Travelling tittle-tattle, tall tales and shameless name-dropping by Jon ‘Don’t Call Me’ Norman

About Me

Friday, 27 February 2009

Word Up.

I got told off in German last night. That hasn't happened for a while. The people living next door to me and Mark in our Barbados apartment are old, rude and quick to moan in Germanic. They took umbrage that our door was open while we were talking. So we told them to stuff it. Well, Mark did. The only German I know is how to count to ten and the word for breakfast.

I didn't come to the Caribbean to be barked at in a foreign language. I came here for the cricket. But for a working holiday based around the sport I've seen surprisingly little of the stuff since leaving England at the start of February. Only five days play (plus 10 balls at the Sir Viv) in three weeks has meant for plenty of relaxation and surprisingly few snaps on facebook of the insides of various cricket grounds. But with two weeks til I head back home there's still the little matter of two Tests to fit in to decide the outcome of a stop start series.

As I write from my vantage point in the media centre at the Kensington Oval in Barbados I'm partly seeking shelter from the blazing sun and partly taking advantage of a perfect view of the Test match. England again on top but questions over whether thay can bowl out this West Indies team.

I've been in Barbados a week now and have used my time trying to make up for this chronic shortage of cricket in my life. Namely by playing it against some locals at the ground nearest my apartment, watching England in action in a warm up game and playing for the Barmy Army against a top Barbados team. A match report of which can be read here. The description of my innings about the only way you could add gloss to my resolute innings of 13.

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But wait! There's more. For I have also spent many an hour waiting around for Andrew Strauss to speak to the press prior to the Test match, getting in some beach cricket with these top lads from Bristol that Mark and I have been hanging around with, watching a 'Legends' Twenty20 game at the same local ground I played on two days pervious, and as of yesterday catching the current Test match. It's been great.

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Barbados is only a 50 minute first class flight away from Antigua and both boast pleasant people, plenty of beaches, hot sun, cheap rum and living in close proximity to Mark Dew. But there are differences.

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The first of which I noticed when I got here when the guy in front of us was forced to strip down to his pants to get through customs. It appears that wearing camouflage clothing is illegal for some reason. Those wearing camo shorts were not permitted entry to the cricket ground. Which is all a bit strange considering how easy it appears to be to buy weed or coke here.

Another difference is that the place is more modern and Westernised. Saturday night on the St Lawrence Gap could have been Spain and that is not what I want from my trips abroad. Busy bars lined the street, cheap drinks and thousands of Brits hanging around. It was a bit crap and I didn't stick around for long. Tonight should be better though. It's Mark's birthday so we're off to a local market town called Oistins for a flying fish supper, plenty of rum and live music.

But as I said earlier, ultimately I am here for the cricket. And that is what will be filling 90% of my time between now and home time. That and another three encounters with Caribbean Airlines. I can't wait.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

Achilles near the Antilles

For me to be travelling anywhere first class can only mean one of two things, either a) I've won something or b) someone, somewhere has royally fucked up. And I don't win things.

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After a glorious two week sojurn with.....Mark, my Antiguan experience drew to a close. For five days I sat riveted, watching a classic game of Test cricket with my family. But now was time to say adios before moving onto Barbados.

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It's a curious thing, cricket. I've travelled many a mile to watch a sport that is often derided for its incomprehensible rules, slow play and habit of going nowhere for five days before peetering out in a draw. This was the first experience of watching a match that didn't result in a winner either way and still it's comfortably the best cricket game I've ever seen. Which may or may not say more about the other matches I've sat through than it does about this one.

For four days it looked as though England were going to level the series after good batting from Andrew Strauss and Paul Collingwood and bowling from Graeme Swann. Midway through the fourth day and the West Indies had to bat through four and a half sessions to save the match. With Ramneresh Sarwan and Chivnerine Chanderpaul at the crease until gone lunch on the fifth day it was still in the balance as the new ball was taken. Step forward Stuart Broad who dismissed both and it was game on. With the shadows starting to lengthen, the clock ticking down, England kept chipping away with wickets. But would it be enough?

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Gradually the ground started to fill with Windies fans who'd heard their boys were putting up a hell of a fight. Entry was free after tea and with a large portion of the English support already in Barbados it was a keenly fought battle on the terraces for vocal support.

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The timing for the end of play was anyone's guess but with an expected hour left of play England took the 8th West Indian wicket. Like it had been for much of the day every ball was unmissable.

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Half an hour to go and Graeme Swann picked up the 9th wicket, Sulieman Benn LBW and by his disappointed demeanour it looked as though he was going to refuse to walk away from the crease. All this meant the last man, Fidel Edwards was now in, and he made sure he took his sweet time walking to the crease.

