Caribbean welcome makes this the world's best tour

Humour and exotic locations mean the West Indies are a favourite destination for England
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Australia may have the best facilities and India the biggest crowds but playing cricket in the Caribbean is the ultimate experience. The grounds may be small and shabby, and you sometimes have to clear goats from the outfield before you can start your practice session, yet cricket here is played as it should be; raw, unpredictable and very, very exciting.

Each island has its own special feel but wherever you go the locals are pleased to see you. When the West Indies are playing, cricket is the constant topic of conversation, whether it be in the hotels, the rum shacks or on street corners. Everyone has an opinion and they are never shy of offering you, as an opponent, some advice.

The stick you receive, however, is not like that normally dished out by the crowds in Australia or South Africa. The calls from the stands are not obscene and personal. They are essentially cricket-related and often very humorous.

On England's 1998 tour of the West Indies, Jack Russell, the Gloucestershire wicket-keeper, was having a horrendous time with the bat and went for some extra practice with David Lloyd, the coach. After getting out for the second or third time in their session, Lloyd moved down the net to have a word with Jack about his technique.

As Lloyd was about to give his advice he felt a presence at the side of the net. It was the groundsman. Unperturbed, Lloyd continued, but just before he was about to advise Russell the groundsman started talking. " Hey Jack man," he said. "Jack, you're jammin'. You're jammin' like Bob Marley. If you want to score runs you've got to beat it, beat it like Michael Jackson." Lloyd did not know what to do with himself and it has gone down as one of the few occasions when he has ever been rendered speechless.

Another example came on the same tour. During a warm-up game in Jamaica I was quietly doing a lap of the ground with a couple of my team-mates following a session in the field. Walking around and minding our own business, we went past a group of spectators who were sitting in the shade behind a wire fence.

Our arrival proved to be too good an opportunity to miss and one of them stood up and shouted at me in a deep Jamaican voice. "Hey Fraser," he said. "You come back again for some more licks." Wicketless and tired after seven hours in the field, there were plenty of things I wanted to say but I decided to keep my mouth shut.

This, however, was not the end of it. Not by any means. He went on. "Hey Fraser man. You ain't got no quick bowlers. You've just got spinners in a hurry. And you. You's like an old cow. Full of de runs." All his mates started falling about laughing and cackling as they flicked their fingers. They were not alone. My colleagues were rolling about too. Beaten and with no come back, I eventually had to laugh along with them.

It is not just the crowd who join in the fun, but the spectators are the ones who create a special atmosphere within the grounds. At another warm-up match on the same tour there was a man on the public address system whose job was to play music during the breaks and introduce each player to the crowd as they came out to bat. As well as announcing your Test record, he would offer the spectators a few other relevant facts.

Ashley Cowan, the Essex fast-bowler, was playing his first game for England. With no form guide to look at and a blank piece of paper in front of him there was a deathly hush as everyone waited for some information. Eventually the silence was broken. "This is Ashley Cowan," he said. "Like BB King, he ain't done nothing yet."

These warm-up matches are never boring. The players from the islands do not allow them to be. Their batsmen play in a typically swashbuckling and slightly reckless way and there is always a quick bowler whose pace will catch the eye of your dressing room.

These "pacers" - as they are known - normally have great nicknames. In 1994 Antigua had a tearaway quick called "Hungry Walsh" and Barbados were blessed with a paceman called "The Dentist". The Bajan did not owe his name to his profession. It was because of his ability to rearrange the teeth of opponents with hostile bouncers.

Wherever there is cricket, there is also music. In Jamaica, and especially at Sabina Park - the most intimidating ground in the Caribbean - it is the constant reggae beat of Bob Marley which fills the air. On other islands it is soca or calypso that blasts out of speakers wherever you go.

The Recreation Ground in St Johns, Antigua, may be the smallest of the West Indian Test venues but it possesses the best atmosphere. The official capacity of the ground is around 8,000 to 10,000 but there seemed to be double that amount present when Brian Lara scored 375 against England 10 years ago.

The pitch invasion and the scenes that took place when Lara pulled Chris Lewis for four and passed Sir Garfield Sobers' record score of 365 were unbelievable. Thousands of delirious fans climbed the fences and sprinted on to the ground. They were doing cartwheels and handstands as they mobbed the diminutive left-hander. Sobers came out to congratulate him, Lara kissed the ground: it took about 10 minutes for order to be regained.

It is at the Recreation Ground where Chickie's disco comes into its own. Several huge speakers are strategically placed among the spectators who gather in the double-decker stand to the left of the Pavilion. Whenever there is a break in play, or a boundary is hit, the music starts up. The whole stand sways and the noise is so loud that it is almost impossible to communicate with each other out in the middle.

The music is topical. If the home side are struggling Rally round the West Indies, David Rudder's modern anthem for the revival of West Indian cricket, is played to get the crowd behind the team.

The opposite was true for England. Each time Michael Atherton led his side onto the pitch in 1998 we were greeted by Who let the dogs out?. As we collapsed and slipped to defeat on the final afternoon Captain, your ship is sinking became the most-played song.

The joy of watching cricket in the Caribbean has been transmitted around the world through Sky's excellent television coverage and has made holidays that coincide with the cricket a perfect combination. While the husband has a few rum punches at the match, his wife/partner can opt to relax on a beautiful beach with her toes dangling in the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea.

Because of this there is a danger that England's players can turn into holiday mode and take their eye off the cricket. The hotels the team stay in are resorts rather than city hotels and this makes it easy to relax and get away from the cricket in the evenings. However, everywhere you go in Barbados and Antigua there are England supporters out enjoying themselves and the temptation to overindulge is constant.

Barbados has become the most popular destination for England followers and thousands will be making their way to this beautiful island in April for the third Test. For England, if it wasn't for the sun, the beaches, the rum and the palm trees - quite a lot actually - the venue would feel like a home match, such is the support.

And it was here where England pulled off one of their most remarkable victories in recent times. Atherton's 1994 touring side had lost the first three Test matches and had just been bowled out for 46 in Trinidad by a rampant Curtly Ambrose.

Everybody was expecting a 5-0 "Blackwash" and there was plenty of ironic applause from the 8,000 to 10,000 England supporters who had made the trip when an Atherton on-drive took the score in our first innings up to 47. The match will be remembered for Alec Stewart's century in each innings but the scenes of joy from every England supporter in that ground when Chris Lewis bowled out Ambrose to clinch a 208-run victory will live with me forever. It is why touring here is such a special experience.

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