Musings from St Kitts

There are destinations on the cricket circuit visited so often that changes become imperceptible. Like the members of your immediate family you see places like Cape Town, Sydney, Barbados- jealous yet?- so frequently that you cannot see the differences over time; the memories of each tour merge into one, and one’s self-image is constant, never changing.

Occasionally, though, we return somewhere that we haven’t been to for an age and so the contrast, in oneself and the surrounds, is inescapable and a period of deep introspection inevitable. Where did all the years go? St Kitts is one such, it being fifteen years since I last came to these shores when I was, as Andrew Strauss is now, on my first tour as England captain.

St Kitts was a sugar island then, rather than the tourist destination it is now. The cane fields have largely disappeared and where there was scrub before, a huge, garish Marriott hotel stands, serving waffles and fry ups. But with this ‘progress’ has come violence, and now St Kitts has one of the highest murder rates in the world, 23 last year alone out of a population of just 46,000. There is a sullen, anxious edginess that I don’t remember previously.

To combat it, and terrified by the kind of bad publicity that accompanied the murdered British couple in Antigua last summer, the government has reintroduced the death penalty. In December a hanging took place at the prison opposite the cricket ground: ‘Old hanging ground/ still playing field’ as the great West Indian poet Martin Carter wrote of a different place. Simeon Govia, a massage therapist by day, was the hangman and he was paid £1800 for his services, a tidy sum. He had never done it before, but said that it seemed to go alright.

If St Kitts has lost a little of its soul, then the same has been said of West Indian cricket, even though to talk of its decline has become something of a cliché. But watching three trundling medium-pacers over the last three days struggling to get the ball stump high, never mind head high, was to yearn for what batsmen used to call a ‘tear-arse’: a bowler of not great quality, necessarily, but quick and who ran in with the sole intent to frighten. Every island had a handful and it was the essence of cricket here.

In our warm up matches in 1994, we faced three such: ‘Hungry’ Walsh, who terrorised batsmen for years in the Leicestershire leagues as well as Antigua, Randy Challenger and the bogeyman, the unforgettable John ‘the dentist’ Maynard. No, he wasn’t a dentist in his spare time, but he did like knocking batsmen’s teeth out.

‘If you can’t get them out, you gotta hurt them ‘til they get out,’ said the dentist once, echoing the creed of a generation of West Indian quicks. ‘I think I’ve pretty much broken every part of the body so far, from the teeth, to the jaw, to the nose, to the ribs to the arms and the toes. I never worry about hurting them at the time.’ Batting in the Caribbean was always a test of courage.

And the England team, how has that changed in the intervening years? What strikes me now, watching Mark Garraway, the team analyst, carefully compiling his data on the opposition players in the press box throughout the last three days, is how much more professional things have become in such a short space of time, the team’s every whim and need catered for. The money’s better, too.

England’s backroom staff this week consists of Hugh Morris (managing director), Phil Neale (operations manager), Andy Flower (assistant coach), Otis Gibson (bowling coach), Richard Halsall (fielding coach), Mushtaq Ahmed (spin bowling coach), Kirk Russell (physiotherapist), Mike Stone (doctor), Sam Bradley (physiologist), Mark Saxby (massage therapist only, doesn’t do hangings), Reg Dikason (security manager), Andrew Walpole (media manager), and Garraway. Phew.

In 1994, we had a scorer, a coach, a physio and a manager, the magnificently laid back former England captain MJK Smith, who was to administrative efficiency what George W Bush is to lucidity. Midway through the tour we had run out of medical supplies (I told you they had quick bowlers then) and the only solution was for me to ring a mate who happened to be coming out to watch the Tests and who was a doctor. He brought a suitcase stuffed with Voltarol, bandages and the like and was reimbursed by MJK in Grenada with a cheque from Lord’s. It bounced.

Grenada was a low point of a tour which plumbed a few depths (46 all out in Trinidad, if you recall). As we were sliding to defeat there, MJK could be seen frantically trying to ring Graham Thorpe, who was back at the team hotel feeling a little the worse for wear. MJK, though, had forgotten his tour booklet and couldn’t remember where we were staying, and spent most of the afternoon ringing Grenadian hotels at random, trying to find Thorpe: ‘T….H…yes that’s right…H…O…R…P..no P not T!…..’. By the time he was located, the game was as good as lost.

That’s another thing that has changed in the last fifteen years. England teams used to come here with fear and trepidation and little expectation. But the Wisden Trophy has been in England’s keep since the turn of the millennium and they do not expect to give it back now. ends.

PART II:

Observing Alastair Cook’s elevation to FEC (Future England Captain) status this week, after his promotion to the vice-captaincy, reminded me of my own appointment as Graham Gooch’s deputy back in 1991. I was 23 years old, had played just 13 Tests and 9 one-day internationals, and the timing and manner of my appointment left me far more bewildered than Cook, who has taken things nicely in his stride.

The occasion was a one-day international at Lord’s against the West Indies. The subject of the vice-captaincy hadn’t really been a topic for discussion, but there was some general confusion at the time as to who would take over if Gooch got injured. Just as David Lawrence was about to bowl the first ball of the game, to a packed house, Gooch halted proceedings, wandered over from mid-off to slip, where I was fielding, and shook me by the hand.

As he tuned to go he said, in that peculiar high-pitched voice of his, ‘congratulations, son, you’re the new vice-captain.’ And that was it; no warning, no embellishment. I spent the next fifty overs wondering if he’d got the right bloke.ends.

PART III

As the perfect example of the distorting power of alcohol, I commend to all Times’ readers Andrew Symonds’ belting radio interview with those nice chaps HG and Roy on Triple M radio in Sydney, which can be found on www.triplem.com.au. It’s a beauty. Given more and more rope with which to hang himself Symonds did precisely that when it came to the topic of Brendan McCullum’s debut for New South Wales in Australia’s domestic T20 competition.

Clearly the worse for wear, Symonds described McCullum as a ‘lump of sh**, sorry a lump of cow dirt.’ Sobriety the morning after brought a different perspective. In a grovelling apology he said he hoped his comments in no way retracted from the respect and admiration he has for McCullum on and off the field.

The problem with Symonds- and it is a problem seen rather frequently- is that when he is drunk he comes over as what John Thicknesse, the late correspondent of the London Evening Standard, called ‘only a fairly nice chap,’ a euphemism for just about the biggest shit, sorry piece of cow dirt that Thicknesse could possibly imagine.ends.