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First Steve Harmison tried to break him, then Freddie Flintoff with Graeme Swann was chipping away at the other end ten players were huddled round the bat, the Windies batsmen trying to waste as much time as possible, the English booed, the Windies fans cheered, an old guy blew on his trumpet, a younger guy on his guitar, the home support were pleading with the umpires to offer the batsmen the light, it was electric stuff, exactly the reason a cricket lover comes to the Caribbean. Then, with 4 overs remaining, the umpires met in the middle, decided the light was too bad to continue and off they came to a chorus of cheers, clapping and back slapping from the home fans.

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After the match we all walked down to the harbour for a couple of end of holiday beers and a dinner so beautiful Dave sought out the chef to pass on his praise. Food aside we all agreed we'd seen something special. It all seemed a far cry from a week previous when the cricket was almost certainly off and the holiday in disarray.

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Looking back on a historic day for Test cricket at 'The Rec' we also celebrated the best line of the
week. The winner, or culprit, was my dad.

His foot was obviously still troubling him (once back in London he was diagnosed with either a torn or ruptured achilles. Ouch! He's now in plaster and won't be playing beach cricket before 2010 - he's also ruled out of this years IPL) and while taking a photo with me and Dave something caught his attention.

The bloke sitting in front of dad for the days play hadn't got off his seat much. This being the first time dad had made it to the front of the stand it was the first time he could see the front of the bloke whose head he'd been staring at the back of for five hours.

The bloke had what looked like a bandage around his knee. And this obviously struck a chord with dad who animatedly opened a conversation.

Dad: Hey mate. What have you done to your knee?
Dave: (begins jabbing him violently in the side)
Bloke: Huh?
Dad: Your knee. What have you done to it?
Bloke: (Unhinging the strapping, he flicked a couple of clasps to reveal nothing underneath the knee area, before beginning to wave his false leg above his head) Oh, I lost my leg years ago
Dad: (Trying to seamlessly switch from upbeat, excited mode to a more understanding and understated tone but completely failing) Oh, okay then.

Brilliant. It was such a sweet passage of dialogue and managed to usurp what up until that point had been the clear winner in the best moment of the week stakes. The day previously we'd had a couple of beers at the bar next to the cricket ground. Dave and Stuart then went off to get a cab and Mark and I walked alongside dad at his regulation one mile an hour pace. A moment later Dave and Stuart returned with what looked like a drunken bloke. My immediate thought was that they'd bumped into a guy they'd made friends with earlier but it was in fact our cabby. Dave told us he'd agreed a price of $30 and set off towards the cab with Stuart. But dad and I noticed the cabby was carrying a cup of what looked like coke.

Me: Excuse me, mate. What's in the glass?
Cabby: This glass?
Me: Yep
Cabby: Almost entirely coke!
Me: Hmmmm. And?
Cabby: A little bit of lime!
Me: Annndd?
Cabby: (holding two fingers up and almost bringing them together in a squeezing motion) And just the tiniest bit of gin.
Me & dad: Ha ha!!!! Okay, thanks anyway mate.

We were still laughing as he ran after us protesting he was more than capable to driving us home.

All of which is how I will remember Antigua. It's a beautiful, friendly country where anything can happen. I can't quite put my finger on why the people here are so welcoming, generous with their time and opinions, relaxed, polite and caring. Watching them interact with each other at the cricket it is almost as they all know each other. The nutters, the kids, the old men, the loud and boisterous mothers, the good looking young parents with their cute kids. Almost all interact in a manner that is so overtly warm despite the loudness and seemingly aggressive tones they can undertake between themselves at any moment.

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Another aspect of life I've enjoyed dipping my toes into has been the local bus services which are 90% cheaper than cabs and offer a snapshot of Antiguan life that you wouldn't otherwise get. First off the buses aren't like the ones we get back home they are just multi seater vans. Every inch of space used up for passengers. And the kids are squeezed in wherever they can. It's not unsual to cram in 23 people into a vehicle designed for half that. Signs inside the buses alert customers not to eat, drink or use inappropriate language. Not that it could be heard over the heavy reggae tunes or manic radio DJ's.

The drivers use their horns constantly, not just to say hello to any other vehicle that drives by but to alert anyone on the street that they are passing and have space if they need a ride. Whenever the doors are flung open the new passengers steps inside and greets everyone with a 'Good Mornin' which is murmered back in return. And whenever someone gets to where they need to get off a shout goes out 'Bus Stop!' Although, again, it's sometimes difficult to make yourself heard over the din on the radio.

On our first trip into town it was during rush hour and the school run. One small boy of 5 or 6 boarded alone and he sat himself next to Mark. He was wearing a freshly ironed white school shirt, cream trousers, a tie and had his backpack on both shoulders. He couldn't take his big brown eyes off of Mark, who was sitting to his right staring out the window. You could see the look of confusion in his face as he kept stealing a look at this weird chap wearing a T-Shirt with Salford on the front. He was fascinated and I could see exactly what he was thinking as the bus made its way to the Christian school that he belonged. 'I know this bloke, he's definitely from Take That, but is it Howard or Jason?'

