” said Richards, a self confessed fan of Amitabh Bachchan movies like Sholay and Silsila. He tried to sugarcoat the reality with a promise that people would come to watch the Test ‘at the last moment’. But steady buildups to a series like this, as evident from the overdose of baseball and basketball on sports channels here, is probably an overrated ploy here.
The reality at grassroots seems to be no different. Giant cutouts of NBA players adorn many market corners at St John’s. A huge billboard declares the basketball court in front of it to be that of the Ovals Ojays team that has recently won the first division league here. Beside it is a small ground where children were playing five-a-side football. Cricket was conspicuous by its absence, be it at the pristine white beaches or the newly tarred alleys. Clearly a man from the era when calypsos were penned in Sunil Gavaskar’s name, Richards doesn’t want to give up believing that Test cricket can still wield a special charm in Antigua as well as the West Indies. But he didn’t overlook the obvious too. “Everything needs an overhaul, big time,” he said. Till that happens, Test cricket in the West Indies might have to stare at a few more years of obscurity.