The innings crowd

Cricket, the lifeblood of the Caribbean, is undergoing a transfusion

Cricketers of a certain age, old enough to remember the occasion in 1967 when Barbados had the temerity to challenge the Rest of the World, find it astonishing that the West Indies have declined so abjectly as an international force. Even the English, who beat them in seven out of eight Test matches last year, have begun to feel sorry for them.

Cricketers of a certain age, old enough to remember the occasion in 1967 when Barbados had the temerity to challenge the Rest of the World, find it astonishing that the West Indies have declined so abjectly as an international force. Even the English, who beat them in seven out of eight Test matches last year, have begun to feel sorry for them.

What a contrast with the Eighties, when England teams would arrive home from the Caribbean bruised in body and spirit, while West Indian giants bestrode the English county game. Today, their only true international star is Brian Lara, a Trinidadian who will soon be contemplating retirement. But is the game, as is widely believed, really on its last legs?

The simple act of opening the map and planning a route shows how cricket and religion remain fundamental to everyday life. Patches of green indicate one, and sometimes two or three, cricket clubs in every parish. Occasionally there are more green patches than church-denoting crosses. The game permeates the history and folklore of the island, which commemorates its heroes everywhere. Weekes, Walcott and Worrell - the legendary three Ws - are also the names of three roundabouts on the Bridgetown ring road. There's Gordon Greenidge Primary School on the west coast; Conrad Hunte Cricket Club on the east coast; even the Keith Boyce pavilion at the St Peter ground in the north.

On the last Saturday in October, St Peter is the venue for a second division game between Diamondshire and St John Culture, a two-day contest which began the previous weekend. Diamondshire are trying to dig themselves out of trouble in their second innings to set St John a challenging target. It's immediately clear that the competition is intense, the standard high. Around the island, dozens of similar games are in play, bringing down the curtain on the season before the long winter break.

This is not genial village-green cricket in the English style, as timeless as the pub and the church bells. The St Peter ground is out in the sticks, surrounded by high fields of sugar cane. The tractor has left the grass cuttings on the outfield, slowing the path of the ball so much that boundaries are almost impossible to hit - unless you take the aerial route and plant the ball directly in the sugar field, which one of the Diamondshire tail-enders proceeds to do.

An hour later, over on the Atlantic coast, a gaggle of young men assemble on a beach, clearing the debris left by the receding tide. A pitch is roughly measured and a set of stumps sunk into the sand. One has an old bat, another a tennis ball, the rest spread themselves in a semi-circle with at least two fielders up to their ankles in the surf. Batsmen and bowlers change round frequently; shrieks and whoops ring out across the beach.

The next morning, on the north side of Bridgetown, a noisy crowd assembles at Kensington Oval, the Barbados Test Match ground. The occasion is the last one-day final of the season, between Guyana and Trinidad. If Barbados hadn't been knocked out in the semi-final, the stands would have been packed, but it means there's plenty of room to explore the ground that will host the next World Cup final in two years.

At the moment it's an imposing but ramshackle place, of concrete blocks and beams on the perimeter road. Work is underway on an ambitious £35m reconstruction programme, which will involve moving the pitch, enlarging the playing area and replacing several grandstands. The crowd capacity will double to about 28,000, by far the biggest in the Caribbean.

Showing off the architect's plans, Andrew Sealy of the Barbados Cricket Association tells me: "We're desperate to do this World Cup well. It's the biggest sports event we've ever had, and we want it to raise the country to the next level in terms of service and tourism." He was sounding a bit like a delegate at a travel conference, so I was relieved when he added: "And we're desperate to be competitive on the field. We think we have a chance of winning."

Fighting talk like that would have been unthinkable when the national side was suffering its midsummer nightmares in England. But things never stay the same for long. First came victory in the ICC knock-out tournament in September, and then the most famous Barbadian of all was asked to sprinkle some fairy dust on the ailing national side.

