Kensington Oval, Port of Spain, Trinidad, February 1994. West Indies v. England. After lasting maybe twenty minutes in the prime seats largely occupied by those, like us, who’ve come from Britain we – my two white friends and I – have decamped to a locals’stand. Here, the Nutsman, his natties packed under a striped top hat and over his shoulder a body-long canvas bag, stuffed with every known nut in the world, is moving among us, slinging his wares around, and pitching with ditties in his Trini lilt: ‘Nuts, Nuts! How many? Is it any?’ …’You grow big on nuts and honey/ All that’s missing is your money….’ ‘Nuts! Special Lara nuts, special Lara rates…’Each over’s end is punctuated by blasts of soca and reggae from the many sound systems in the ground, and the sight of an old,cross-dressed man, a much-loved ‘Mistress of Misrule’, gyrating his double-jointed triple-skirted self. All of the island’s worlds seem represented across the packed ground, from the middle-classes to young ragamuffins, from those who have no especial love for the game but are patriots still, to the connoisseurs, hunched silently over their scorecards, or else swopping judgements like lords of the earth.
There is rum and beer and any amount of addictive dice-and-counters –games to be played during the breaks. My England-supporting spars exchange much banter with our new friends and, as paceman Curtly Ambrose’s wickets helps to scuttle England for 46, the nuts are magically transformed to ‘Ambrose nuts’. On the final day, an excited buzz goes round as three of the island’s most celebrated calypsonians appear below us, guitars in hand, ready to serenade the expected home victory. And as we join the hundreds behind them surging to the pavilion, all three of us are beaming, so happy to have seen what we’ve seen, to have sampled our favourite thing in such an environment. “Boy!” one of my friends turned to me, mindful of all the talk there had been about the decline in interest in cricket in the Caribbean, “it would be nice to have a decline like this back home!”
Back home, of course, music was banned. Faced with increasingly vocal supporters of Pakistan and the West Indies, who blew horns , whistles and banged drums at their teams’ triumphs, the English cricketing authorities had responded by banning these instruments from its grounds, treating its latest chance to broaden its appeal with the scorn and the blinkered vision I had come to expect.
If Britain’s post-war history is a story of the management of the decline of a once world power, then there is no more dramatic case study than that of English cricket. Attendances at the first-class game have slumped from 2.3 million in 1946 to a tenth of that now, whilst the briefest stroll through this country’s streets and parks will tell you of the almost complete eviction of the game from the social fabric….