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Chip pan fire in Babylon

Thursday, June 19, 2014
London Calling

An hour into a stultifying morning of Test cricket at the Oval, my girlfriend reluctantly puts down her newspaper and squints towards the pitch. Without her glasses on I doubt she can see much.


I suspect it’s the smell of bake and shark coming from the back of the stand that’s caught her attention more than New Zealand’s opening partnership.


“I’m not a big fan of cricket,” she confessed the day before. 


“You don’t have to be,” I said. “Only 50 per cent of the experience is about the cricket itself.” 


“Twenty-five per cent,” she replied. 


I assured her nobody would think any less of her if she departs at the tea interval. Besides, Germany and Portugal in the bar at lunch will break the day up nicely.


She goes to buy brunch and narrowly avoids singeing her eyebrows when the cook tosses a batch of fries into a hot vat of oil and a fireball whooshes into the air.


Food inspectors pass by, apparently unconcerned about the fire regulations. 


“Shouldn’t this garlic sauce be on ice?” they ask the vendor.


“It has no mayonnaise in it,” he says. 


And they wander off, satisfied.


Pot-bellied men go back to their pocket-radio commentary.


This is the level of mundane details that passes for excitement on a slow cricket day. The morning is overcast and the breeze blowing over the houses and gardens of Elizabeth Street into the ground passes delightfully down the backs of our necks. 


I hope it doesn’t rain, like it did, torrentially, the first time I visited the Oval. That ODI was an altogether different experience. There was mayhem in the crammed Trini Posse stand. 


Here, only a handful of supporters have clustered into one stand while the rest of the ground is empty.


The scheduling is odd. It’s a Monday, the World Cup has just started and the rainy season has just begun. But it’s more than that. The Caribbean has bred a generation uninterested in cricket. Football is king. 


It doesn’t help that the Windies are dreadful. Several dropped catches against New Zealand provoke the frustrated fans’ ire further. 


“They pick Gabriel for pace...but you tink he can take a wicket?” “Benn doh spin de ball. He just bounce it.” 


Midway through the afternoon session we return from watching the Portuguese humbled 4–0 in Bahia. 


Tom Latham is still at the crease. I turn to the man behind to ask what he’s on. When I turn back, Latham is immediately caught at gully for 82. 


“You blight de man!” our neighbour cries. 


Perhaps I ought to try a few more harmless stats enquiries.


A man with an entirely expressionless face peers at his copy of the Guardian. He turns to a story I wrote about a Benedictine monk making techno music. 


“Let’s see how much of it he reads!” we giggle, spying on him over his shoulder, but he doesn’t get past a few paragraphs. 


“Oh look, he turned. He got bored,” she says, highly amused.


We ask a policeman to take our picture. He looks happy with his work but when he hands back the camera, we see his photography skills are appalling. 


A cute little Indian toddler is fed curry by her doting parents. A rasta pelts bags of peanuts into the crowd. A customer pelts back a crumpled $5 bill but the wind whips it towards the boundary rope, to the amusement of the spectators. New Zealand’s subs ensconce themselves in a mini marquee in front of the pavilion. A groundsman starts up his motorised roller and rolls away towards the nets. 


Leaves rustle in the elegantly shaped tree beside the electronic scoreboard. A young boy changes the numbers on the old manual scoreboard. Old habits die hard.


“Cold beers! Allyuh take some ting!” is the aggressive marketing strategy of the beer vendor. 


Shadows lengthen on the pitch. Wickets begin to fall and the crowd livens up, desperate to see West Indies bat before the close of play. But my girlfriend has had enough and gets a lift home with her mum. 


With half an hour left Chris Gayle comes in to open. He fiddles with his gloves, leaves a few out-swingers, barely moving his tree-trunk legs. Then, on the 11th ball, his off stump is uprooted and a collective groan goes up.


Back home, my mates are watching Sky Sports 3. The camera zooms in on me shaking my head in disbelief. They post a screenshot online and we laugh from across the Atlantic. It’s a classic example of the global village perpetually connected thousands of miles away. 


Modern times and technology have created shorter attention spans. Now, 20 overs of walloping is enough for most. But not for me. Give me stultifying any day. 


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