Another element of life that is wholly refreshing became apparent almost immediately that we set foot on the Island. The general election is set for March 12th and the election process was in full swing by the time we arrived. Drumming up support for either the incumbent UPP party or chief opposition the APL is a vibrant and noisy event. From 7am through to nightfall cars with stickers, flags and posters drive around the country furthering the parties aims via two or three huge loudspeakers affixed to the top of their vehicles. Blaring out various messages hidden within booming reggae and dancehall music. Picture the cop car in Blues Brothers when they go around town advertising their upcoming concert and you'll get the picture.

But what makes things so impressive and enjoyable is that it seems unlike in England where apathy rules OK; here you can find animated and heated discussions taking place at the bar, in the queues, between residents of all ages and every class. People here care and it's so refreshing to see it in action. Whether on the beachfront or walking through St Johns. You can ask people their opinion and you will get a concise answer to any question.

And while on the topic of St Johns it would be remiss of me to fail to talk about a town small in size but rich and full of life, soul and noise. Walking through the capital on a busy afternoon is a welcome assault on the senses. Heavy traffic snakes through the town, people skipping from sidewalk to road and back again, stalls set up selling vegetables, beach goods, clothing and soft drinks. Shopfronts line the streets, it's impossible to pass by one shop without hearing and seeing the large old school ghetto blasters out front, pumping out tunes, the original sound clash. Although slightly daunting to walk around at night while laden down with laptop, recording equipment and mobile phone it's a delight to experience during the day.

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All of which makes the manner in which I left the country such a disappointing let down. Although I'll not let it darken my view of a country that I already look forward to returning to. And due to the change in itinerary forced upon me will see me spend the night of the 10th there before heading back to England the following day.

And it was that spectre of the missed flight to Kingston that once again reared its head over proceedings. With Dave & dad due to fly back to the UK half an hour before Mark and I flew onto Barbados we set off for the airport together. Stuart was flying back the following day but we all jumped in a cab around midday. We wanted to take advantage of walking around Sir Allen Stanford's private cricket ground and sampling a few beers at his cricket themed 'Sticky Wicket' restaurant next to Antigua's airport before it gets seized by the US government and possibly closed down.

We arrived at half past twelve to find the Caribbean Airlines desk shut. We were told it opened at 2pm. So after dad and Dave had checked in we made our way to the restaurant for a couple of cheeky beers. We all agreed it was probably the best place in the world to relax prior to catching a flight.

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We'd brought along the most expensive beach cricket set in the world with us and were planning to take it on to Barbados. But first we fancied a game on the outfield so asked the waitress whether this would be possible. It wasn't. But we didn't let it stop us having a walk round the outfield and having a small game of catch before a security guard came and told us off.

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By this time the clock had hit 2pm so Mark and I went to check in. Nobody was to be seen for a good twenty minutes but eventually three or four bored looking attendants turned up and after our bags were thoroughly searched in front of us waved us to the desk. And this is where it all started to go wrong.

For a full break down of what happened feel free to read the letter of complaint I've added at the bottom of this 'blog. But the upshot was problem time. Big problem time. We were told that we needed to pay $208 transfer fees that were outstanding. because as we'd missed our Kingston flights we'd had to re-book our itinerary. Although surprised that this was to be done at the airport we agreed to this. Although after 25 minutes we were still waiting for our tickets and I was stressing that I wouldn't be able to say goodbye to dad and Dave. So we left the woman to it. Our bags behind the desk, our passports and my credit card in her possession. We agreed to be back in an hour.

We went and saw Dave and dad back at Sticky Wicket where they were chowing down on some huge tasty burgers. I let off a mini-rant and than calmed down a bit. We'd been assured that we would be getting on our flight so I figured the worst was over. At half past three Dave and dad left us to go through departures. Mark ordered a plate of garlic bread and a double chocolate cake and I a burger.

At 4pm, with our flight at 6pm, we walked the 5 mins back to the airport to be confronted with a huge snaking queue and a visibly annoyed looking Dave and dad stood someway from the front. We dashed back to the Caribbean Airlines desk to be told that everything was far from settled. That if we wanted to board our flights we would have to re-book tickets for this flight as well as the onwards flights to Trinidad and back to Antigua. And that would cost $1,311. Or just under £1,000.

"You have got to be fucking joking me". Was pretty much the gist of what was said when we were then told that while we would possibly get a refund for the original cost of our itinerary ($550) we wouldn't get a refund for the £1,000 we were now being strong armed into taking. Visions of missing my sisters wedding flashed past my eyes. I was trapped in a corner and the only way out was to put it on my visa card.