Where others have to be content with roundabouts, Sir Garry Sobers has both a roundabout and a statue on the Bridgetown ring road. He endorses everything from mobile phones to rum, and when he turns up at a tourist reception - "just putting my head round the door, I have to go to some official dinner" - crowds gather, cameras flash, and he has a smiling word for everyone. It's been like this since he broke the world batting record in 1958, scoring a run for every day of the year, on his way to becoming the greatest all-rounder in the history of cricket.

Now, at an age when most men go gardening, the 68-year-old has been called in as "technical consultant" to assist the new national coach. He will travel with the team, have full access to the players, and help with their mental approach. But everybody knows that his mere presence will be the important thing, raising the self-esteem of the young players, who idolise him. "Suddenly there's a buzz about the place," says Philip Spooner, a local sports writer. "With Sobers on the scene, anything seems possible."

Back at my hotel, a somewhat buttoned-up establishment, the waiters at the bar surprise the guests by arguing animatedly about the current Barbados team. One of them, briefly forgetting himself, clears a space and plays the cricketing equivalent of air-guitar, carving imaginary strokes with his arms - until he's gently advised to return to the pavilion. It's the kind of scene you would never see in London or Manchester.

West Indian cricket is in fundamentally good shape, simply because it means so much to its people. Whether that will be enough to overcome the rest of the world in 2007 is another matter, of course, but the first building blocks are securely in place.

Fairways To Heaven: Golf In Barbados

When Tiger Woods chose the top-dollar Barbados resort of Sandy Lane (pictured) as the venue for his not-so-secret wedding in October, the island came of age as a golfing destination. Rumour has it that in return for all the publicity generated by the event, and the relatively undemanding chore of striking a few balls into the middle distance to inaugurate the resort's new course, Mr and Mrs Woods will be given the keys to one of the £1.2m villas being built in the grounds.

Rather exotically, the course is called the Green Monkey, named after the tame but elusive creatures brought over from Africa 250 years ago, which inhabit the gullies and thickets of the Sandy Lane complex. The fourth major course on the island - a big number for such a small place - is the work of the eminent American designer Tom Fazio, who has somehow managed to fashion a tough and beautiful set of holes out of a disused quarry.

The course is expected to open in the spring, but sadly it will be out of bounds to the majority of us. Only residents at the Sandy Lane complex, or owners of the aforementioned villas, will have the privilege of playing - in exchange for about £175 a round.

Sandy Lane has two other courses, both extensively modified by Fazio, which are more accessible to ordinary mortals: the 18-hole Country Club and the resort's original Old Nine, virtually unrecognisable as the first proper course on the island, which opened in 1961.

The Country Club, all of four years old, will inevitably be upstaged by the millionaires' haunt of the Green Monkey, but it remains a serious challenge. The cost of a round starts at £155. The lowest Old Nine green fee is £85, but be prepared for extra charges on both because caddies and carts are mandatory. Sandy Lane (001 246 444 2515; www.sandylane.com) will never be a haven for hackers.

In contrast, the Barbados Golf Club (001 246 434 2121; www.barbadosgolfclub.com) is open to all - and much more affordable. Situated in the breezier, southern part of the island, it's relatively short (6,800 yards) but very challenging, especially when the zephyr gets up. Many of its trees, unlike Sandy Lane's, are fully mature; two lakes come into play on five holes; and some bunkers have been attractively created out of coral waste. Above all, you don't need a second mortgage to test it out. The green fees are $119 (£63) in high season, $79 (£42) between Easter and June.

The quartet of top-notch Barbados courses is completed by the Royal Westmoreland Golf and Country Club, an exclusive villa complex where casual visitors are likely to be turned away at the heavily-guarded entrance gates. Non-residents can play only in the off-peak period between May and November. The green fee, including the hire of a cart, is $125 (£66). Advance booking is essential (001 246 422 4653; www.royal-westmoreland.com). This is another course of the highest pedigree: fiendishly difficult, yet gloriously situated, with nearly every hole arranged with a Caribbean backdrop.

With so many world-class courses within its 166 square miles (and talk of three more to come), sport on Barbados is no longer a story of "cricket, lovely cricket" and little else. With the opening of the Green Monkey, the island will gain promotion to the premier league of winter golf destinations for Europeans and North Americans. The only minor quibble is that they could do with the spending power of Woods.

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