Party ground is perfect for jubilant Test finale

The Recreation Ground here is the perfect venue for England's Test tour of the West Indies to reach its conclusion. Music is played at each of the grounds in the Caribbean but nowhere is it as loud or followed with as much enthusiasm as here. Playing in matches at this quaint little stadium on the outskirts of St John's is a special experience because you feel as though you have been given a VIP invitation to a private party.

The Recreation Ground here is the perfect venue for England's Test tour of the West Indies to reach its conclusion. Music is played at each of the grounds in the Caribbean but nowhere is it as loud or followed with as much enthusiasm as here. Playing in matches at this quaint little stadium on the outskirts of St John's is a special experience because you feel as though you have been given a VIP invitation to a private party.

There is the metal band that plays tunes with any piece of scrap they can find, but the real action takes place in a double- decker stand to the left of the Sir Vivian Richards Pavilion. The stand has wooden benches for seats and its own resident disc jockey, Chickie, who plays a wonderful selection of music. Chickie's timing is brilliant and his choice of song always captures the moment or the mood of the game. The players try their hardest to grab the spotlight but competing with Chickie is an unenviable task.

In 1997, heavy rain prevented any play during the first three days of the fourth Test against India. This setback failed to affect the demand for tickets, however. There were people queuing up to get into the ground at three or four o'clock in the afternoon so that they could join the fun being had by everybody inside. The match fizzled out to a tame draw and the two captains awarded Chickie the man-of-the-match award.

At the front of the stand there is a special stage which was constructed to accommodate the antics of Gravy. Now explaining what Gravy got up to is quite a challenge but basically he used to dress in women's outfits and gyrate on the stage or the metal beams which support the stand. His dancing was quite provocative and at times he would have a play fight with his rival, another cross-dresser called Miss Red Stripe.

Before spectators were prevented from coming on the grounds, Gravy also used to run on the pitch and join in the celebrations when the West Indies took a wicket. However, his headstands and dancing in the middle of the ground can no longer be seen - he has retired.

This atmosphere has brought out the best in West Indian cricket on several occasions. It was here that in 1994, against England, Brian Lara hit 375 to break Sir Garfield Sobers' record of 365 for the highest individual Test innings. Sir Vivian Richards posted the fastest century in Test cricket against the same opposition in 1986 at this venue and it also played host as the West Indies successfully chased the record fourth-innings score of 418 against Australia a year ago.

Lara's record innings was the ultimate example of how to bat. The West Indies were in trouble on 12 for 2 when the little genius came in but by the time he departed, a further 581 runs had been added to the total.

When batsmen post big scores they normally become more reckless as their innings progresses. It is this belligerent approach which normally leads to their downfall but Lara, who batted for more than two days, never got carried away on this occasion. He played at the same tempo throughout. He did not give, or look like giving, a chance and it was just as well for England that the grass on the outfield was long, otherwise his score would have been well in excess of 400.

Goodness knows how many people crammed into this ground on the third day of the match. Lara was unbeaten on 320 overnight and the record was in sight. I beat his bat on a couple of occasions during the morning session but chose not to say anything. What can you say to a man who is on 330 not out? Lara went on and on and eventually drew level with Sobers' record. The ground had reached fever pitch as Chris Lewis ran up to bowl. To Lewis's credit he tried to surprise Lara with a bouncer but the pitch was so slow that it just sat up to be hit.

Lara pulled and the ball flashed away to deep square leg for four. Before the ball had hit the advertising boards there were two thousand people on the outfield doing cartwheels and going crazy. It was a magnificent scene. Lara kissed the pitch and Sobers came out to meet him. Even though I was on the wrong end of a pasting, it remains a moment I look back on with fondness. To have played in a match when someone produced such brilliance was a thrill.

If Lara's 375 was the ultimate illustration of how to milk an attack, the innings played here by Richards eight years earlier was the finest example of how to annihilate one. England were attempting to avoid a 5-0 thrashing at the time but the newlywed Richards was looking to celebrate. John Emburey, the former England spinner, was bowling while Richards went to his 56-ball century. It was an afternoon he will never forget.

"It was an awesome innings," Emburey said. "We knew the West Indies wanted quick runs so that they could declare and David Gower [England's captain] asked, during the tea interval on the fourth day, who wanted to bowl. There was silence until Beefy [Ian Botham], who was approaching Dennis Lillee's record of 355 Test wickets, put his hand up and said, 'I'll have a bowl and so will Embers'. I thought, 'Thanks a bloody lot'. Anyway, I had had a word with Gower as we walked out and told him that if the shit hit the fan then he should share it around. He agreed, and it did, but nobody put their hand up and offered to bowl. I went for 60 in about six overs.

"On one occasion, after he had hit me for three sixes, I actually did him in the flight. He was trying to hit it over long-on and it wasn't quite there. Because of this he took his bottom hand off the bat and slogged me one-handed out of the ground for six. At that moment I wanted to put my hands up and surrender."

Fortunately for the West Indies the current side can draw on a more recent performance for confidence. This time last year Australia were 3-0 up in a four-Test series and looked set to be the first touring side to complete a clean sweep in the Caribbean.

In a fiercely competitive match the West Indies pulled off the greatest run-chase in 1,645 games of Test cricket. Jermaine Lawson took 7 for 78 in Australia's first innings but this failed to prevent the visitors setting the West Indies 418 to win.

Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Ramnaresh Sarwan, who became involved in an ugly exchange with the fast bowler Glenn McGrath, each scored centuries but it was left to Omari Banks and Vasbert Drakes, two lower-order batsmen, to take the West Indies to a tense and remarkable victory.

What the West Indies would give for a similar performance over the next five days.

The Recreation Ground the facts and figures

Location: St John's, Antigua.

Capacity: 12,000.

Ends: Sir Vivian Richards Pavilion End and Factory Road End.

Results: Played: 18 (5 v Eng). Won: 7 (0). Drawn: 8 (2) Lost: 3 (3).

Highest Team score: 629 v India, 2000/01.

Highest England score: 593, 1993/94.

Lowest score: 127, England, 1997/98.

Most runs: B C Lara (WI) 1,228, avge 68.22.

Most runs for England: G A Gooch 218, avge 54.5.

Highest individual score: 375, B C Lara, England, 1993/94.

Highest score for England: 175, R A Smith, 1993/94.

Highest partnership: 308, I V A Richards and R B Richardson v Australia, 1983/84.

Most wickets: C E L Ambrose: 48, avge 19.69.

Most wickets for England: I T Botham 6, avge 58.6 and A R Caddick 6, avge 42.83.

Best bowling: J J C Lawson, 7-78 WI v Australia, 2002/03.

Best bowling for England: I T Botham, 4-127, 1980/81.

Hundreds: There have been 41 Test hundreds scored at the Recreation Ground. Of these one was a double hundred and the other Brian Lara's 375. Lara, Desmond Haynes and Carl Hooper have each scored three Test centuries on the ground. Five English batsmen have passed three figures but no player has scored a hundred on more than one occasion.

Five-wicket Hauls: There have been 15 five-wicket hauls and one 10-wicket haul at the Recreation Ground. Curtly Ambrose has claimed five or more wickets in a innings here on three occasions. No England bowler has achieved this feat. The Pakistani paceman Wasim Akram, 11-110 v West Indies in 1999/00, has the best match-figures by any bowler at the ground.

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