The ticket leaf reads, “Teen splash” in bold, with the picture of a smiling teenaged girl decked up as in a beauty pageant. The music that blares from inside the arena deafens your ears, as you navigate through the fire-station road, dotted with old casuarina trees forming figurine shadows on the walls of the Central prison.
There’s the smallest turnstile you will ever see or imagine—nothing but a five-yard-long pathway marked off by two iron bars—leading you to one of grandest of cricket stadiums in the world. The Antigua Recreation Ground, shimmering in multi-coloured arc lights looks uncomfortable in the new garb, certain and resigned that the old costumes will never fit into her again.
Where once was the 22-yard strip — that hallowed piece of land where Sir Viv Richards blasted the then fastest Test hundred, Brian Lara broke Gary Sobers’s record, and then a decade later brought up Test cricket’s first and only quadruple hundred and where several of the West Indies’s pace battery unleashed brain-chilling terror on fearful batsmen — is now a fortnight-long carnival. The ground’s precious history all but buried beneath the poles of the massive stage.
Your eyes wander for the famous double decker stand, there it is still and empty (it was sealed by FIFA), almost protruding to the ground, it’s wooden benches creaking in the gush of wind and the lower tier almost hovering over the boundaries. It’s a dilapidating relic of West Indies’s past glories, which could crumble any time.
Then West Indies cricket has already crumbled. The home dressing is locked, the away dressing room has a musty smell that permeates if it’s left unused. The paint has peeled off the wood-panelled staircases, and across the field the manual scorecard is blank, bereft of names, another symbolic chronicler of West Indies’s rise and fall. The scorer’s room below is now godown for scraps.
Yet, there’s something hauntingly charming about the place, star-lit and surreptitious. You shut your eyes and you can see those ghosts of that magnificent past Viv Richards putting English bowlers to sword, Lara imperiously pulling Chris Lewis to better Sobers, then swarmed by the feverish spectators, and almost a decade later, the prince of Trinidad sweeping Gareth Batty to achieve the 400-run mark. Or Anil Kumble, with bandaged jaw, plugging on a like a tireless matador. You can see the double decker stand gyrating to the tunes of DJ Chickie and Co.
The reverie is broken by a spell of rain and teens scampering for cover. It stops almost instantly, and they are flocking back to the stage, where once the pitch was. The strip, it’s told, no longer exists. “The pitch here was last used for a local game five years ago. After that, the stadium has been used only for football matches, and carnivals,” informs Simon, a policeman, one of the few around who in awe of the ground.
Rec used to host carnivals in its glory days too, but it was cricket that was the real carnival. “There was nothing like cricket. Half of Antigua used to be inside the stadium. It was party. It was carnival. And it went on till late in the night, if we had won the match. The new stadium is too far and lacks character. It has no life. Antiguan cricket too has gone with the Rec,” bemoans Davis, who has been running a bar here for 25 years. The conversation is interrupted by a teen who wants more beer. Davis gives him a scornful look. You retreat to the gates, leaving the stadium at peace with its warm memories.