Diary from Port of Spain, Trinidad: Day 1

Missus Couch and I are sitting on the terrace of our temporary Trinidad domicile under the starry skies of Port of Spain, a mere 5-minute walk from the Queen’s Park Oval. It is a marked departure from our everyday life back in the States, where we hardly ever get be out in the open, bounded by work and the confines of a two-bedroom apartment. Personally, it is a throwback to the times I spent as a kid, lying on my back on the rooftop of my family’s house in Polur, counting the stars.

It is really a dream come true, to watch a test match at a legendary cricket ground like the Queen’s Park Oval (or just “The Oval” as the locals call it) which Brian Charles Lara calls home. I have seen cricket matches in the Caribbean before but those were just ODIs (during the 2007 World Cup) but watching a test match, regale in the communal atmosphere that pervades the ground is something else.

We decided to head to the Oval 90 minutes before start of play. The first day of a test match is a moment pregnant with possibilities: The anticipation built up from the previous test match or just the hype, if it is the first match of a series, the regal look of the captains walking to the center of the pitch, in their blazers for the toss, the discussion as to what the team composition should be. The rubber meets the road moment when the umpire says, “Let’s play!” is a sight to behold. With the test starting on a Sunday, and the close contest at Barbados ensuring that the local fans have sufficient expectations of the home team, there was bound to be a very good crowd in, as well. Not wanting to stand in long queues to buy the tickets on the day and miss any action, I had booked them online.

Trying to claim our tickets from the “Will Call Window” was an enterprising endeavor, as there wasn’t a Will Call window I could find. When asked the game-day volunteers who were directing the crowd, they looked at me as if I had just asked him to solve an advanced mathematical equation. One man pointed us to talk to another and quickly the chain was four-man deep. Eventually, we found the person that knew what was going on. Here is where the story took a delightful turn. We were escorted in through the offices of the Trinidad & Tobago Cricket Board to get to the Queen’s Park Oval Box Office, and I had to pause for a bit, to calm myself down, as I was walking past photographs of sons of the soil adorning the walls.

We took our seats 45 minutes before the toss and the crowd was slowly building up. By the start of play, most of the stands were pretty full. We were seated in the Carib Stand right next to the Digicel band of noisemakers with their drums and cymbals, and the party was in full flow. People walked in with coolers stuffed to the gills with food and booze. We were sat amongst a big group of middle-aged fans that knew each other, and had brought enough sandwiches, snacks, jerk chicken, biryani, pork and rice, and rum and vodka to have an impromptu wedding party! Shots were passed around at the fall of every wicket. I was asked, when Ed Cowan was dismissed before lunch, “one straight for the wicket?” and I duly gulped down the rum.

It wasn’t just a test match. It was a picnic; Full fledged, family outing on a weekend with food, drinks and music in an enjoyable carnival atmosphere. People sitting around you introduce themselves and offered whatever they had brought, making the picnic circle ever larger. It is that communal experience that makes watching cricket in the Caribbean so special.

Some cricket grounds around the world do not allow you bring anything inside, and some will allow you to bring in food but no drinks, and there are some where the fans keep to themselves and their group of friends, and there are some where the raw nationalistic passion stoked in the fans for their home team is quite palpable. But here, it was just people enjoying the cricket like it used to be, and should be.

It is such a throwback watching this test match in Port of Spain. There are no giant screens in the ground that show the replays. It makes you focus on the action on the field; else, you are going to miss it. The boundary ropes are not covered with the skirting; even the hoardings do not go all the way around the boundary. No electronic advertising on these hoarding either. No PA system to announce the batsman walking in, or who took the catch. Just the ringing of the bell to announce the start of a session.

The Aussies got off to a quick start but the slow pitch and introduction of Sammy and Shillingford in to the attack quickly made it in to a game of attrition. The fans have plenty of advice to the cricketers and even though no one can actually hear them, let alone the players on the field, due to the constant drum beats and the party atmosphere, they still don’t shy away from voicing it.

One sour spot in day of relaxed cricket viewing was that you weren’t allowed to leave the stadium and get back in. Every ground I have been to, allows you to do that. They hand you a little pass, the size of a business card, that provides you the magical powers of readmission, but not here, and no reasons were given either. One local was so livid with it that he went on a rant for about 20 minutes at the personnel manning the gates and wouldn’t stop. If this were somewhere else, some police guy would have “nicely” put an end to it but this fan was allowed to go on till he ranted himself hoarse.

Few things of cricketing interest spotted:

Ricky Ponting dropped a few during in the pre-game slip catch practice. Some were tough ones but there were a couple straightforward ones that went in, and out. He is still quite a good catcher, but I wonder whether he is having a case of Dravid-itis.

Devendra Bishoo was seen working on his bowling during the lunch break, in the nets adjoining the Oval. The WI bowling coach seemed to be indicating that he wasn’t finishing the follow through the way he would like and also that the point of release isn’t parallel to the line of stumps, which made Bishoo slide the ball too far down leg or spin too far away from the stumps. Another assistant coach was filming the session on an iPad and showing it to Bishoo every 4-5 deliveries.

Michael Hussey was timing the ball so sweetly during the throwdowns. The thwacks were resonating around the Oval, easily rising above the din.

The close of play score of 208 for the loss of five Aussie wickets may mean that the crowds might again fill up the Oval on Day Two, but the start of the workweek may throw a monkey wrench in to that expectation. Big crowd or not, I am sure to be there to enjoy another day of test match cricket.

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