Saturday, December 16, 2017

Come, meet the people

There used to be a time when cricket was all about white clothes and a red ball. Then 36 years ago—yes, 36—Kerry Packer came along and dressed up the world’s best cricketers in pink and yellow. He put them to play at night, under floodlights and called it World Series Cricket. 

The so-called Packer Revolution was one that proved to be more than a mere fad. On different levels it changed the game permanently, to the point where his “circus” is still playing even though the Australian media tycoon has been dead for eight years now. His cricket at night concept has become an entrenched part of the game. 

Akeal Hosein, the latest son of promise to come forward in Trinidad and Tobago cricket, may never have heard of Kerry Packer, or may know little about the man and his 1970s shakeup of the status quo. But  in a sense, the deceased uncompromising Aussie had set the stage for young Akeal’s breakthrough moment at senior level. For when last Saturday at the Queen’s Park Oval he pushed to mid-on and set off for the single that brought him his first regional first-class century, he was doing it, not under a blazing sun, but bright lights that lit up the dark night. It was an evening to remember for the 20-year-old for sure.

But the first century made in the first-ever West Indies first-class match in T&T to be played under lights was witnessed by barely more than a dozen handful of people.  Pink ball cricket didn’t make an immediate impact. But neither did World Series cricket.

In its first season in 1977-78, the crowds did not flock to the matches, played in non-traditional venues because the Australian board would not grant Packer access to the major grounds.

The circumstances with the T&T vs Leeward Islands game were different however.

“I didn’t realise until a couple days ago it was a day/night match. I actually thought it was a normal day game, so I think a lot of people also may not have realised it was a day/night match,” one gentleman told me as we watched the third evening’s play.

A follower of the game since boyhood, work commitments had given him the chance to be at the Oval, and he took the chance to spend some extra time watching the play. He had further thoughts on why the place was so empty.

“I think it might be a combination of things...advertising, the time and also the standard of the cricket to some extent. Maybe if it was Barbados playing Trinidad, you may have had a bigger crowd...Trinidad playing Jamaica,  I would expect that you should have a bigger crowd.”

As we chatted, I glanced around the KFC/Carib Beer stand where we were sitting, looking at empty blue seats and thinking about my new friend’s observations.

There was nothing I could think of that either West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) or the Trinidad and Tobago Cricket Board (TTCB) had done to sell the new venture to the public. The old Kerry would not have stood for that. 

With his World Series venture, he made his product as attractive as he could to people.  He played at night, introduced the white ball, and provided free parking and  transport for spectators in that first season. However, just as with the Caribbean Super50 staged here in February, the organisers were not innovative in trying to catch the public’s interest. But there are all types of people they could have appealed to. Not everyone attends a sporting event for quite the same reason. So while work had brought my older friend, the two young ladies sitting not far from us had come to “relax we head.” It also helped that they had friends playing. One of them was seeing a cricket match for only the second time.

And then there were Ashrick and Wasim, cricketers who had come to support their fellow cricketers. They had had an early Sunday, rain having washed out their match. It gave them the chance as Ashrick put it, to “support the boys because is more young players now on Trinidad team.”

Ashrick himself has a preference for the Twenty20 action. But he appreciates the value of the longer format.

“As you could see, is more the older heads in the Oval. Yuh might see one or two youths in between. They prefer the faster format of the game, the Twenty20 style...The T20 and the 50-over cricket is the go now, so plenty of the younger players losing interest in the four-day cricket. But I still think the four-day cricket is the real cricket. Batsmen could apply themselves, bat for long.”

Curiously, the younger Wasim was an even bigger four-day fan.

“I prefer it 100 percent,” he told me.

“The four-day cricket is a little more boring, but it is the best format of the game...You can appreciate the true batting of a batsman. In a one-day game now, you go out, swashbuckling innings, all kinda shots, is just entertainment.  But if you really want to enjoy cricket and see the perfection of a batsman, his (Kieran) Powell doing right now,” he reckoned, then the longer game was it.

Powell, the West Indies Test match opener and Leeward Islands captain, had dropped anchor as his side followed on.  There were no shots to impress this night, his sense of responsibility tempering his natural instinct to attack the bowling.

Wasim liked that.

“He playing for his team right now. There have many balls he could put away but right now they trying to save the game.”

My older friend also appreciated the match situation.

“It’s interesting. The other team is trying to survive.  Unfortunately our bowlers don’t  seem to be as penetrative.”

It was getting towards the close of play, and Powell and Jahmar Hamilton had ensured that the Leewards would at least take the game into the final afternoon, but they failed to stay together as leg-spinner Imran Khan broke the partnership via an lbw decision.

The “sleeping” Oval woke up.

“He is ah wicked umpire!” one frustrated oldster declares, jumping to his feet, unhappy that the official had in his opinion, taken so long to give such a decision.

Calypsonian Relator, a long-time Oval dweller, and his boys on the other end of the stand were paying keener attention now. Everyone seemed to know what captain Emrit should do against the new batsman, Tonito Willett.

“They should be crowdin’ dat man, crowdin dat bat...Force the men to play shots!” a friend of the umpire-hater suggested. “A brand new batsman and yuh not putting any pressure on de man!”

Team T&T would later satisfy their critics with the further wicket of Powell himself. 

By then one of the umpire-hater’s crew had left for home, assuring his retiree friends he would be back the following night.

“I ‘ent have nothing to do yuh know.”

To which another of the group responded: “That makes three of us!”

I chuckled silently. These diehards had both spirit and humour. They had the passion which those who run the game in this region seem to lack.

Those WICB gentlemen should come down and meet the people sometime.