Cricket, lovely cricket…
Glancing up while sitting in the departure lounge of Grantley Adams Airport in Barbados my heart sank - oh crap! – joining me and a few other passengers in the waiting area was the Australian Cricket team. Nothing personal, all good guys. Some passengers, who were clearly supporters, reacted with muted excitement. But it became painfully obvious to me, the team was joining us on our flight leaving shortly for St Vincent. I smiled an evil grin at the ignorant supporters in the lounge for they were unaware of the fact that the team’s presence on our plane meant only one thing and it wasn’t good… but I will come back to that.
I have been covering cricket in the West Indies for about 15 years now and consider myself a veteran of many a tour through the islands. When I tell friends and colleagues that I am off to the Caribbean for cricket, I am constantly met comments of the, ”wow nice!!” or “man another tough assignment in paradise”, kind. I admit, it sounds pretty good to me too, but I know better… I have been there, got the T-shirt and worn it out.
Most people when they travel down to the Windies for a holiday fly on a major airline, unpack, sit in the sun, drink too much, burn their skin the colour of a ripe tomato, pack their bags, get back on that big jet and go home… no fuss no muss. I and my photo colleagues also board that big jet but remain behind to move from island to island for the next four to eight weeks… well read on…
Now, before I give the impression I am about to regale you with nothing but tales of woe, let me say that covering cricket in the Windies is usually a lot of fun. But I am biased as I love the sport and love covering it. West Indians love their cricket so much that some of the islands often declare a national holiday to allow fans to attend a One-Day International.
The atmosphere can be a carnival-like with loud Caribbean music between overs, especially the catchy favourites like the cricket tune “Rally Round the West Indies” and the various Bob Marley tunes. The fans are emotional and not shy about shouting advice at the West Indies side encouraging them to “lash” the ball and erupting with joy as a well hit shot drives to the boundary or howls of mocking laughter if the opposing side appeals for LBW or their batsman ducks a bouncer.
There is always the unexpected too. Years ago when heavy rain interrupted day three of a test match in Antigua a helicopter was dispatched to hover over the wicket for 20 minutes and to help dry the field, as grounds keepers, literally used sponges to soak up the excess water. During a three-day tour match in St Kitts, play was suspended briefly while a herd of goats slowly grazed their way across the pitch. Unfortunately, nowdays the chances for similar diversions have long gone. All the islands built brand new stadiums prior to hosting the 2007 Cricket World Cup and, therefore, much of the unique character of the old wooden grounds has now faded into the past. Although this time round during one of the matches, a stray dog somehow wandered through the playing area without much fanfare or notice for that matter.
Covering a match is relatively easy. Unlike some ovals I have heard, in other parts of the world, you can go just about anywhere you choose around the boundary and getting your preferred shooting position at dawn is not required. Normally, there are only six or seven photographers at any given match, sometimes fewer, so there is plenty of room.
Of course, Paradise does have an ugly side too as we experienced during a recent match. when local fans, angered by what they belived was the wrongful dismissal of one of the West Indies players, pelted the field with a 20 minute barrage of plastic bottles containing unfinished sticky liquids. Fans decided that the three or four foreign photographers sitting in front of the stand were also to blame and zeroed in on our co-ordinates giving us several minutes of West Indian “shock and awe.” Trying to dodge the incoming plastic carpet bombing while still trying to take pictures only made it worse.
On another occasion in Jamaica some years back when the West Indies was on the verge of losing a Test match to Australia, a fan thoughtfully provided me with a couple of rum punches. Unfortunately his preference was that I should “wear” both drinks as he leaned out of the stand and poured them over me as I concentrated through my lens on the celebrations on the field. Ohhh and yes, for all you punsters the term “sticky wicket” did come to mind as the hot sun quickly dried the mess to my clothing, skin and equipment. Fortunately, these moments are very few and far between.
One of the more difficult parts of covering cricket in the Windies is the heat. Up to eight
hours a day, many times with no shade, in the blazing equatorial sun can be very uncomfortable. Now I know the sport is played mostly in hot countries, so nothing new there, but for a lad from the Great White North - Canada - it takes several days at least to adapt to the environment. A good hat and plenty of sunscreen generously spread over exposed skin, like the basting on a slow-roasting Christmas turkey are obvious musts not to mention what seems like gallons of water consumed hourly.