With the plane already boarding and a huge queue to navigate we somehow made it through to the most unsatisfactory first class flight in existence. For 50 minutes I sat dumbstruck at what had just happened. Dumb struck and very, very stressed. It was a terrible way to end what had been an amazing part of my holiday.

I'm starting to learn, very painfully and slowly, that when in the Caribbean, expect the worst to happen and you won't get disappointed and you won't get stressed. With flights to Trinidad to come, an argument with Caribbean Airlines about my refund, then flights back to Antigua via Barbados, I await with calm serenity the misplacement of my baggage, and the loss off my passport. It's the only thing bad left that can happen. I hope.

************The following is the letter I've sent to Caribbean Airlines*************


***** Road,
Battersea
London
*****
23/02/09

To Whom it May Concern,
I am forced to write this letter to you after being delayed, hassled and subsequently forced to pay $1,311 (US) at Antigua airport for plane tickets my traveling companion (Mark Dew) had already bought on the 20th June 2008 for $552.89 (US). After a five hour wait we were told that without payment we could not board our flights. This was despite the woman dealing with the matter (Shavon *******) assuring us hours earlier that we were definitely booked on the flights.
Shavon told us that we could pick up a refund upon reaching Barbados. However on reaching the Caribbean Airline offices we were informed that not only was this not the case, that we would not necessarily recieve repayment for the $1,311 and that this process could take up to two months. All of which is completely unacceptable.
As seasoned cricket travellers and as a broadcast journalist reporting for both radio & TV stations in the UK, myself and my companion have much experience of booking flights months in advance. This is the first time we have been put into a situation whereby we were forced into handing over money in such a manner.
So far we have both spent over five hours at Antigua Airport, half a day dealing with the matter in Barbados, we are severely out of pocket and the stress is not what we expected to experience while in the Caribbean. Added to this is the expense put on my credit card and time that I have been told I have to wait until the matter is resolved.
The problem as far as I can see it is that we arranged an itinerary in June for flights from Jamaica to Antigua, then onto Barbados and Trinidad. Horrendous weather in England meant we couldn't catch our flight to Kingston. So, on the 2nd Feb, we called Caribbean Airline from the UK to re-arrange our itinerary. We were told this would cost $104 (US) per person. This was verbally agreed on the telephone on that date and also on the 20th February when we called en-route to the airport to make sure everything was going to plan. Again, we were told we were definitely on the flight.

Upon reaching Antigua Airport we then encountered the problems detailed above. I am now urging a swift and fair end to a situation which has blighted our trip and will make us reconsider ever flying on Caribbean Airlines ever again. To quote Shavon ******* 'This isn't your fault, it is ours'.

We will be in the Caribbean until the 11th March which will give you more than enough time to repay us the money you owe us. Please feel free to contact me on any of the numbers or email addresses below.

Regards,


Jon Norman

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Pain stopped play

With the fiasco of Sir Viv over with and play set to resume on the Sunday at the Rec another day off loomed. Timing wise it couldn't have worked out any better. My cousin, Ruth and her boyfriend were due to fly back to the UK and now we were all free we could see them off; so the family Norman all trooped along to St.Johns. It was a blazing hot start to the day as we relaxed over lunch and made plans to set sail on my uncle's boat as soon as Ruth departed and at around 2pm we left bound for Dickenson Bay.

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Back in England I'd spent many an hour day dreaming about a family day playing cricket on golden sand and under near perfect blue skies . While memories of beach cricket in Western Australia are still just about fresh in my mind it had been the best part of twenty years since we'd played as a family.

So while we were walking through town I made it my mission to find a cricket set that we could use. And after countless dead ends and fruitless enquiries I finally secured one for the princely sum of $60 (£40) which probably makes it the most expensive set in world cricket.

It was the first time on the boat for the other guys and the wind was whipping up nicely, the boat teetering on its side for much of the journey. At one point it was at such an angle that my dad literally dropped from his seat. The weather was beginning to change for the worse and by the time we sailed into Dickenson Bay it was pelting down. We sought refuge away from the top deck for half an hour but the rocking and rolling of the boat made several of us feel a little queasy. So at the first sign that the weather was set to improve we jumped into the dinghy and made for the beach.

After finally persuading Dave that we could find a better stretch of beach than the one we had just landed on (yards from a beach-front restaurant) we trooped up and down Dickenson Bay before finally settling on a nice patch. Looking at the looming clouds we figured we'd have about 30 minutes of play before rain returned and so we set about the match.

I batted first and made a challenging target of 30, although my dad complained I'd run at least three runs short. He was just annoyed with me for expertly running him out after he tried to steal a quick second. Something I repeated later in the over when Dave foolishly gambled that I couldn't do it again before watching his stump cartwheel out of the sand. I'd like to say that my celebrations were restrained and humble but thery were nothing of the sort.

My dad however was the pick of the bowlers - although Stuart pulled his first ball for four.

