Four years ago, Antigua witnessed its worst fire accident, in the most congested colony of lower St John’s. It consumed a dozen lives and changed that of Anthony Martin, a former leg-spinner and a fireman, who was part of the rescue operation.
There was a time when everyday he used to wake up with images of the inferno playing out in his mind, burned limbs, wails for help and yellow flares consuming everything around him. “It kept recurring, sometimes in front of my eyes and sometimes in nightmares. I used to wake up in the middle of the night and see if everything was alright in my house and neighbourhood. I used to take midnight strolls in my neighbourhood to see everything was alright. I would check if the gas was turned off. I would stub every cigarette butt even if it was already stubbed,” Martin says.
It was not even his shift either. “One of my colleagues was on leave and I got a call from my boss. Then at around two in the morning we got this call and jumped in. I actually drive those fire-engine trucks and wouldn’t generally be part of the operation. But it was so bad that I had to help my colleagues out. Being in the service for almost 10-15 years, I knew how to do it. But man, that was bad. I was happy that we could save a few lives but I saw people dying in front of my eyes, fire all over their bodies,” recollects Martin, who joined the fire department when he 19, fresh out of college.
Nonetheless, it gave a new spin to his life. “I used to take everything casually, both my life and cricketing career. I was irregular to work, very relaxed, often found silly excuses to go out with my friends. I was a grown-up man trapped in my teens, until this incident happened. Such incidents are rare in Antigua. Mostly, it’s natural disasters like hurricanes, not a man-made one like this. Maybe, it was fate that I happened to be there at that night,” he says, his eyes blood-shot red, as if mentally he’s revisiting the entire night.
The lackadaisical attitude, he says, had wrecked his cricketing career. He was a promising leg-spinner who took truckloads of wickets in the domestic circuit, naturally blessed because he barely “practised.”
“I was always lazy. I don’t remember bowling more than five overs at a stretch in the nets. I didn’t develop any variations like the flipper or googly because I didn’t have the patience to practise. I would just drop in 10 minutes before the game, crack a few jokes and get going. I seldom used to do warm-ups either,” he says, laughing.
He could get away with those traits in domestic cricket, but not at a higher level. Rules, regimens, curfews, his was an unbridled spirit not used to such restrictions. Then were his quirky manners — he wore the cap in upturned Yankee style, once he wore cargoes to a practice session, played a lot of soca music in the dressing room, and pranks with his teammates. Life, in the prime of his youth, was a celebration. “Some people didn’t like it. Some though I was taking life too simply. One coach bluntly told me that I didn’t quite have the drive to be an international cricketer.”
But unnerved, Martin went about his business in his usual merry way on and off the ground. On a hot afternoon in his home ground in North Sound (2011), he had Virat Kohli, then a young tyro stumped, luring him into an expansive drive, before taking out Rohit Sharma, Suresh Raina, fresh from his World Cup exploits, and Ishant Sharma. “I clearly remember setting up Virat Kohli, giving him full balls to drive and then pulling the length back a bit and bowling wider. Now I can tell my grandchildren that I got the wicket of India’s greatest batsman.” West Indies went on to inflict a 103-run defeat and Martin was adjudged man of the match, the cheque received from his hero Viv Richards.
But those happy days were shortlived, as he added four more games to his ledger, the last against India in December that year, when he dismissed Kohli again, inducing a mishit to long-on. But that was to be his last in the maroon stripes of West Indies. Despite 11 wickets from nine games at an average of 26 and an economy rate of four, he was dumped for reasons he hasn’t yet figured out.
“I don’t know, and now I don’t care to know. There were times when I searched for answers, but not any longer. It was maybe because I didn’t practise. I should have shown more fire maybe,” he says, laughing.
Martin continued playing domestic cricket for four more years, but soon after the fire accident, retired. “Not because of any trauma, but because I thought I should focus more on saving people’s lives. That I should be more serious about my life and family. That I should be the first person to reach the site of a fire emergency,” he says.
Since the accident, he says, he’s the first man to put his hand up in emergencies, especially when there’s a hurricane warning. One of them swept through Barbuda, the twin island, and Martin was at the forefront of operations. “Now it thrills me to save lives more than it used to when getting wickets. I get more satisfaction from it,” he says, matter-of-factly. It’s also a retort to those that have accused him of not showing enough fire in his playing days. “No one should accuse me of showing no fire in my job.”