The cricket selectors were out of favour, but with the score at 300 the Antiguans' enthusiasm was restored

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Indy Lifestyle Online
It was all of four o'clock, on the first day of the Test match between the West Indies and New Zealand - about the time of one's ninth rum punch in the bar at the rackety cricket ground of St John's, the capital of Antigua, that I realised things were going to be all right after all. How could one tell? Well, for one thing, the Rude Boys' Stand, like the Liverpool Kop or the Chelsea Shed, only with more attitude - was going bananas, egged on by Gravy, a cheerleading local droll with a microphone, 300 of the Antiguan fans were pogoing vigorously skyward, waving and singing like dervishes until the scaffolding, a pretty mimor feat of engineering at the best of times, vibrated and buckled.

It had up until then been touch and go. The individual islands of the Caribbean got very touchy about what happens to their local boys when they're swallowed up in the catch-all federation of the "West Indies", especially when it comes to the Test side. And for this Test match against New Zealand, the selectors had unwisely dropped a key Antiguan, Kenny Benjamin, who was in hot water for (I was told) some piffling disciplinary infringement. Worse than that, Brian Lara, who was equally in disgrace for backchatting his manager, had been allowed to play. The great Lara, a hero to most of the cricketing world, is a nonce at this Test match, because he recently made insulting remarks about Richie Richardson, the West Indies' charismatic, burgundy-hatted captain, who happens to be from round these parts. In headline terms, it was: Cocky Jamaican Disses Saintly Homeboy. "We don't like Lara," the barman told me between slugs of Cavalier rum. "We think he a spoilt brat".

Feelings running high, the locals promised to boycott the Test; and the crowd was conspicuously lukewarm. An elongated Rasta stretched himself out along four seats, sleeping a parodically indifferent sleep. The crowd yawned at the snoozy Kiwi bowling. They hardly woke up when Lara was out for 40, merely extended a good-riddance middle finger. There was, frankly, more interest in the fat lady advertising "Big & Beautiful Woman $30" - not a bordello but a ticket to a beauty competition of vast Mommas. The list of contestants included the lovely "Miss Trademills Paint (1980)". "I 'spect she still 'pealin" said a wag beside me. Antiguans love slogan humour, though the messages aren't always funny. I asked one girl how she came by her "Cable & Wireless Valued Customer" T-shirt. "By payin' me phone bill," she replied shortly.

We were a motley bunch, whiling away the afternoon. There was Tony, a Welsh venture-capital dynamo, on his way to corner the market in Kazakhstan zinc; Patrick, a prodigiously bearded ex-Battersea boy who discovered the Small Faces and now owns the Carlisle Bay Club, a hotel on the south coast with the most beautiful beach; and Murray, a bigwig at the British High Commission in Barbados and an unusual ambassadorial presence, being a morose and argumentative New Zealander with a habit of asking cynically leading questions. ("So how would you account for the decline in Welsh rugby?"). A crew of outsiders, indeed - but by the time Bobby Samuels had scored his century, the New Zealand bowling had been routed and the score crept to 300, the grudging Antiguans were restored from their enthusiasm work-to-rule and we from our British reserve. "Please Keep Feet on Floor" read a sign. We ignored it.

Driving around, you remark on the goats, the occasional pig, the enormous grasshoppers and wretchedly pathetic dogs. But for any passing anthropomorphs, the most entrancing sight is the egrets. They are little white birds with long necks and sharp yellow beaks and they stand in fields of cattle, one to a cow, like a stenographer or a manicurist, waiting with a sweet air of polite indulgence for their bovine partner to do something. Unlike African egrets, they are not waiting to remove ticks from the cow's skin - they are waiting to pounce on the grubs and caterpillars that are stirred up by the cows nuzzling in the earth - but they carry precisely the same Gary Larson-ish quality, of chatty surrealism ("Hi there - I'm Sadie, and I'm going to be working with you today, I've been devouring grubs for, oh, six months now...")

It was also Antiguan Sailing Week, and boats from all over the world have been putting in at English Harbour all weekend. The Harbour, on the south-eastern shore, used to enjoy a reputation for scarcely imaginable wickedness. According to The Weather Prophet, Lucretia Stewart's lively account of her raunchy adventures in these climes, the place was set up as a naval yard in the 18th century to look after the needs, in every sense, of British merchantmen and was, according to one outraged contemporary, "the grave of Englishmen", where "when warships anchored, immorality of the worst description was perpetrated". In 1996, the influx of spinnakers, outriggers and three-masted schooners brings with it only mild naughtiness: lots of Cavalier 'n' grapefruit in the Mongoose barand the girlfriend of a local architect getting a freezing cocktail down the back of her deck shorts.

For a romantic overview of the scene we toiled in Patrick's wheezing four-wheel drive up to Shirley Heights, a high eminence overlooking the harbour, where close on 250 yachts lay moored. As we looked, the sun went down abruptly, like a safety curtain, the shore lights began to glimmer and the hurricane lamps on the masts of a hundred sailing vessels came out like fireflies. It was a heavenly sight, lthacan, Homeric. Tennyson came to mind, and I stood quoting the end of Ulysees: "The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks/The long day wanes. The slow moon climbs; The deep/Moans round with many voices. Come my friends..." "Quite enough of that," said Patrick. "I think more grapefruit in it from now on ..." And we went back to the real world.

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