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Which just meant there was a hold up in play as he was forced to swim out and retrieve it.

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One of the key battles of the day took place between my cousin George and my uncle Jon. It was father versus son and it was the son who emerged triumphant. He came closest to my innings winning score seeing off the bowling attack and notching an impressive 20 before being bowled by yours truly.

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The weather wasn't pretty but it really didn't matter as we threw ourselves around in the sea, ran quick singles and tried to put the pressure on whoever was batting. It was a great laugh and I was congratulating myself on my single-minded approach to making this happen when for the third time on this trip disaster struck.

I again batted first and hit a six miles into the sea and as Stuart once again was forced to swim out and get it I gave myself out. My dad walked into bat and was looking ominously comfortable as he closed in on my score of 12.

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We'd changed the game to tip and run in a bid to speed it up a bit and dad was having trouble laying bat on George's deliveries. Finally though he got an outside edge that flew all of a couple of feet and he raced off. I darted out from behind the wicket keen to grab the ball and throw it to the other end where he would be run out - scores tied. But as I threw it dad fell to the ground clutching the back of his foot.

Immediately we knew something was wrong and my initial thought was that he'd done broken his leg. We all ran over to him where he was in a lot of pain although we were all relieved to see no apparent break.

We helped him to his feet and grimacing he made it to the side where a derelict beach house stood and in the pouring rain we surrounded him as he felt the back of his ankle. Clearly in shock he told us he thought he may have snapped his achilles. You could see in his face the vision of spending the week in an Antiguan hospital loomed large. It was an unpleasant few minutes in all our lives.

Dave and I raced along the beach to a bar to get some ice and by the time we got back dad was looking a little more in control of the situation although he couldn't stand. We applied the ice and waited for the heavy rain to abate before helping him back to the nearest hotel where we took a cab straight back home.

It was a subdued evening as we realised there was no chance dad could make it to the cricket the next day. We all feared that he might not make it at all as the ankle started to swell up. And to be honest I felt responsible. Maybe it's the oldest kid syndrome where you feel that pretty much anything bad that happens is your fault but I couldn't help shake the feeling that it was me goading dad from the behind the wicket that had led to him darting along the sand. Also it had been my idea to play the damn game in the first place. And now it seemed as though an a whole new problem was going to get in the way of him watching the cricket. And a lot more painful reason to boot......


.........Fast forward to today (Wednesday) it's just past half past eleven, Owais Shah has just lost his middle stump and I'm in the press box watching England bat themselves into what should be a winning position. It's the fourth day of what has been a pretty decent Test match. And it's one that my dad has enjoyed too. After resting on the Sunday he hobbled along to a clinic on the morning of Monday only to find nobody was there. He was informed by one member of staff that all the nurses were at the opening of the new hospital. So he hobbled out, took a cab to the cricket, and has been here ever since. Getting around hasn't been easy. We've had to hire a golf buggy to get around the complex we're staying at. While the cabs to and from the ground are a lot more expensive than the buses. But as dad keeps saying. "It's all part of the rich tapestry of life!" The berk.

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Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Who needs Twenty20?

We were traipsing through the noisy, crowded streets of St John's when in an upbeat manner totally unbefitting of the occasion Mark piped up "Well at least we can say we've now seen a draw." It was just after 4pm when I laughed long and hard for perhaps the first time that day.

There are phonecalls you want to make and there are phonecalls you don't. At 11am on the morning of the first day of the 2nd Test, news that play had been abandoned still fresh in my mind and with my brother, dad and cousin all due to land in Antigua for a weeks cricket at 2pm I was faced with the unwelcome task of informing them that they'd made the trip of a lifetime for nothing. True, a week in Antigua would go someway to making up for it but it's a long way and an expensive place to come just to sit on the beach. And what a beach it was.

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The day had started brightly as it always seems to on the first day of a Test match. Having got used to the local buses by now Mark and I made our way into St John's West Side bus stop, walked across the capital to the East Side bus stop and travelled out of town to the Sir Viv Richards Stadium. En route the bus driver did the customary thing of stopping the bus, getting out, running an errand, before boarding back again and taking us to our destination.

A destination that on the face of it was a state of the art facility. Two impressive stands, a party section complete with swimming pool, grass banks, excellent media services, good access to and from the ground and plenty of space to mill around. For the spectators it was a little impersonal, it's location meaning it was lacking in home support but spacious and comfortable for a day spent at the cricket. It's just a shame that it hadn't occured to the authorities for similar care and attention to be put in place for the players.

The problems became apparent almost immediately when Jerome Taylor aborted his opening delivery at the first attempt. The sheer amount of sand in the bowlers run up meant he could only run in at half pace. All of which wasn't a problem for the batsmen who both got off the mark in that first over. But this worrying start was quickly followed by a deluge of water as the bad weather that had been an unwelcome feature on the island for the proceeding three days made a re-appearance.

