Arena: Where refinement meets refinery: Derek Pringle samples the exotic atmosphere of a Test venue which is a Caribbean institution

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The Independent Online
THE Test ground in Port of Spain, Trinidad, is just about everybody's idea of what a picture postcard cricket ground should look like. With its quaint stands hemmed in by giant saman trees and lovely views over El Tucuche, the highest mountain in the northern ranges, it fuses the heady excitement of Caribbean cricket with a touch of tropical exotica. This is certainly how it looks in photographs, but there is another side.

Look south, for instance, and you get an eyeful of an oil refinery, belching gases which waft towards the ground, particularly when a sou'wester is blowing off the aptly named Gulf of Paria. When the wind does not blow, the ground becomes a furnace. At temperatures of over 30C coupled with high humidity, it is rivalled only by Bombay and Colombo for discomfort. Look even closer, to the Queen's Park Cricket Club, which is easily the largest of the Caribbean sporting clubs, and an institution every bit as domineering and exclusive as MCC is revealed. As at Lord's, one must be dressed appropriately to get into the pavilion. Until the 1930s, when the social order in the Caribbean changed, it was a whites-only club that steadfastly refused to play against black clubs. In 1911, matting was laid down after the grass roots had been ravished by insects - the appropriately named mole cricket, in fact. It was a surface that held mixed fortunes for England. In 1934-35, the West Indies levelled the series at the Queen's Park Oval after Maurice Leyland was given out leg before to the penultimate ball of the game. 'I've seen nowt like it in all my life,' he apparently muttered after the ball hit his pad two inches above the knee-roll and sent clouds of chalky dust flying into the air.

The replacement of mat with turf in 1955 did not seem to suit the West Indies, as the change favoured spin. Despite possessing Lance Gibbs, a spinner of proven class, the West Indies lost nine Tests between 1957 and 1977, including a defeat by England in 1974 when Tony Grieg took 13 wickets bowling off-spinners.

In 1980, as Clive Lloyd's vision of an all-pace attack became policy, the pitch was relaid. Soil from the south replaced the sandy mixture that had allowed spin to dominate. With a good covering of grass, the pitch has become a haven for fast bowlers, offering both unreliable bounce and movement off the seam. It is blithely known as a 'result pitch', on which games rarely go the distance.

Situated in the Woodbrook suburb of Port of Spain, the stadium moved to its new home in 1896 on condition that the club 'keep the land in good heart and condition and always in sound turf'. Despite the experiment with matting, its owners have not reclaimed their land. Immediately to the south- west is Queen's Park Savannah, where the club was based until 1896. It is a great grassy expanse, the spiritual home of Trinidad cricket and the focal point of the famous carnival, which is celebrated on the last two days before Lent. The cricket club plays its part by hosting a huge bash on the outfield, which also hosts football matches. Pele has twice graced its turf, first for his Brazilian club, Santos, and then with the New York Cosmos. The first occasion, on which 35,000 were crammed into a stadium that has an official capacity of 25,000 - the largest in the Caribbean - ended in a riot because of overcrowding.

So often it is the crowd that makes a venue come alive and this is certainly the case in Trinidad, where the rich polyglot mix of people can be as volatile as the local rum. When Sobers declared here in 1968 and England won the game, an effigy of him was found hanged in Independence Square. Walk around the banked cycle track that encircles the ground and peer into the bottom tier of any of the large stands, and you will hear a thousand feuds and grievances.

The club has always prided itself on being accommodating and no one has done more than its late president, Sir Erroll dos Santos. Under him, upper decks were added to the stands on the western side, one named in his honour, while open stands were constructed on the popular eastern side through sponsorship from breweries and banks.

With myriad food stalls selling rotis, pholourie and aloopie (all tasty Indian snacks) and bars to keep people fed and watered, it is not surprising that the afternoon rarely commands the same kind of attention as the morning. After tea the 'body count' around the foot of the stands positively escalates as cricket-goers, their nerves shot by a lethal combination of Carib beer and rum, are forced to sleep off their indulgences.

(Photograph omitted)

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