Tony Cozier: Same old Rec, but where have the home fans gone?

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The Independent Online

It has been, in the immortal words of Yogi Berra, de ja vu all over again – with a twist.

Unexpectedly, and happily, restored to its position as a Test match venue in the heart of the capital, St.John's, the Antigua Recreation Ground – the ARG or the Rec to all who came to know and love it – has pulsated these past three days with the spirit that, more than any other, always captured the soul of Caribbean cricket.

When it was replaced by the costly Sir Vivian Richards Stadium, a soulless monstrosity in the middle of nowhere constructed to meet the demands of the International Cricket Council (ICC) for the 2007 World Cup, it was effectively condemned to history.

Only the well-established incompetence of West Indies officials that rendered their new showpiece unsuitable for cricket of any kind brought t back to its original use.

On the surface, nothing much has changed.

The two-tiered stands that border the tiny field, and give the venue the air of a cricketing bullring, have been populated by boisterous fans, sounding their horns, blowing their whistles and waving their flags.

The massive speakers of Chiki's Disco, a permanent ARG fixture since it staged its inaugural Test in 1981, have pumped out its music in breaks and between overs.

Gravy, the local character who took centre stage alongside Chiki with his cross-dresser gyrations, is no longer active, sitting in the stands instead as a consideration to age.

Around the back of the stands, the vendors cook up their lunch-time jerk chicken and peas and rice. Cold Wadali beers are consumed as quickly as a Chris Gayle hundred.

The pitch, even with hasty, minimal preparation, is still the batsman's paradise it always was.Yes, all seems as it was, but only seems A cursory glance immediately confirms that it's not.The 8,000 or so watching have been mostly and obviously travelling English supporters. Outnumbered by a conservative estimate of nine to one, the locals have been difficult to spot.

Stands festooned with flags and banners proclaim English towns, pubs and, incongruously, football clubs. There is even a sign promoting mouse races in Bylon, Australia, for heavens sake. A flag of Dominica and one of Guyana are the only clues that this is a Test in the West Indies.

Each morning, "Jerusulem", sung with gusto by their supporters in the open seats on the eastern side, greets the England team's arrival on the ground. The Barmy Army's chanting as the afternoon wears on becomes louder and even less coordinated with each passing over.

It is a complete reversal of the ARG in its early years when the West Indies were the major forc in world cricket and when, more to the point, Antiguans were prominent in the team.None was more prominent than Viv Richards, the Master Blaster, born and raised a stone's throw from the ARG.

He chose two days prior its first Test in 1981 to get married. He inevitably marked the occasion with a hundred in the match. Five years on, he lashed England for what remains the fastest hundred in Test cricket.

While he demolished the opposition bowling, his fellow Antguan, Andy Roberts, spearheaded the West Indies attack. Then along came other Antiguan stars, Richie Richardson and Curtley Ambrose. In 1995, they and the two Benjamins, Kenny and Winstoin, made it four Antiguans in the West Indies eleven.

Now they are none and haven't been since wicket-keeper Ridley Jacobs played four years ago. Such a transformation has coincided with that of the West Indies cricket as a whole. The Leeward Islands, of which Antigua is part, were once the most powerful team in the region. Now they are the weakest and there are no heroes and stars to rekindle the interest.

It is not only here that the once passionate public has become so disenchanted that they can no longer bring themselves to watch. For the next Test, the ratio of Brits to Bajans in the stands at Kensington Oval is likely to be little changed from the ARG.

It will take a lot more than the single victory in the first Test at Sabina Park to change it.