At about this time I glanced to the right of me to see two long queues snaking around the ground. The stadium had only opened two turnstiles so hundreds of fans were being soaked and had missed the opening salvos and as such were blissfully unawares of the problems to come.

The rain didn't hang around for long and play resumed again shortly afterwards and this time it was Fidel Edwards who was struggling. Steaming in from the South Stand he attempted and failed to get through his over. By this point the TV camera's were picking up on the vast amount of sand flying up from the boots of the bowlers and the displeasure etched on the West Indian faces. "Surely not", I thought, "surely this cannot be happening".

But happening it was. On came the match referee, the batsmen took off their helmets, the bowlers surrounded the areas of concern, and I watched on in disbelief. The varioous media outlets I am working for also began ringing me as the pictures being beamed back to England were flagging up the very real possibility that the game would not be able to continue. And after only ten balls of play and mid interview the players began trooping off.

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Within minutes it was announced that play had been abandoned for the day and that it was highly unlikely that it would continue at any stage at the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium. As per usual the paying punters were the last to know this and were kept in the dark for nearly an hour before the tannoy system deigned to let them in on the big secret. Boo's rang round the ground as the enormity of the situation really started to take hold. Here were nearly 8,000 spectators, all of whom had paid thousands of pounds to fly out to Antigua, who had booked holidays, paid for flights, tickets and accomodation, organised tours and now were finally doing something that had taken real effort to and it was seemingly all for nothing.

The players did what they could by mingling with the fans, signing autographs and posing for photos. The reggae continued playing in the party stand but gradually the crowds started drifting away while the post mortem was carried out on the pitch and in the media briefing rooms underneath the north stand. And while this was going on some of the England players began mucking around with the camera equipment.

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Rumours abounded that the game may be switched to either the Antigua Recreation Ground or even Sir Allen Stanford's private cricket pitch. Reports that the run up areas would be dug up and replaced by turf from a nearby golf club were also mentioned. But it all seemed as though these options were being voiced in pretence that something other than total abandonment was on the cards. For surely, if you couldn't prepare a pitch despite having two years of preparation then how could you turn a ground into a Test venue in two days?

After attending a press conference with Andrew Strauss I went and spoke with Mark and also my mate Luke's mum, Deryn who had made their way round to mingle with the players. They couldn't believe what was going on; though Mark had the look on his face of a man who was getting used to major catastrophe's whilst following the England cricket team. And talking to them brought it back to me how disappointed my family members were going to be once they stepped off the plane.

My sister texted me voicing similar thoughts. I dread to think what was going through my mum's mind. I overheard similar tales of woe from other supporters. I was dreading making the call. As much as this was a blow, especially considering the Jamaica debacle, at least Mark and I could console ourselves with the thought that our tour would continue onto Barbados and Trinidad. But for my dad, brother and cousin this was it. They were here for one week only and had no room to re-arrange flights, accomodation and book time off work.

The clock started to tick round and I was told that an ICC press conference would be held at 3pm. Truth be told by this point I wanted to get the hell out of the ground and start drowning my sorrows back at the villa. I'd attended enough pressers, listened in to conversations between officials and players on the pitch, done several pieces to air back home, interviewed disgruntled fans and I'd had enough. But I knew I should stick around. So instead I walked round to sit with Mark and have a beer.

It was gone 2pm by now and whilst sitting underneath one of the sightscreens I saw what I think was Dave, dad and Stuart's plane coming into land. I felt so sorry for them. I wondered if they knew the bad news and whether the pilot had told them what had happened.

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And then something strange happened. The party stand was still going strong with drunken Brits falling about the swimming pool and dancing along to the music when the MC said something that sounded like 'the Test match will go ahead, it will start on Sunday at The Rec'. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. It was a strange way to hear such news. The Rec was the spiritual home of cricket in Antigua for 28 years. Brian Lara had smashed the Test batting records at the ground twice against England scoring 375 & 400. But it hadn't been used for Test cricket for three years. But what a turn up it would be if it was to host the game. What an incredible turn around. It would be amazing!

All of a sudden I couldn't wait for the ICC press conference which had now been brought forward to 2.30pm. Before the game every local I'd spoken to mourned the passing of the Rec as a cricket venue. Captain Nash had regaled us all with stories of watching cricket there during the 80's during the Windies pomp. The smell of the food would float down the high street, the party inside the ground so legendary that one Test against India, where not even a single ball was bowled due to weather was still a complete sell out for all five days a Antiguans descended upon the place to drink, dance and argue about cricket. It was all about the party! Suddenly, all was not lost!

Sure, it was by now pretty dilapadated, I certainly wouldn't feel safe with hundreds of England fans jumping around on the tier above me. I'd been there two days earlier to watch England train, but nobody could doubt the unique atmosphere the ground would bring with it. But, if the game started anew on the Sunday it would mean Dave, dad and Stu could attend all five days AND spend the Saturday on my uncle's boat. This was actually turning into a godsend.

