Cricket at Bourda by William Walker
Stabroek News
October 21, 2001

Watching cricket in the flesh so to speak is very different from watching it on television. First you don't have a comfortable armchair with a remote control to turn down the volume, nor the luxury of replays when you miss a wicket or a boundary because you were reading the Sunday newspaper.

There are instead countless distractions which mean you probably miss half the match because variously someone is passing in front of you with a bottle of five year old for his friends, or you were looking in your pocket for small change to buy a pack of plantain chips just as Hooper hit the glorious six which everyone will talk about for the rest of their lives.

But on television you only get the very limited sights and sounds of the game.

You don't feel the gentle Atlantic breeze cooling the spectators high in the stands carrying along the smell of channa and beer. You don't feel the roar of 10,000 souls in victory or the teeth sucking of one old man at a dropped catch.

Most importantly you cannot say years after that you saw when so-and-so reached his maiden century or some bowler got a precious hat trick. You are watching but you are not there.

Sunday morning and Regent Street was surprisingly quiet only minutes before the Red Stripe game between Guyana and Antigua was set to begin. A few people were walking briskly to their favourite stands fearful they might find the only seat left to be behind a pillar. Middle-aged men with small radios glued to their ears handed over tickets to the security at the turnstiles. Mothers carrying enormous picnic baskets that could feed the nation led little boys in new shoes perhaps going to their first match at Bourda. There were none of the usual ticket touts since the police had blocked off the approach roads and set up booths where people could buy tickets at face value.

The game was originally scheduled to be played at Hampton Court on the Essequibo Coast. But officials said there had been too much rain up that side of late. Travelling in the region the previous day, past the farmers drying rice on the road, there were no signs of flooding and one taxi driver suggested that it was simply because the organisers could not be bothered to transport everyone across the river. With Guyana already through to the semi-finals of the Red Stripe Bowl and Antigua missing an injured Ridley Jacobs the game was expected to be a bit of a pushover for the home team.

As it was the crowd in the Rohan Kanhai Stand was quite respectable even at 9:30am when the two Antiguan openers stepped down on to the field bright and smooth as a green tablecloth. The Guyana players were waiting for them like eleven thoroughbreds bouncing on their toes, stretching, flexing their hamstrings, bending their backs, and setting off on sudden high-kneed sprints. What is most noticeable compared to television is how distinct even from afar the players appear: Reon King built like a comic-book hero all barrel chest and square jaw; Carl Hooper with his trademark floppy hat and deceptively casual manner; a slightly bow-legged Chanderpaul; the diminutive Colin Stuart running upright like sprinter Ben Johnson.

Guyana was dressed in yellow tops and green pants. The two Antiguans looked much like clowns in red shirts with blue sleeves and yellow pants.

They were looking to score runs early and instead got a number of close edges that dropped just short of the diving fielders.

But with the score on only five Guyana got an early breakthrough when Cornwall edged a ball to wicket keeper Nagamootoo and shook his head all the way back to the dressing room.

With the hypnotic spin of McGarrell and Nagamootoo, the batsmen were choking like wild animals in the clutches of a camoudi, struggling to score with desperate shots. Antigua were only 50 for 3 after 18 overs. Granted it was not the most exciting cricket ever played. In the middle level of the Rohan Kanhai stand most people were only half watching the game. There was a loud argument going on about doping in athletics and something about the Brazilian football team still being the best in the world.

"Nuts, nuts," came the first of many cries of the numerous vendors now patrolling the stands. Strapped to his body like some suicide bomber were countless packets of unshelled nuts and chicken feet.

He was holding a plastic bottle of orange looking sour. Next came a chap selling cotton candy blue, yellow and pink on a long stick that almost touched the steel beams of the stand. Then another man carrying a small cardboard box containing a universe of candies, mints, Winterfresh, Bristol, lollypops and corn curls. He would stop every so often to sit down and watch the cricket and then shuffle off to another section of the ground. A rasta man passed by with a plastic laundry basket of plantain chips.

Invariably a crowd attracts a clown and the appearance of a man called Taylor lifted everyone out of their morning stupor. He looked half drunk already as if the previous night's excesses had seamlessly spilled into the daylight long enough to catapult him into to the ground. As he swigged on a Royal Stout he handed out bandanas with Western Union and Sprint emblazoned on them. Where they came from no one asked and this corporate generosity caused considerable commotion as he was pursued by hordes of people looking for a little freeness.

He then livened up the proceedings even further by banging on a steel chair with a plastic Busta bottle and blowing his Western Union whistle to a rhythm only he could understand.

Bourda is not the prettiest cricket ground in the world but it is dubiously unique for being the only one below sea level. With a capacity of 22,000 it is one of the largest in the Caribbean. Cricket has been played there at least since 1893 with matches between Trinidad and the Georgetown Cricket Club. Its architecture is a mish-mash of the elegant wooden Members Pavilion and new, very plain concrete structures plastered with advertising for Coca Cola, Mexcafe and various insurance agencies.

The stands also reflect the social strata of a country still operating on class lines despite decades of supposed socialism. From the very colonial Members Pavilion where waiters in white long-sleeved shirts and bow ties bring Coca Colas on silver trays and the modern corporate boxes with their silver service lunches, the old wooden benches of Clive Lloyd and Lance Gibbs, and then the railings where perching spectators bake in the sun eating cook-up from styro foam boxes. And let's not forget the 'birds' in the trees on Regent Street. But no matter where they sit, each and every spectator naturally considers themselves an expert on the game and put 22,000 people from any other country on the planet together and they could not make the noise 22,000 Guyanese can when they get ready. At least they like to think that and perhaps that is all that matters.

