Cricket: Cockpit of the Caribbean

Magical history tour: Barbados revisited for a battle against the odds; Henry Blofeld recalls the greatest days of the shrine of West Indian cricket
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The Independent Online
IF ONE ground had to be named as the spiritual home of West Indies cricket, it would have to be Kensington Oval, Barbados. Photographs in the old pavilion of Sir Frank Worrell, Sir Clyde Walcott, Sir Everton Weekes and Sir Gary Sobers establish this beyond argument.

The tiny Caribbean island, which has just 70 miles of coastline, has produced an honours board that no other cricketing nation can sniff at. Even if these four greats had never existed, there have been other Bajan cricketers who would have been in line for something similar.

Kensington Oval is so named not because the founder was confused between Kennington and Kensington, but because it was once part of the old Kensington sugar estate. It is a small ground with an astonishing atmosphere which is vibrantly redolent of cricket and all that it has stood for in these parts.

As on all the other big West Indian grounds, new stands are being built and, as in all the other West Indian countries, the contractors are having difficulty in meeting their deadline. The new media centre being built at the southern end will come under the heading of walking wounded when the Test match starts on Thursday. From the intended Test Match Special commentary box it is possible to see the top of the stumps but only at one end, which promises to be exciting.

One sad absentee from this year's Test will be King Dyall, who has died since England were last here. For almost as long as anyone can remember, the King, as he was known, sat in the same seat in the Kensington Stand on the west side of the ground in the front row at ground level. He came dressed in brightly coloured shark-skin suits - never the same two days running - with top hat to match, smoking a white clay pipe which he looked to have borrowed from Sherlock Holmes. As he walked slowly home each evening past the back of the pavilion, his obiter dicta, delivered quietly and precisely, always made good sense. He had never been known to do a day's work and no one knew his secret.

This tour has been bedevilled by bad pitches. It is hoped that the one at Kensington will uphold the Barbados tradition of fast pitches with plenty of bounce early on and something for the spinners on the last two days. Wes Hall, the chairman of the West Indian selectors who bowled here at a terrifying speed for many years, thinks it will. We shall see.

Full-house crowds are guaranteed, not least because of the huge number of English visitors who have made it impossible for all the Bajans who want to go along to get a ticket. The ground hardly holds 10,000 and one hopes the authorities will think again about their original plan to forbid television coverage in the island itself.

With so many great names, the stirring deeds at Kensington have been far too many to list. But the story starts well before the three Ws, who came together after the Second World War. In January 1930, England played here in the first Test in the Caribbean. The 20-year-old Jamaican George Headley made 176 while James Sealy, at 17 years and 122 days, is still the youngest player to have represented the West Indies.

By contrast, England played 50-year-old George Gunn almost 18 years after his last previous Test, while Wilfred Rhodes was three years older. The match was drawn. Four years later they played again on a sticky pitch as no covering was available. West Indies made 102 and 51 for 6 declared and England, who won by four wickets, 81 for 7 declared and 75 for 6. What fun! England had the worst of a drawn game in 1947-48 and lost by 181 runs in 1953-54 after Len Hutton had lost the toss for the seventh consecutive time. In a drawn match in 1959-60 England fielded for two consecutive days without taking a wicket while Frank Worrell (197 not out) and Sobers (226) put on 399 for the fourth wicket.

In 1972-73 Lawrence Rowe made a glorious 302 against England, the first triple-century for the West Indies against the Englishmen in a drawn game which saw Andy Roberts make his debut for the West Indies.

It was at Kensington in March 1978 that Graeme Yallop of Australia became the first batsman to wear a helmet in an official Test match and against Roberts, Joel Garner and Colin Croft he probably needed it. When England returned in 1980-81, the West Indies won by 298 runs but this was overshadowed when, on the second evening, Ken Barrington, the England manager, died after a heart attack.

In 1994 England's playing fortunes turned for the better as Alec Stewart made a hundred in each innings and Angus Fraser took 8 for 75, the tourists winning by 208 runs. What better moment for a repeat performance in this famous cockpit of cricket.

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