A guest post this evening. Annie Chave (@anniechave on Twitter) relates her experiences in the Caribbean.
I’m standing on the ground at the Kensington Oval, Barbados. The First Test Match of the West Indies v England series has just finished. England have been nothing short of destroyed by a Windies side that had previously been seen as the underdog. Everywhere there are players, reporters, presenters and cameras. Roland Butcher walks over to me and mentions the fact that it’s his job to pick the Man of the Match. The obvious choice is Jason Holder, but Roland is discussing it with me. How did I get to this point in time, this glitch in reality? I found myself trying to make sense of my position. Just how had I earned the media pass which I was wearing round my neck? I have no obvious background in reporting, I haven’t played cricket at a high level, I don’t have a well-connected family and I’m not a prize winner. But I’m a good honest fan of the game and, over the last year, I’ve devoted my time and my money to campaigning for the fact that someone like me, yes a woman, but also a scorer and a fan of village cricket, can have a useful and usable knowledge of the first-class game. That, along with a few days experience of broadcasting with Guerilla Cricket, was my vantage point before this Test Match. Now, after the Barbados experience, I can offer a glimpse of an ‘insider’ view of the cricketing fraternity.
Barbados is beautiful. It has beaches to die for, impressive buildings, beautiful countryside, but what it has in abundance, its overriding attraction, is an almost insatiable love of cricket. This could not have been more obvious than at the Kensington Oval. To be sure, much of the local support came from people employed at the ground, with English supporters outnumbering Windies by 75% to 25%, but the whole ground buzzed and sang in a way that exposed the old-school stuffiness and new-school corporate nature of English Test Match grounds. I was lucky enough to be working with one of the West Indian legends of the commentary box, Joseph ‘Reds’ Perreira, who has been commentating on West Indian Tests since 1971. As we arrived at the ground at 8.30 a.m. on the first day, I helped him to the very smart ‘new-look Media Centre’ (paid for by the Windies World Cup win). We threaded our way among the stalls people were setting up for the day, with fresh fruit and various foodstuffs in abundance. It was a slow passage as everyone wanted a piece of Reds. So many selfies and hugs. It was becoming clear quite what an icon this man is. The Media Centre was alive with action. Every radio and TV station has its own box, lined up like cars on a seven-lane motorway, all with windshields facing the same way. Reds and I were working for the local radio station, Line and Length (Starcom Network), run by the immensely popular Barry Wilkinson. It was inside the reality bubble of the Starcom box that David Brooks, myself and Reds introduced the day’s play. Listening to Reds talk it was obvious why he has such legendary status in the Caribbean. He has a wonderful lilting voice and his style is a unique mixture of Tony Cozier and John Arlott. (Both of whom he worked with on numerous occasions).
Reds wasn’t the only icon, though. Donna Symmonds, the first woman to commentate on Test Match Special but who last commentated twelve years ago, was kicking off the with her wonderfully precise ball-by-ball description of play. We also had the quite brilliant Roland Butcher, of Middlesex and (3 Tests) England. A more relaxed and affable star you’re unlikely to find. As the day progressed I found myself in the company of more and more stars of the game. I was beginning to feel a bit like Miles Jupp, the ‘fibber in the heat’ who inveigled his way into the press box during England’s 2006 tour of India. Jonathan Agnew popped in to talk to Donna, Vic Marks took up the commentary, as did Tino Best, in his barely fitting tight shirt. ‘No cricket for me’, he told me, ‘just a beach body now’. Vic and Tino had very different styles, but both were hugely entertaining in their analysis. Johnny Barran, who works for Radio 5 on their county cricket coverage, was brilliantly professional and helpful. For me, though, the first morning was spent in persuading a very chatty Colin Croft to come on to our lunchtime programme and present Reds with a Line and Length lifetime achievement award. This award was the brainchild of David Brooks, who holds Reds in great esteem. Colin and Reds reminisced over the airwaves about the heyday of Windies cricket, and our lunchtime show, like the game, was off to a flyer.
It was on my very first day, media pass on show, that I made my way to the President’s box. In the room full of legends of the game, I’d arranged to meet a West Indian friend who very kindly introduced me to none other than Sir Garfield Sobers. How do you greet a cricketing knight? Bow, curtsey, genuflect? I seized the initiative, grabbed his hand, shook it and said what an immense honour it was to meet such an amazing player of the game. Like the true gentleman that he is, he turned the conversation onto me. Sir Garfield said that he had visited the UK every year for the last forty years, and we chatted about the relative beauty of Devon. It must have been me who turned our conversation to the six sixes at Swansea. It was pure luck, he said, that the match was filmed at all due to another match being cancelled. He was greatly enjoying Shimron Hetmyer’s innings, he said, as he went off to watch its continuation, and I wandered back to my box in a daze, encased in a private dialogue, replaying a conversation that will stay with me for life, along with a photograph of the two of us in conversation.
On the second day England were all out for 77 in their first innings, leaving the Windies very much in the driving seat. The temperature in our Caribbean box started rising; a resurgent Windies were creating heat all across the Media Centre. I took a walk around the ground, and, with my accreditation on display, I was able to interview a selection of both sets of fans. There was a general sense of disbelief in England’s poor batting display, but what was also evident across the whole ground, was a sense that it was great to see the Windies asking questions and proving their critics wrong. The English supporters were partying, but the Windies supporters were partying better and louder.
