Cold, dark days and the present onslaught of Premiership football mean that supporters of the summer game must tearfully consign their white floppy sun hats to the recesses of their sock drawers and dream of palm- fringed cricket. Unless, that is, they make for the likes of Jamaica's Sabina Park or Trinidad's Queen's Park Oval.
Those undeterred by the fact that England's Ashes cause died on a soggy Yorkshire field back in July are now booking trips to the Caribbean this winter, where they will combine watching Test matches with a tropical beach holiday.
Of course Mike Atherton will have the more serious business of winning the five-match series against the mighty West Indies. The 3-1 humiliation in 1994 hardly augurs well for England's hopes, but happy memories will be evoked by that series' Barbados Test when hundreds of rum-fuelled Brits merrily invaded the Kensington Oval after England's historic win. And who could deny them their moment? Buoyed by the sunshine, a relentless carnival atmosphere and electric performances on the field, some England fans discovered that there is nothing quite like witnessing a cricket match in the Caribbean.
Tours for sports supporters are hardly a new concept, but they are a growing one. Travel operators are already reporting a record demand for flights; with 10,500 England supporters expected on the islands this winter, there could be a shortage of hotel beds. "We may even end up using boats in the harbour as floating hotels," warns John Snow, who was a member of the last victorious England team to tour the West Indies, back in 1968. Now running his own sports travel business in Crawley, Snow offers package deals starting at pounds l,455 (for 15 nights during the Second Test in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago).
Tours are planned around the five Test matches and five one-day internationals, with extra days allowed for lazing on the beach or trying water sports. Die-hard fans can even opt for a ball-by-ball tour of the whole England itinerary. The cost? About pounds 17,500 from Calypso Gold tours.
But like most package holidays, a cricket tour just wouldn't be the same without those little extras that are thrown in to keep the fans happy when they have spent the day watching England fielders chase Brian Lara's cover drives. Specialist tour operators offer a variety of action. ITC Sports enlists Radio 4 Test Match Special's Trevor Bailey, who will be arranging "informal games of golf". Fred Rumsey (himself a former player) has Godfrey Evans, David Capel and Peter Martin on the celebrity roster. In some cases you could find yourself playing beach cricket against local opposition, or even end up meeting the England team.
Probably the best reason for following an England cricket team around the Caribbean, with or without the help of a specialist tour company, is to sample the spirit of the islands from the boundary edge. Needless to say, the formalities of a county pavilion should be left behind with the embroidered blazer. "In Antigua you sit where you can, even if it means climbing a tree," recalls one veteran of the 1994 campaign.
As well as their resident steel bands and sound systems, West Indian cricket grounds are noted for their vociferous and highly entertaining fans. Carnival-crazy Trinidad has Blue Food, the infamous conch shell blower who no doubt inspired fast bowler Curtly Ambrose to destroy England's hopes singlehandedly in 1994. And when not running a stall in downtown St John's, Gravy dresses up in a nurse's uniform and helps rally the Antiguan crowd.
Away from the cricket, the tours are as varied as the islands themselves. Barbados, with its Little England feel and wide choice of water sports, drew a record 6,000 English supporters last time round. Antigua, with its reputed 365 beaches, is almost as popular. But the rawest and least visited venue has to be Georgetown, Guyana, the only Test venue in South America. The 30 supporters on John Snow's trip to the third Test in February will have the chance to explore a vast rainforest, plus a visit to the Kaiteur Falls, the world's highest single waterfall. "I quite like Guyana, even if it's a bit rickety," he says.
Apart from consistently producing quality West Indian cricketers (Clive Lloyd, Carl Hooper and, more recently, Shivnarine Chanderpaul), Guyana is the jungle home of the jaguar. Its gently decaying capital, built by Dutch colonialists, stands 6ft below sea level. Idyllic beaches, though, are definitely not part of the deal. "If you want to go and lie on a beach, you'll find yourself in 6in of mud," adds Snow.
Arguably the most attractive cricket ground in the world is the tiny Amos Vale, on the island of St Vincent. Two one-day matches will be played there in March. "It's practically on the beach," says Don Gooding, of Calypso Gold, whose trips feature rum punch receptions and the chance to talk cricket with Michael Holding and Sir Gary Sobers.
As a Bajan, he doubts whether England can beat the likes of Lara, Ambrose and Walsh on their home soil. Optimistic England supporters are hoping, meanwhile, that by the end of March they'll be returning home laden with Jamaican rum, sporting deep suntans and saying: "I was there".
Cricketing tour operators include Calypso Gold 0181-977 9655; John Snow Travel 01293 440440; ITC Sports 01244 355390; Fred Rumsey/Kingfisher Sport 01722 331111; Caribtours 0171-581 3517Reuse content