BESIDE A stall underneath the North stands of the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium, swivelling on an overlarge barstool, Gravy is solemnly sipping his beer, his back turned to the presentation ceremony that was unfolding in the background.
Gravy, the maverick entertainer at the REC, no longer cross-dresses, or plays to the crowd with his crazy flips and somersaults. He does’t don the tattered brown hat of his, which he says he has gifted to an Indian fan, or spin the miniature globe either. He “officially” retired in 2000 in full wedding gown, “never to return to the cricket ground ever”.
But Gravy can’t help returning to the cricket ground. “The lure of the cricket is like the Wadadli (local brew), once you taste it, you can never stop it. It’s addictive,” he mutters, so softly that you wonder whether you’d bumped into the wrong person. “I’m an old man now, more than seventy. You see my frail body and I was shot once. My energy is gone. I’ve no regrets. In those days, we’ve done the best,” he says with a choke in his voice, taking another hard swig of the beer.
The “we” refers to Gravy and his faithful cronies, DJ Chickie Baptiste, that famous classmate of Viv Richards, who claims to have caused the only traffic block in the orderly streets of Antigua ever when he flouted all rules to watch his buddy complete the then fastest ever Test hundred, and Mayfield, Gravy’s alter-ego of sorts, always dressed in a green frock coat, yellow trousers and frogman’s flippers, who passed away last year.
“All that’s gone, like the West Indies cricket. There were no one like them (Caribbean cricketers of the 80s) and there were none like us. People came to see them play, and they also came to see us do the tricks,” his wistfully says, his wandering eyes meeting nothing but the vacant stares of the seats in blue and red, arranged like the Antiguan flag.
His voice chokes again, as if he’s strangled by the emptiness of the soulless arena. “Back then, at the REC, whether we lost or not, you couldn’t find a single empty seat. We were always full, full to the brim. We were always swaying. dancing, shouting and singing. Not even a hurricane could pass through us, it was a carnival. I miss it every single day of his life, “ he admits.
That was the lifeblood of Caribbean cricket. Or rather the identity, for the Caribbean crowd was as distinct as any in the cricketing globe.
It has always been an occasion, a day out, far more than what’s happening on the field of play. That was also, among various other reasons, Caribbean cricket, cricketers and fans endeared to non-Caribbean cricket watchers. To quote the title of CLR James’s cricketing classic, in the literal sense, it has always extended beyond a boundary. In Antigua Caribbean cricket has clearly lost this essence. “It’s now the game of old people here. No one wants to come,” he says.
It was manifestly evident throughout the Test. Forget packed stands and eccentric entertainers, there were only a handful who would have bought tickets (priced at just 5 East Caribbean dollars) to be at the stadium.
There were clearly more policemen, ground staff and media contingent. On the opening day, you wondered whether there were more cars in the parking lot than spectators in the stadium.
There was no clattering of the tin cans, bottles, drums and trumpets that used to provide the intimidating background score to to the run-ups of Roberts, Holding, Marshall, Ambrose and co. It’s not just the remoteness of the stadium, but an utter lack of connect among the younger generation. “It will be like that for a while, until we reemerge. It’s a cycle. For long we were at the top. Now we are at the bottom. It’s the way of the world, everything that goes up has to come down. I don’t think we will come up again,” laments Gravy, the word reemerge uttered with sarcasm.
The comeuppance of the Caribbean force in Test cricket seems a distant reality. Their administration is in shambles and the cricketers seem a confused, distracted lot, too naive to the rigours of white-flannelled cricket. “There’s No fire in them,” says Gravy. Most of their fervent supporters, a minuscule lot like Gravy, have resigned to the shambolic existence of Caribbean cricket.
Some are still frustrated. Like a man who was relentlessly shouting at the West Indies support staff from the South West stands near the pavilion, after the match.
“Yeah physio, it’s to you physio. Don’t make’em run now (players), make’em run before the match, 100 times around the ground,” he yelps. His rage is then directed at coach Phil Simmons. “Hey coach, show me you can do two push ups now, I’ll get you a crate of beer,” he goes on. Selectors are next in his firing line: “Tell me guys, where’s Chris? Where’s Darren? You think these guys ain’t good? You’re smokin’ some serious stuff.”
Simmons, sitting next to the sight screen, listening to all these but numb to respond, is glumly gazing at the presentation ceremony, pondering maybe at his own helplessness in turning their tide around in Tests.
Up there in the grass banks, the DJ was playing the irresistible Champion song, when Indian skipper Virat Kohli walked onto the ceremony to pocket the winners’ cheque. Simmons wouldn’t have missed the glorious irony of it.
Gravy, meanwhile, promises to come back on the inconsequential fifth day as well. “I want to see and feel the stadium all alone. I just close my eyes and I can see all the cricket I have seen in my life,” he says.
Gravy is straight out of any Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. So magical. So real. And the last of his kind in Caribbean cricket.