Another problem under the hot sun is mid-day blahs when the lunch break is long over and tea break is seemingly hours away and play on the pitch is photographically uninspiring, if not outright boring, as batsmen endlessly bat the ball to their feet. On these occasions, I find dozing off can be a serious threat… now com’on no smug smirks out there, cricket or not, weve all been there. As a result of this, I no longer use camera and lens on a tripod. During a very boring afternoon several years back, I drifted into a sleepy haze in the heat and missed a couple of good pictures as I awoke to celebrations that ended beforeI could get my eye to the camera.
The good news…. I was the only international photographer there and, as we all know folks, if nobody else had it, it never happened, right! Since then, I use a monopod only. It’s funny how a camera and a long heavy lens on a stick beginning to slip from your hands can jolt you back into consciousness if a case of Mad dogs and Englishmen hits again in the mid-day sun.
Now, for all you pina colada drinkers and beach goers out there that think this assignment is all palm trees and umbrella drinks… I say, hah! When there are breaks, going to the beach and sitting in the hot sun is farthest from my mind. I just spent several days doing that at the cricket grounds so a little shade or air conditioning indoors is a welcome break and/or change. Another little realized fact is that on three or four of the islands, the beach is nowhere near the hotel where you are staying. It is vital to stay as close to the cricket grounds as possible. Traffic on some of these islands is horrendously crowded on week days, and, in many cases only one narrow road leads to the grounds. In Grenada, we had to descend a steep and treacherous winding little road with other vehicles seemingly doing Formula One speeds and the road jammed from top to bottom. The other day when we stopped in heavy traffic an inattentive driver ploughed into the back of us with the taxi trunk or rather boot full of camera equipment. Good news…. nothing was damaged. A week ago, I had to leave the hotel at 6:15am to take a 15-min cab ride to the airport to make a 9:00am flight. If I left much later, it would have taken at least an hour and probably more to cover the same distance.
And now, flying in the Windies which is the ultimate challenge. It’s a contest of will and patience. Last year during the World Cup, I arrived at Kingston airport in Jamaica to take a skedded flight to Barbados and then connect to Guyana. When I arrived at the counter and handed over my ticket, I was politely told that this flight was now leaving from Montego Bay on the north of the island. I pointed out that the ticket says it leaves from Kingston and got the answer, “yes sir you are correct, but today it leaves from Montego Bay”….case closed. Took me three days to get to Guyana.
There are a couple of airlines that fly jets between the bigger islands but that’s a luxury. Between the cricket islands, there is only one airline and they fly small commuter turboprops that hold about 50 passengers and even less luggage. Not a pleasant thought for a photographer with 400 or 600mm lenses and all the other assorted stuff we need to carry. You are only allowed 50lbs total and, therefore, you’re constantly paying overweight charges with no guarantee your bags will show up at the other end. If your bag is over a certain size, it’s the first to be left behind in the event of overweight or lack of room.
For all you shooters who carry most of your equipment as hand luggage… forget about it. These planes have no room in the overhead lockers so you have to leave it at the foot of the steps to be stored in the hold… which by the way is already full. On a recent flight, a colleague left his carry-on photo gear at the foot of the steps. As per normal, the baggage handler came over, picked it up and walked back to the terminal as the aircraft door closed and props began to turn… no room mate!!
Funny enough, when I first began to cover cricket in the Windies, we were still using film and had to carry a portable darkroom along with a big Cabbage Case, with a clunking but at the time, state of the art T1 and oversized Nikon scanner. I don’t seem to remember having the same problems, but maybe that’s just tendency of people to look back fondly on old times.
And now we are back at the beginning and my opening remarks. Never be happy when the Australian or any cricket team shows up for the same flight in the West Indies. Their bags get priority and yours will be neatly stacked on the tarmac waiting for future flights that day, if there are any. I arrived minus my clothes that time, which I was lucky enough to get six hours later. Days later, I spoke with some of those same excited supporters and they were still without their bags… ahhhh cricket in the Windies, gotta love it!!