At 11.43am Eastern Caribbean Time on April 11, 2004, Brian Lara swept Gareth Batty towards fine leg, towards the Antigua Recreation Ground’s scoreboard, and caused the number next to his name to change from 399 to 400.
At 11.43pm, or thereabouts, on July 25, 2016, there are no names on the scoreboard, only vacant rectangular slots next to the batting positions, through which shines the feeble yellow-green light of streetlamps filtered through leaves. The scoreboard looms over the unlit side of the ground. The other side, separated by barricades covered with sponsor logos, is all light and noise and teenage hopes and aspirations.
It’s Carnival time in Antigua and Barbuda, and tonight’s main event is Teen Splash, a talent pageant for boys and girls from schools all around the country.
The turf that Lara bent to kiss is somewhere under a platform flanked by video screens. On the platform, and near-simultaneously on the screen, contestants have been singing, dancing and performing spoken-word poetry for about two hours.
Not long before he got to 400, Lara had danced down the pitch and launched Batty into the Sir Vivian Richards pavilion to go from 374 to 380, going past 375 along the way. The numbers need no explanation. Now, just below the pavilion – flanked to the right by a packed Andy Roberts Stand – is a carousel, its riders rotating and revolving simultaneously around a central pole with rows of unlit bulbs on it, planets orbiting a heatless, lightless sun.
The words “cricket fan” are enough to convince a security guard to allow us into the visitors’ dressing room (the home one is shut). It should feel like a sacred place, a sanctum sanctorum, but it doesn’t. Lockers, a few worse-for-wear chairs; this could be a gymnasium locker room from a sitcom set in a high school. Of all the bits and pieces of this old, great ground, this place exerts the feeblest psycho-geographic pull. This away dressing room contains no ghosts of cricket past: no traces of blood from Anil Kumble’s jaw, no teardrops shed by all the bowlers ground into the dust by Lara, pummeled by Viv, defeated by the world’s flattest pitch.
The strongest echoes of the past, strangely, though perhaps not, are to be found in the parts of the ground that have fallen into disuse, in the faded lettering of the scoreboard, the rusted, falling-apart staircase at the back of the double-decker stand, its entrance boarded up.
This is no longer Antigua’s premier cricket venue. The new, modern stadium, clearly a stadium and not a ground, occupies, like so many new, modern stadiums around the world do, a patch of land that is, between matches, nowhere in particular. An in-between place that residents of Seatons or Willikies might drive past on their way into town. A place that isn’t far from anywhere – Antigua is a tiny, tiny island – but feels like it; a place that makes you wonder if it’s worth going all the way to watch a weak, meek West Indies side crumble without complaint against a good but by no means world-beating India.
The Antigua Recreation Ground, the ARG, or the “Rec”, is different. It is packed now mostly by teenagers who make you feel old, and who may or may not be into cricket. It feels like a Test match here might draw healthy crowds as well, though perhaps not be as large or as young. You can imagine fans debating a player’s merits at the concession stalls behind the double-decker stand, leaving wet circles on the tables with the bases of their Wadadli bottles. You step out of the gates and you’re in the heart of town, right next to an arch welcoming you to St John’s.
There are food stalls all around you, and lanes pulsing with life lead in all directions. It may not look like this on non-Carnival nights, but unlike at the new stadium, you will never step into desolation two hours after close of play, wondering how you’ll ever find a cab home, with a spectacular purple sunset unfolding uselessly around you.
The festivities continue well past midnight, and as the Rec becomes a speck behind you, the pageant continues on the radio. It is time for the question-answer round, and the contestants, most of them only 16 or 17, are asked their views about everything from global warming to abortion. Some questions are more innocuous, such as the one posed to delegate number 17: “Do texting applications like WhatsApp ruin the ability of teens to construct proper sentences?”
You pass the new stadium just as he begins his answer. The Test match is over. Nothing to see here, gents. The Wadadli inside you, the English Harbour, the hot dogs and the sticks of satay, begin to take effect and you drowse in the passenger seat. Good night, Antigua, and sweet dreams. Of prancing left-handed magicians launching sixes into dancing double-decker stands.