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It's the Oval alright, but Kensington or Kennington?

Posted in England in West Indies 2009

Andrew Strauss

Andrew Strauss salutes a supportive crowd at the Kensington Oval on day one

Had it not been for the baking hot weather and the swimming pool on the fine-leg boundary, you could have been forgiven for thinking the Kensington Oval in Barbados was actually the Kennington Oval in London during the fourth Test between West Indies and England.

Around 8,000 England fans have defied the credit crunch and dipped into their hard-earned savings to enjoy a spot of international cricket on this beautiful Caribbean island and they packed out the redeveloped Oval during the first day.

With St George’s flags draped around virtually the entire perimeter of the pitch and regular choruses of booze-fuelled songs in the afternoon, West Indies skipper Chris Gayle was correct with his pre-match assumption that this was like a home game for England.

A substantial travelling English support is nothing new, of course. For years the side has been well backed wherever they go and the Barmy Army is a household name in the world of cricket.

However, Barbados has attracted all types of cricket fans for this game. There is a healthy mix of the 20-something single lads who will be nursing sore heads in the cheap guest houses, the well-organised cricket club tours, the people who are dividing their time between the cricket and the beach, and those who will be sipping champagne on their luxury cruise ship.

While an influx of support had been expected for this game, the intensity of it has surprised most.

If I wasn’t aware of how large the numbers were going to be when I saw an above-average level of sunburnt bodies around the pool at my hotel in the days leading up to the match, then I had definitely grasped it by the time I joined the slowly meandering queue for match tickets two days before the game started, and it was drummed in hard two and a half hours later when I had finally negotiated my way to the front of the queue.

England fans, Barbados

The St George's flags around the boundary betray the allegiance of much of the Kensington Oval crowd

The lengthy ticket queues and the expected sell-out for some days of the Test had also surprised the locals. Taxi drivers were claiming they had never seen queues like it before and The Daily Nation, Barbados’ premier newspaper, ran it as their front page story, given the rarity of large attendances at West Indies Tests in recent years.

During the afternoon and evening sessions on the first day, the atmosphere inside the ground was not what I had envisaged a Test match in the Caribbean to be like. Whilst there was a band playing, walking under the Greenidge and Haynes Stand was similar to walking through the West Stand at Headingley Carnegie: large queues for the beer and the odd scattering of a Buzz Lightyear or Bananaman. The Party Stand was not full of steel bands, horn blowers and dancers. It had a beach, a swimming pool and a volleyball court.

It’s easy to see why the English have flocked here in their thousands. The thought of watching cricket under a hot sun and clear blue skies is instantly appealing and ever since I saw video highlights of Alec Stewart’s match-winning heroics here in 1994, I have wanted to experience watching cricket in Barbados.

During the lengthy stint in the ticket queue I overheard one man say: “If there is one place in the world better to watch cricket than Barbados, I have yet to find it.”

I, and a few other thousand people, feel exactly the same.