A few years ago before the new and very impersonal Rohan Kanhai stand was built people would stamp their feet in unison on the rotting wooden floor. Now with the dull concrete steps spectators have found a new way to make noise at the expense of the metal chairs most of which had been well dented by the end of the day.

Meanwhile on the field and quite unnoticed Antigua was making a revival of sorts moving from a desperate 83 for 6 to a passable 131 after 40 overs.

The prey was not going down so easily and Ian Tittle and Bertel Baltimore resurrected what would have been a dismal total as Guyana let loose their grip ever so slightly.

A big man waddled by in a preposterous chef's hat and cloak lugging a five-gallon bucket of channa and an oil can of pepper. "All you're here channa... chan chan chan channa." With all the beers already consumed spectators were getting peckish and business was brisk. Antigua's innings eventually closed on 181 for 7 - a total everyone expected to be overcome quite comfortably.

Viv Richards said "Limited overs cricket is like fast food. No one wants to cook." And for all the spectacular catches and sixes denting cars in the parking lot, the one-day game can be as dull as watching laundry dry. Simply because the possibility of a draw has been taken away. Batsmen facing a huge total cannot plod along for two days with grim forward defensives and come out with a moral victory. For every limited overs game that has a thrilling finish with a scrambled run and a desperate throw at the stumps, three more end in a whimper. And how ugly the stroke play can become with ungainly reverse sweeps and glances running down to third man. It matters not how you play the game but whether you win or not.

The lunch break ended with a roar as Sewnarine Chattergoon, a mere slip of a lad, and his opening partner Gonsalves strolled out under the early afternoon sun to start the Guyana innings. Gonsalves unfortunately went early caught for 18. But with the white-capped Sarwan replacing him, the innings moved along smoothly and the home side reached their century in only 18 overs. The workers on the scoreboard were kept busy leaning over to change Chattergoon's mounting score and spinning the numbers for the grand total.

By now the afternoon sun was beating down on the stand's roof and the collective intake of beers and five year old rum was starting to take its toll on the spectators. Some were nodding off, their chins resting on their chests. Others were becoming more voluble. So it was no surprise when the fight broke out a few seats away. First a few fists flew. Then a man closely resembling a pit bull terrier picked up a folded metal chair and started beating another drunkard on the back.

Everyone was quite excited with this new entertainment standing on their chairs and chanting "Fight! Fight!" A police rank dressed in a beret (a sure sign of his junior position) hurried over and tried to intervene but was jostled by the crowd. Suddenly someone said the word, "Gun!" and the centre of struggle emptied in a wide circle as everyone headed for the exits.

Others stayed on their seats vacillating between two primary Guyanese emotions - curiosity and fear. They were not disappointed. Someone picked up a beer bottle and started hitting another man on the head. At this point and far too late a posse of police officers swooped down. One man was led from the stand with a 12 inch gash running down his forehead and a well bloodied 't' shirt.

Things started to calm down and thankfully a mass exodus had not taken place as for sure, many deaths would have followed. The second level which holds perhaps about 2000 people has only one narrow staircase at its eastern end and even at the finish of any game is a bit of a crush.

The melee had halted action on the field and the Antigua team spent the ten minutes sitting on the grass watching the proceedings and forming poor opinions about Guyanese.

When play resumed the game had lost the little intensity it still had. The afternoon threatened to turn stale.

But the unquashable Taylor returned banging on his seat, blowing on his whistle and waving a huge Guyanese flag which he draped over everyone's faces. He soon had the whole stand banging away on their chairs. This was helped by the anticipation of Chattergoon reaching his century. With the horn blowing at the opposite end of the ground everyone was now answering: "Beep! Beep!" went the horn..."

"Bang! Bang! Bang!" returned 8000 bottles in reply - on and on as the sun fell away behind the pavilion sending long cool shadows across the golden infield.

With only 16 runs to reach Antigua's total and Chatergoon needing eleven of these for his century, Chanderpaul hunkered down with a series of text-book forward defensives each of which drew cheers as loud as if he had heaved the ball into the adjacent football ground. The drumming continued "Beep! Beep! Bang! Bang! Bang!" With Chattergoon on 99 a little boy not more than five ran onto the pitch to congratulate him. A police officer obviously instructed to chase down any invader ran after him and looked for a moment as if he was going to scoop him up and take him to the Brickdam lockups. But the crowd booed the prospect of such heavyhanded law enforcement. After all it's a citizen's right to run on the pitch at Bourda. If you look back at games in England up to the seventies the pitch invasions were truly impressive like Braveheart meets Chariots of Fire. The English bobbies were helpless to do anything and no one got hurt save for a few twisted ankles. The little boy ran back to his parents' arms and finally Chattergoon raised his bat in celebration.

Chanderpaul hit a boundary to win the game and the inevitable pitch invasion began. This involved the police playing catcha with about two hundred citizens for a few minutes and then giving up.

And there amidst the crowds was our Taylor, flag in hand dashing out to the middle to congratulate the batsmen. An inspector sighted him and eventually grabbed him by the back of his shorts and high-tailed him off the pitch. All the time the Golden Arrowhead was streaming above him in the breeze.