Cricket: Young, rolled out and flat

Magical history tour: Henry Blofeld says the newest Caribbean venue is a batting paradise
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FOR years, the delightful and unsophisticated Recreation Ground in St John's, the capital of Antigua, was one of the lesser but most enjoyable of the staging posts on a tour of the West Indies.

After a hard Test match in Jamaica - they are always hard at Sabina Park - Antigua was usually the next port of call on the way round to the Eastern Caribbean for the rest of the series. The hotels were a delight and a visit to Nelson's Harbour a must. Then, Mill Reef won the Derby, the King George and the Arc de Triomphe and the owners built a millionaires' complex in Antigua and named it after the great racehorse.

The old airport, called Coolidge Field after the former President of the United States, was re-christened Vere Bird Airport after the long- running prime minister of Antigua. His son, Lester, the present prime minister, was a cricket commentator I have worked with on several occasions. Another holiday resort was built by Peter de Savary and named after St James's, London, and Antigua was very much on the map.

Even the Recreation Ground was gripped by progress. The pitch was originally cared for by the inmates of the prison which still sits just over the road. The armed guards stood at each end of the wicket while a convicted murderer, a grievous bodily harm or two and a few others who had got to work in anti- social circumstances with a machete, pushed the heavy roller back and forth.

In those days, the touring side played a three-day game against the Leeward Islands, which allowed the likes of Ashley Cowan and Chris Silverwood a rare outing, until in the early Seventies a young man began to score a lot of runs for Antigua with an extraordinary flair.

His name was Viv Richards, or Our Vivvie as they used to call him, and people flocked to Antigua to see him. One of these was Colin Cowdrey and his views were made known to Len Creed, a wealthy Bath bookmaker who subsequently paid for Richards to come to England and start his career with Somerset. Antigua had another pretty decent cricketer at the time as well - one Anderson Roberts, arguably the best of his generation of West Indian fast bowlers and now the head groundsman at St John's.

The Recreation Ground was smartened up and the West Indies badly needed a fifth Testground - they usually played two Tests in Port of Spain in a five-match series. In March 1981 England came to Antigua for the first Test to be played there.

They were a remarkable few days. First, Vivvie married his childhood sweetheart amid extraordinary celebrations. Ian Botham was best man and I remember being one of those who lined the streets outside the church as the happy couple walked out under an arch of cricket bats held by West Indian colleagues.

Three days later, the Test began and Richards became the first West Indian to score a hundred for his country in Antigua and maybe the first batsman ever to score a Test hundred on his honeymoon. It took him over five hours but 90 of his 114 came in boundaries. Geoffrey Boycott responded with 104 not out in five and three quarter hours to save the match.

The prisoners were eventually relieved of their jobs as ground staff. The pitch was as flat as any in the world and high scoring became the norm. Richards was now joined by another Antiguan, Richie Richardson, and they piled on the runs against all comers. England, under David Gower, were back in 1985-86 and in an astonishing innings, Richards recorded the fastest Test hundred in terms of balls received - 103 from 56 deliveries as the West Indies won a massive victory. They did so again in 1989-90 when Gordon Green-idge and Desmond Haynes put on 298 for the first wicket although this time Richards got no more than a single. By then, Curtly Ambrose, another Antiguan, had arrived.

Four years later, in 1993-94, as all the world knows, Brian Lara made 375 to beat Gary Sobers' record. After the West Indies had declared at 593 for 5, England were all out for exactly 593 with hundreds from Mike Atherton and Robin Smith. The pitch was slow and immensely flat.

In an effort to rejuvenate the surface, it has now been relaid, and the outfield has been returfed with grass grown in the United States. When England were there for practice in January the outfield was bare earth but, by all accounts, it is now fine.

Richard (Prof) Edwards, the architect of the excellent pitch being used for the current Test in Barbados, paid a flying visit to the Recreation Ground last Monday. His verdict was that the relaid pitch will be - oh dear - low, slow and very flat. It looks like the mixture as before, but then at least that's better than what happened at Sabina Park.