Sir Garfield Sobers, Sir Frank Worrell, Sir Clyde Walcott, Sir Everton Weekes… For such a tiny nation, Barbados has produced an incredible array of first-class cricketers, and as you drive across this verdant island, you soon see why. A land of only 166 square miles supports 160 cricket clubs. If you want to get to know Barbados, cricket is the best way in.
For most foreign cricket fans, that means a trip to Kensington Oval in Bridgetown, scene of some of the West Indies' greatest triumphs, but I wanted to get a bit closer to the game's grassroots. Cobblers Cove, a historic hotel owned by an old Barbadian family, told me that it would be possible for my son Edward to do a few days' training at Franklyn Stephenson's cricket academy, a few miles away – which is how I ended up on a sunbaked cricket pitch framed by palm trees, watching him fend off some ferocious fast bowling by brilliant Bajan teenagers.
Franklyn Stephenson, born in Barbados in 1959, is revered by cricket fans the world over. In his first season in English County Cricket, for Nottinghamshire in 1988-89, he achieved a rare all-round double, taking more than 100 wickets and scoring more than 1,000 runs, a feat which won him Wisden Cricketer of the Year. A member of the West Indian rebel team that toured Apartheid South Africa ("I thought that cricket could make a difference to what was happening"), he was banned from the official Windies side as a result. He is widely regarded as the best Caribbean player never to represent the region. "The best since Sobers," reads a newspaper cutting on the pavilion wall.
Soaked with sweat, fresh from a gruelling training session, Franklyn greets me outside the pavilion, grinning from ear to ear. He always wanted to start his own academy – not just to give gifted children a chance (a couple of his protegés are playing in national youth teams) but to give ordinary children the life skills that cricket (at any level) provides. "Cricket is a discipline, and the only way that you can play it well is to be disciplined," he tells me. He built this place from scratch, on a patch of wild and rocky land. It took him more than a year to knock it into shape before it opened in 2012. Today, the facilities are first rate. Nottinghamshire CCC come here for pre-season training and The Windies have trained here, too.
"Everybody played cricket here when we grew up," he says, as we watch the youngsters warming up. "If you're going to the beach, you take a cricket bat. If you go to a picnic, you've got your bat and ball." Edward joins in the warm-up, and then they move on to some basic fielding. Despite the heat, it's all done at a rapid tempo. The standard is high, and the kids all take it seriously, but the mood is upbeat. Everyone is laughing and joking, yet all the while they're working hard. These boys are fiercely competitive, but they play with a joie de vivre I've rarely seen in schoolboy cricket back home. "If you have fun, you get through it a lot easier," says one of the older boys.
Now it's Edward's turn to bat, and I must admit I fear for him. He is a natural sportsman (unlike me), but he has hardly played any cricket before, and these bowlers take no prisoners. Franklyn gives him a few tips, and somehow he survives. When we break for lunch, he's still not out. I feel so proud – not only of the way he has played, but of the way he has fitted in. Most of all, it seems to me, Franklyn has taught him to enjoy the game.
We return for three more sessions and Edward's luck doesn't last, but the cricket is only half of it. It feels great to get involved. We're the only foreigners, but everyone is very welcoming. I meet some local mums and dads. Edward gets talking to some Bridgetown youngsters. "They have their fights, but they do have fun," says Franklyn's wife Julia. She helps with the admin while her son-in-law Randy helps with the training. Out at the crease, the bowler takes Edward's middle stump.
"It's about getting them to work with one another," says Franklyn's right hand man, Clarkey, a wise old owl who learnt cricket from Everton Weekes, the leading former West Indian International. "You have to be patient with these youngsters. Some boys develop quicker than others." When Edward returns to the pavilion, Clarkey gives him a quick lesson. After 10 minutes, he is batting beautifully.
I never would have found this place if it hadn't been for Cobblers Cove, a chic, secluded hideaway on the wealthy west coast. Smart but understated, it is more like a club than a hotel, and its local contacts are superb. The head chef, Michael Harrison, took us on a tour of Bridgetown's food markets. One of the drivers, Timothy Quintyne, guided us around the island, showing us 300-year-old churches and plantation houses. But the cricket was the best part. Somehow, it made everything else make sense. "Our playing areas are being eradicated," says Franklyn. "People are saying 'Don't play near my car!' We used to play cricket almost everywhere." His academy is a refuge.
On our last day, we travel into Bridgetown, to see a cricket match at Queen's Park. This is the home of Spartan, one of the oldest cricket clubs in Barbados, founded in 1893, for black players who were barred from all-white clubs. On the wall of the clubhouse is a list of famous veterans: Malcolm Marshall, Clyde Walcott, Wesley Hall.
It is the second day of a three-day match in the Elite Division, the top tier of Barbados Cricket. There is no admission fee but the standard is first-rate. We watch the action. Again, we're the only foreigners, but we're made very welcome. "I've seen them all," says a man beside us. "That's Carlisle Best over there – in person." He points to the Windies veteran, sitting a few feet away.
We drive back to Cobblers Cove, past Kensington Oval, and the statue of Garry Sobers, hitting a ball to the boundary with joyful abandon, just like one of Franklyn's boys. The children are keen ("They won't stop playing," Franklyn says) but some parents worry that Bajan cricket might be declining, squeezed out by football, basketball and computer games. I really hope this doesn't happen. It's what makes this island special.
As we get out and say goodbye, I see a brightly painted slogan on a wall by the roadside. Champions Keep Playing, it says.
One week at Cobblers Cove (001 246 422 2291; cobblerscove.com) costs $2,650 (£1,656) for two adults and two children under 12 in a family suite, with breakfast, high tea, and children's lunch and dinner. The offer runs until 19 December and then 16 April to 30 August 2015.
Two hours' cricket per day at the Franklyn Stephenson Academy (001 246 422 0987; franklynstephensonacademy.com) costs US$170 (£106) for five days if booked through the academy, or £30 in sterling per day, including equipment and transfers, if booked through the hotel.Reuse content