“It’s like someone just turned off the volume at the Oval.” Anil Balliram knows a thing or two about playing and watching cricket at the Queen’s Park Oval. He opened the batting for Trinidad & Tobago for half-a-dozen years in the 1990s, playing alongside the likes of Mervyn Dillon and Dinanath Ramnarine. And he’s spent an entire lifetime soaking in the carnival-like atmosphere at what the locals refer to as simply the “O-vvval”.
And Balliram isn’t exaggerating either when he talks about the silence that greeted him on Friday.
Balliram and his family, wife Reshma and two sons, turned up here around 9.30 am and were taken aback by a number of factors. For starters, the match was already underway. They were in fact half-an-hour late. Their tickets had after all mentioned the starting time as 9.30 am. It’s like even those printing the tickets didn’t expect anyone to show up at the ground as early as 9 in Trinidad.
But honestly, those in charge of printing the tickets aren’t to be blamed for the time discrepancy. ODIs have historically commenced at 9.30 am. And the advancement in times is totally to do with the convenience of the viewers back in India so that they don’t have to stay up too late to watch the entire match.
Tony Doon, who’s been watching cricket here for nearly 30 years, shakes his head when he hears the explanation for the earlier start.
“So basically they want Indian fans to sleep more and want us to sleep less and wake up earlier. How does that work? Isn’t this supposed to be a home series for us and not them?” a peeved Doon says. By the time Doon and his friends walked in though, the Ballirams were already there and settled in at the Cyril Duprey Stand, which is generally one of the first areas to get filled up, on the opposite end of the pavilion.
The rest of the stadium too carried a deserted look, even the most popular areas. The Scotiabank Stand was bare without a soul in there. And the Trini Posse Stand, which generally is the closest you’ll see a Mardi Gras vibe at a cricket ground most astonishingly, was inhabited by four Indian fans and a solitary Indian flag and not a sound. There was no calypso, chutney or soca playing from the PA system during the over-breaks either.
It did actually feel like someone had accidentally switched on the mute button at the Oval, and while at it also locked the gates outside. For, except the 40-odd, including the Ballirams scattered around in the bucket-seats that occupy the many three-storey stands at the Oval, nobody seemed to be showing up.
To the extent that an American flag made a conspicuous appearance at the expense of the red Trini flags that generally are the ones you see being waved around copiously.
Both Doon and Balliram though admit that the change of timings is not the sole reason for the drastic dwindling of audiences for ODIs across the Caribbean. Recent results, especially against Afghanistan, have only turned more cricket fans in the islands away and like Doon puts it, the only reason people would even turn up here would be to see the Indian stars.
“The interest has dwindled over time. In the days gone by you could say the crowds will come in later because the West Indies would be batting second. But who’d want to come and watch this West Indies team bat? So don’t expect people to come in later,” says Doon.
“What’s worse is most of the people you see here are on free tickets. And there are others who have those too. But nobody cares anymore about West Indies playing ODI cricket,” he adds.
“What’s the difference between a coconut and a Trini? At least you can get a drink out of a coconut.” It’s a rude yet common joke you hear about Trinis, considering they’re hailed as being the stingiest among people in the Caribbean Isle. But of late their economy is struggling too. The USD is now up to 7 Trini dollars for the first time in decades. Jobs are becoming harder to hold on to and locals admit that the streets aren’t as safe as they used to be till a few years ago.
Shutting down of stalls
Another reason for fans to stay away is the shutting down of pretty much all the beverage and food stalls, which used to be a major feature of cricket in Trinidad.
Except the one little shop behind the Trini Posse stand which sells beer at heightened prices, fans are forced to exit the stadium and head to the Roti shops on Tragerete Road when they’re hungry.
“It’s not profitable anymore to have these stalls as often we end up having near-empty stadiums. It’s only during the CPL that things start spicing up,” says the vendor at the solitary stall.
There are more practical reasons for crowds avoiding the Oval on Friday. Since Monday was a holiday for Labour Day and very few turned up for work on Tuesday owing to the hurricane, taking Friday off wasn’t an option for many.
The kids are away as it’s exam season in most schools around the island. And with heavy rain forecast over the weekend, not many are expecting Sunday to be any different in terms of crowd turn-out or the Oval finding its once-boisterous voice again.
“If the West Indies even get over 200 against what will certainly be a 300+ total by India, then you might see some interest among the locals to show up on Sunday. If they get humbled, then expect more of the same,” says Balliram.