Visiting the ghosts at Bourda
Guyana - It has become a sporting cliché to claim you can feel the history seeping from the pores of an old arena but if I am going to use it once on this trip it will be on Georgetown’s Bourda ground.
This venerable, timber-built venue just east of the city centre has hosted cricket since 1884, when British Guiana called it home.
Its first Test in 1930 saw Learie Constantine’s nine wickets and a century from George Headley shepherd West India to victory over an England side captained by Hon FS Calthorpe (uncle of Test Match Special's Henry Blofeld).
Calthorpe’s successor Michael Atherton hit a seven-hour 144 in the second Test of 1994, only to see his side beaten by an innings and 44 runs after Brian Lara bettered his total.
Hometown hero Lance Gibbs took a second innings 6-60 in 1960 but could not claim the vital final scalp as Alan Knott’s dogged 73 not out saw England clinch a draw and preserve a 1-0 series lead.
Rohan Kanai, who was born just down the east coast in Berbice, hit 150 in that match and his face peers down in flaking paint from the stand that bears his name.
Georgetown Cricket Club still operates from Bourda, which has been used as a training venue by several teams preparing for World Cup matches at the brand new Guyana National Stadium in Providence, 20 minutes’ drive to the south.
The pavilion at fine leg, where Australian and West Indian players from Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket cowered during a riot in 1977, still opens its bar to members most days.
On Easter Sunday, the place was locked but it meant the cricketing ghosts had the place to themselves before I convinced the solitary gateman this would be my only chance to pay them a visit.
The claustrophobic, wooden, double-decker stands were empty but it was easy to picture them packed to over-flowing with singing, dancing, shouting, drinking, conch-blowing, passionate fans.
I have spent the last fortnight trekking on an almost-daily basis to Providence, where the $30m stadium has been a fine host without demonstrating the soul that has always defined the game in the West Indies.
For reasons that have affected the entire tournament – high ticket prices, restrictive rules on fans, the failure of India and Pakistan and a focus on international visitors among them – the new place has never been full to its 15,000 bursting point.
It has generally gained good reviews for its facilities, although there have been teething troubles such as a lack of shelter from the sun in the stands.
The local fans who used to gather on the grass bank at Bourda will probably be on the new one at Providence to watch either Sri Lanka or Australia play in the ground’s first Test in 2008.
This isn’t like Antigua, where a trip back to the Recreation Ground prompted Mike Selvey of the Guardian to write last week: “I shut my eyes once more, feel the vibes and want to weep.”
Colin Croft, fast bowler from the West Indies golden era who grew up just down the road but only played one of his 27 Tests at his home ground, smiles and says: “It’s progress.
“The places that have done best are Sabina Park in Jamaica, Queens Park Oval in Trinidad and probably Kensington Oval in Barbados, where they have rebuilt the old grounds.
“But I don’t know if they could have expanded Bourda because of where it’s situated.”
The old place is ringed on three sides by a drainage canal and public roads, making it far easier to build a new venue in the flat expanse of cane fields on the edge of town.
Bourda was infamous for falling prey to bad weather. Rain stopped play for two hours during South Africa's game against Ireland in Providence last week. The Bourda outfield was still waterlogged the following morning.
The sort of health and safety officials who police global sporting occasions would have a field day with Bourda’s current stands, just as they would with English soccer grounds that were judged perfectly adequate less than a decade ago.
It has been promised first-class games but financial imperatives may still intervene.
“It’s like a new car – at first everything feels new but eventually it’s just like the old car,” says Croft.
That doesn’t mean that you don’t still pine occasionally for the old jalopy.