I headed back to the Media Centre, where the reporters line up at their desks. On the floor below them, coffee and cakes are available, and a few reporters can generally be found, taking refuge in conversation from the demands of the job. Two of my favourites, George Dobell and the enigmatic Jonathan Liew, were there, interacting over a biscuit after meeting their various deadlines. We discussed the condition of County Cricket, and I was delighted to discover that they share my dismay at the ‘looming doom’ of the 100. It would be hard to find two people with more knowledge and ability to predict and dissect the horror ahead. Over coffee and in the lift, I had friendly and relaxed conversations with Steve Harmison, Nasser Hussain, David Lloyd and Michael Atherton – faces and voices we fans are all so familiar with. What surprised me more than anything was how friendly and relaxed everyone was. No prima donnas or dismissive comments. It was jokes and banter against a background of serious engagement with cricket. I was one of the lads. And that brings me on to a point that I find staggering. Apart from Donna Symmonds, I didn’t see any other woman in the Media Centre actually working in the media. I know that’s not always the case, but it was that way in Barbados. This is something that is part of the old-school cricket tradition, and it will change. I feel as if I’ve been lucky enough to be part of that growth, and that makes me feel immensely proud.
Meanwhile, the match progressed at two paces: a massive 18 wickets on day two, followed by a day without a single one. I’ll never forget the pure joy on Holder’s face as he pumped the air when he reached his 200. For day three, we had landed a lunchtime show with Jonathan Agnew. Agnew is a commentator more famous than most of the players these days, and so it was a nervous me that went to disturb him and Test Match Special Producer, Adam Mountford, in The TMS box to discuss timings and features. They were both delightful, and the interview with Aggers, in which we turned the tables on the ultimate interviewer, was entertaining and honest. As I listened to Aggers I felt that my radio at home had somehow provided an out of body experience. It wasn’t that I was starstruck. I was over all that. It was just that his voice had been part of my cricket listening for so long that I couldn’t quite believe that my voice was sharing a space with it.
The following day we were poised. England had begun their second innings positively after the Windies had declared 627 ahead after the fairy-tale partnership between their giant captain Jason Holder and their canny keeper, the elfin Shane Dowrich. It had been a full-on few days of exceptionally exciting cricket, and I’d had to learn several of the ins and outs of radio production in a hurry. It wasn’t surprising, then, that, when Steve Harmison told me that he was hoping for an early finish, I agreed whole-heartedly. My mind had been whirring and I wanted to give it a rest with a day away from the ground that had become my home for the last four days. I didn’t really expect England to fail quite so emphatically again in their second innings. At lunch on the fourth day, we interviewed the highly entertaining Darren Gough. It felt right somehow that Gough was here and talking about his experience with the greats of Windies cricket against the backdrop of such a powerful ‘new Windies’ performance. England lost their way in the second innings, and the match juddered to a halt a day early. England annihilated; Windies resplendent; Steve Harmison and me chuffed to bits.
It was, in fact, after the end of the game that I had my Miles Jupp experience. I’d followed the reporters onto the pitch. There were groups of people dotted around the outfield. Sky had set up their cameras and were interviewing Roston Chase, the improbable eight-wicket hero, and Jason Holder, the benignly triumphant skipper. There was a group of people setting up the presentation area, various members of either side were being interviewed by radio stations and a party of VIPs paraded on with the Barbadian Prime Minister. They were followed by about a dozen reporters, and the dozen reporters were followed by me. I was one of only two women in this particular crowd. The other was Mia Mottley, the first woman to hold the office of Prime Minister of Barbados. Under the circumstances, I had to brazen it out. When Trevor Bayliss was brought out to face the newspaper reporters, I joined in the huddle. Around me, newsmen recorded their questions and his answers on their phones. I was fascinated to watch the English press secretary count the time down and take control of the session. As soon as Bayliss, in his usual clipped manner, had finished, the press secretary made a beeline for the pavilion. The reporters, with me behind them, followed at a pace. Unlike the reporters, I had no idea where I was going, but I was bloody well going there. I found myself in a small room with raked seating for the reporters, so I sat at the back, waiting for someone to come over and tell me to leave. Holder and Chase were brought out to face the press. They were magnanimous about England in their answers and modest about their own performances. Joe Root looked more shell-shocked, but he held his own and managed to put across his main point, that although their performance was disappointing he felt England were good at bouncing back. I was intrigued to be present in the room for the whole performance, and it rounded off my experience at the ground perfectly. I’d witnessed the whole ‘inside cricket event’, right from the very start, with the setting up, the ball-by-ball coverage of the incredible match right through to the analysis and summing up.
As I left the ground there was a sense of jubilation everywhere: an afterglow from the stands, chatter around the food stalls, partying in the rum bars, and the chaos of the crowds and taxis. This had been an overpowering win. It was a piece of history, and I had been there to witness it. But ‘witness’ is too passive, too ‘outside’ a word to do justice to my experience. For this Test Match, I was not just a witness. I was ‘in cricket’.