To be away from home for long periods of time is less fun than it’s made out to be. The bed is never quite right, the food is not comforting, the commute both annoying and expensive. Yet, if you must be away from the things that you are used to – and as a cricket reporter this is a reality –- there are few places as good for the soul as the Caribbean. Antigua was very kind to the Indian team, but it was no less generous to those who tagged along.
The Jawbone diaries
An Indian coming to Antigua has to begin with Anil Kumble and 2002. The ghostly apparition that turned up to bowl in his white bandage is an image no Indian cricket fan of a certain age needs elaborate description. “Why don’t you talk to me about some good times?” Kumble asks as we sit down for a chat. The resort the Indian team are staying at is lovely, but each room is a proper trek from the main building that houses the restaurant. “You think you’re fit? This will be like Mt Everest for you,” says Kumble, who is nursing a torn calf after bowling a little too much in the nets. A confirmed and committed teetotaler, Kumble asks for a cappuccino while asking the friendly steward to bring us something stronger. But, this is a work meet, and despite the fat mosquitoes swirling about, there is no need for anything beyond coffee. While Kumble is recounting events, the sun sets and it gets unromantically candlelit dark. He calls for help to switch some lights on, and in typical Caribbean fashion, the waiter goes in, ignores the light switches and turns the fan off.
This beach so Jolly
On almost every previous Indian tour to the Caribbean that included a Test in Antigua, the team stayed at Jolly Beach. Sand as white as iodized salt, water warm enough to keep you calm, seas so placid you wonder if this is perfection, and vendors selling you things you may or may not need. A broken leaf of aloe vera? A tightly rolled spiff of ganja? A phone number for a lady of the night (even in the day)? A jet-ski ride to get the adrenaline going? At Castaways, the restaurant and bar on the beach front, the Vancouver-born owner who has lived in Antigua nearly two decades is a cricket nut. While a majority of his business comes from the mega cruise ships that dock here, filling out orders for as many as 400 people at lunch each day, he is extremely mindful of his local clientele. To this end, he is importing a tandoor, and has a fully trained Indian chef joining him. The fish is fresh, and soon the fish tikka at Castaways will be the best on the island.
Universe Boss and the Bangalore Prince
Virat Kohli is waiting to get to Jamaica. The Universe Boss, Chris Gayle, will be the best host possible. While Kohli is now the Royal Challengers boss, and has even dropped Gayle, the equation will be maddeningly fun when the team hits Kingston. Harry Belafonte, in his evergreen classic, Jamaica Farewell, has a line that nobody can forget. “I had to leave a little girl in Kingston Town,” go the lilting lyrics. For Kohli and friends, Jamaica will not be about such nostalgia, as much as overcoming the paranoia over Kingston. It may be the murder capital of the world, but it’s also a spiritual home of cricket.
The King and I
Before the Antigua Test, a meeting was scheduled between Kohli and Sir Viv Richards. At 64, The King deserves respect purely for his age. But he is incapable of being formal in that manner. Meeting Kohli, talking cricket, here is a man at peace with who he is. Not long after, Kohli scores a double-hundred. “I’m really hurting for my boys. This is punishment,” says Sir Viv, at his stadium, fixing himself a black coffee. “But, you know, this boy is class. And when he kissed the pitch here, my turf, I was happy. That was heavy stuff. I felt bad for my boys, but I was thrilled at Kohli’s batting. Class.” If meeting Sir Viv in the lead-up to the game was a thrill for Kohli, the surprise at being asked to receive a portrait from Mali, Viv’s son, made Kohli’s day. Game in the bag, 1-0 lead at hand, a day to spare at the beach, what more was needed?
As far as West Indies cricket goes, there was a funeral happening at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium. Forget about saving the match with a manly draw, the game did not even need a fifth day. West Indies crumbled, crashed and burned, but it meant that an evening was spare to take in the carnival. From steel bands to beauty pageants to everything in between, here was a street party that would not end. From the old Antigua Recreation Ground to the streets surrounding, the buzz was manic. A safe aside was a retreat to Hemingway’s, an establishment that has been around since 1829. Back in the day, it was called Jardine’s and was a haunt of Ernest Hemingway in his time in the Caribbean. “The real party is in the shanty towns,” said the charming bartender who produced a perfect old-style rum punch. “But I wouldn’t suggest that you go there. As a tourist, you stay in the city and go right back home.” Earlier in the day, The King had spotted a young lady working security duty in the tower that enclosed the press box and commentary booths. Having ascertained how she took her coffee, down to the last detail, Sir Viv brought her a cuppa. He might be a big man in a small country, but he’s a man of the people.
There’s a politeness on the streets of Antigua that would take any Indian by surprise. From taxis to private cars to public buses, there’s an unwritten protocol that governs driving standards. It’s not unusual in the least for a taxi to come to a grinding halt to let a frisky child to cross the road. It’s perfectly likely that a bus will stop at a “shed” but not a problem at all if you flag it down elsewhere. There might be ganja on the beach for tourists and rum shops at every corner, but in Antigua they take road safety seriously. Enough for the local authorities to own a hoarding and publish statistics of accidents when they happen. As of July end, there has been one fatality on the roads of Antigua. What happens in seven months will be a reality in any Indian city in the time you read this piece. What better place in the world to drive a car?