There was still no official confirmation by the time the meeting started and I held my breath when the match referee Alan Hurst, who not a few hours ago had called off play at the Sir Viv Stadium, announced that he had led a party to the Rec and was happy that play could go ahead as planned on Sunday. Get the f*ck in! And then my phone rang.

I had it on silent and the reception wasn't brilliant but at the end of the phone was my brother. "They're saying the Test match has been called off" came a tired and resigned voice at the end of the phone............

..........Half an hour later, my final interview in the bag, Mark joined me in the press box. There I packed my stuff up and sauntered out of the stadium. We paused to look round the ground, take a couple of photo's and wonder if we'll ever be back to this ground again.

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Sunday, 15 February 2009

All at sea

Antigua is a romantic island. Everything about it screams good lovin'. To most working UK folk the term 'R&R' conjures up images of a hastily arranged weekend crammed into a busy schedule or a spa session at a health centre. But in the Caribbean R&R is a way of life, providing the backdrop for most of what you do here, standing as it does for romantic reggae. It sits comfortably with the innate approachable attitude of a people whose immediate response to anything is a broad relaxed smile.

Since being dropped off on terra firma I've spent my time on what is as close to my own personal stretch of beach as I'm ever going to get. Crabbe Bay is named after the small crabs that burrow up and down the short coastline. Measuring no longer than half a kilometre it has enough for any new or old couple whose intentions stretch no further than their feet are able to on a sun lounger.

At one end a smattering of beach houses are ably served by a one of the numerous bars that look like they could get swept away by the first decent sized wave to hit the beach. The other end is a restaurant called OJ's which sits atop a man made collection of boulders that allow for the spectacular sight of the infrequent crashing of the very same waves that could prove a nightmare scenario for the other bar owner. Run by a friendly chap called, you guessed it, OJ, it's a haunt for locals and tourists alike who take advantage of wooden tables and chairs that crunch into the sand, sea shells and sailing memorabilia decorated in a manner that sits oh-so comfortably with the Caribbean sea setting.

In the middle of all this stands the apartment I booked into for three nights before heading to Mosquito Cove. As basic as it comes it still retains enough charm to enable it to live positively long in my mind. For three days and nights I lived a life consisting of long drawn out walks on the beach, beautiful sunsets, sun lounging, snoozes at unnatural times of the day, toes dipped into the turquoise water and lazy, stretched out dinners full of good wine, heartfelt chat, private utterances and fresh local Caribbean food. It's just a shame that when I looked across the table, needed suntan lotion rubbed into my back or when I poured another glass of wine instead of Fe's beautiful brown eyes face staring back at me they belonged to Mark.

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He really does have nice eyes. Anyway, much of those few days was spent talking about our far better looking halfs. We're both in the same boat in that we have left our girlfriends at home while we swan off across the Atlantic. I'd like to think it's not the guilt we both feel that has led us to both agree that one day we'll take them out here. Although I don't think we'll be allowed to let it coincide with a cricket tour.

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It was all very different from the first three days of my Antigua adventure. I've never spent a night on a boat before and so it was a real treat to be invited on board my uncle & aunt's chartered boat as we sailed from Dickenson Bay on the West of the Island to English Harbour on the East.

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We spent the first full day sailing from Dickenson Bay to Falmouth. For the first hour or so I amused myself by taking various pictures of the coastline and trying to take arty photo's of the mast. Indeed one of the first things I noticed was the difficulty that arises when trying to take a photo that accurately takes in the size & complexity of a working boat sailing on the seas.

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I was enjoying sitting alongside the side of the boat, watching the coastline slide by and enjoying the feeling of the spray and the sun on my face when suddenly the wind changed and the boat started dipping alarmingly (to me) whenever a strong gust of wind took hold of the sails. I was more concerned about my camera being ruined if we capsized than anything else but it was an eye opener to realise just how extreme the boat movement can be. But in Captain Nash I had a skipper that bred plenty of confidence.

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At 62 years old he's been skippering boats for over forty years. Like most he is a proud Antiguan and he'd grown up on the water and sailed the Caribbean waters his whole life. If he was in control then so was I. And so after a momentary minute or two of panic I again attempted to take a photo of Mark at the same time showcasing the severe dips the boat took in the water. In that I failed.

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More success was to be found in the fishing stakes. Captain Nash dropped a line off the side of the boat and after an hour or so we reeled in a fine looking Spanish Mackerel. Within an hour it had been gutted and expertly cooked by my aunt. I've spoken before about food tasting better when eating out doors and after a day in the open air and this was no different. It tasted exceptionally good.

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Another thing I learnt on that first day on the water was just how much money resides on this island. We were staying in Falmouth for the night and upon reaching the harbour I was confronted with the kind of scene you'd normally associate with Saint Tropez. Multi-million pound boats lined the jetty including one called the Maltese Falcon which apparently costs $40,000 a day to rent.

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My second night on board brought to mind a series of books I used to read as a child. They centred around a kid that had a picture of an 18th century ocean crossing ship on his wall. When it was dark and the light from the moon lit up his room he'd stare deep and long at the picture and then become transported on board as a ship hand.

He took part in many adventures tackling pirates, finding treasure on remote islands, dealing with mutineers and so on and so on. But one memorable storyline featured the ghosts of mariners that had fallen overboard or died in battle. In the story they would target lone battleships on the water. The first sign of this would be a howling sound that would surround the boat. At the first sign of this the sailors would bolt themselves in the hold and chain themselves to whatever they could as they knew they were unable to resist the sound of their former friends calling to them. If they weren't strapped securely enough they would walk towards the ethereal sounds on the open deck and to their doom.

I'm sure you're wondering just what kind of boat I'd landed myself on. But bare with me. The weather here is mostly of the very hot kind but it can be windy. Sleeping on a sofa in the main cabin with the hatch left open to keep things cool I fell asleep quickly on the gentle rocking waves. But at some point in the night I awoke to a howling, whistling sound and an increased tempo as the waves got increased in power. The sound of the wind catching the mast and sail as it swirled round the boat was eerie and unusual experience. And while experiencing this in the safety of a harbour is one thing. I could imagine a far more unpleasant scenario if out on the high seas with only my imagination to keep me company. The inspiration for where the storyline came from was apparent.

The next morning once again I awoke at dawn as the minor jet-lag lingered and we set sail for a journey away from the coastline. The wind was strong and the waves rocked the boat as we headed away from Antigua in the general direction of Costa Rica. At different times on the voyage flying fish accompanied us and turtles poked their heads up to check us out before diving back into the deep. I was enjoying the experience and started to understand the way a boat manouevres between waves, keeping the wind alongside and not behind, Captain Nash expertly steering us along.

From my vantage point I could see the rolling seas, the disappearing coastline and also down into the cabin where Mark had decided to pass out. On past tours he'd often remarked that he didn't suffer from jat-lag. So it must have just been coincidence that he was once again fast asleep during the daylight hours despite the boat rocking somewhat violently from side to side. Head down against the side of the sofa at times his legs were almost sticking vertically up in the air as the boat leant to the right. Looking at the time on my phone I made a mental note that it was past two in the afternoon. For someone who doesn't suffer from jet-lag I thought he does an 'alf sleep a lot.

Before long it was time to head back to land. I'd surprised myself by not freaking out at all up until this point. But I was ready for this change in direction. However switching the sails to turn the boat around brought an unwelcome wake up call for Mark. For while he was okay sleeping on top of his own head leaning into the side of the sofa. As the boat veered to the left suddenly gravity took hold and his legs, poking over the sofa, had nothing but fresh air to rest on as he half slid, half flew through the air coming to a painful crash onto the other side of the cabin.

The sharp turn of events also took me by surprise and for the first time I felt a bit green round the gills. But this was nothing on Mark as he crawled up on deck, nursing a big bruise on his neck and head, his face the colour of a unripe brussel sprout. For about ten minutes or so it was touch and go whether he was going to provide the fish some food. And if not for the fear that the wind would actually turn it back onto the ship rather than away he may have had to forego his lunch.

But he's a brave soul and before long he was able to laugh about the accident and his ability to sleep through crashing waves and unsettled seas. It was, he said, as a result of the early hours he starts work back in Germany as a postman. Whenever he goes away, he continued, for the first three or four days, he sleep loads and always at funny times, sometimes at the drop of the hat. It was then that I started to suspect that Mark doesn't actually know what jet-lag is.

Before long we moored in Carlisle Bay and eagerly went ashore to be greeted with the stereotypical Caribbean beach. Palm trees, white sand, clear water and (if you look closely) David Dickinson reading a book.

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It really did have it all. We went for a walk up and down the beachfront and on the way back decided to stick around for a quick beer. £18 later we decided that this particular stretch of beach probably wasn't designed for the likes of us so we made our way back to the boat and sailed round to our evening destination, English Harbour.

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English Harbour was to be our final night's stop. We spent another delightful evening dining at one of the harbour restaurants. It wasn't cheap but then my uncle picked up the tab so I wasn't complaining. English Harbour was where Lord Nelson was stationed for three years and is the only example of a Georgian Harbour in existence. So we soaked a bit of culture at the museum before heading back out for a final journey on the boat as we were dropped off on Crabbe Island.

Once again Captain Nash proved his sea skills. After boarding two backpacks, several rucksacks, my laptop and recording equipment into the dinghy he managed to get both me and Mark onto dry land without a single item getting wet. LEGEND!!!!!