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‘It brings West Indians together’: London locals enliven Test warm-up
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‘It brings West Indians together’: London locals enliven Test warm-up

A cover drive from West Indies’ Alick Athanaze pierces the gap between the boundary boards and a young boy fields the ball just behind them. He throws it back to the field, and his friends surround him with hugs and cheers as if he’s just taken a match-winning catch. There may not have been a lot of sunshine at Beckenham County Cricket Ground, but there was plenty of warmth.

West Indies’ first and only warm- up match of their England tour attracted a delighted crowd, and their batters certainly seemed to enjoy the atmosphere, posting 339 against a First Class Counties Select XI, who reached the close 15 without loss in reply. In these days of strangulated scheduling, this three-day game represents vital batting practice for the tourists before the opening Test against England at Lord’s next Wednesday.

While the captain, Kraigg Brathwaite, missed out – he lasted just eight balls before edging Josh Turner behind for four – there were runs for Athanaze, Kirk McKenzie, and a century for Kavem Hodge who scored 112 off 128 balls before top-edging a short ball from John Turner.

Mikyle Louis, meanwhile, may well have played his way into the vacant opening spot opposite Brathwaite thanks to a half-century off 63 balls. It included 16 off one of Josh Hull’s overs – a four and two sixes – and if Louis does make his debut at Lord’s the 23-year-old will be the first Test player to come from St Kitts.

But there was more value in this game than the chance to adjust to English conditions. It was also a well-planned opportunity to re- engage traditionally cricket-loving Caribbean communities in south-east London. Asher Roberts came to his post as development officer at Kent after coaching Catford and Cyphers CC and has been planning this Rally Round the West Indies event for the past six months. “Everything right now shows that there is a demand for cricket in the south-east, and London itself,” he says.

The view from the foldout chairs on the boundary suggested he was right. There were 800 tickets sold on the first day, and after some chilly winds and sporadic showers, the stands and coffee truck queues began to fill out in turn. The sound of a lone air horn greeted an imperious pull from Athanaze as he brought up his 50 off 68 balls (he was eventually out for 74, top-edging a sweep). By the time Hodge danced down the pitch to hit the off-spinner Farhan Ahmed for six to bring up his century, the air horn had been joined by whistles, cheers and a noisy bonhomie.

Near the pavilion Glenroy and Fitzroy genned up on the tourists for their cricket WhatsApp group. “We know the T20 players but not many of these ones,” said Glenroy. “Conditions are going to be against them in England. But then, they went against them in Australia and they still came away with a draw …”

Alzarri Joseph signs autographs before day one of West Indies’ match in BeckenhamView image in fullscreen

Fitzroy was impressed by McKenzie, who has only played three Tests as West Indies’ No 3. Dropped at short leg on 62, he responded by swinging a six to the sightscreen and cover driving the next delivery.

In the stands, Mercia Campbell watched with her grownup children as Athanaze and Hodge put on a partnership of 138 for the fifth wicket. Ignoring cricket was never a choice in their south London home – the fanatical Mercia has flown over from Ireland especially for this game – and her daughter Caitlin still believes it holds a special place among the Caribbean diaspora.

“It brings West Indians together outside of the homeland,” said Caitlin. “There’s such a community and passion for it, everyone talks to each other.” While her brother Joseph frets about the death of Test cricket, Caitlin thinks the franchise atmosphere can help reconnect the game with Caribbean roots. “I’ve been to a couple of games and it’s just insane, it’s like the most amazing party ever. Someone like Chris Gayle is such a huge star, just not outside of cricket. We need that here. Make cricket sexy again!”

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The former Jamaica player Simon Jackson, who has been coaching in this part of England for the past eight years, said he sees a positive shift in engagement with the game. “There’s a bit of a buzz now around cricket and getting it back into the community, with initiatives like the ACE programme charity and the stuff that Asher and others are doing. And having a strong West Indies team over here won’t hurt that – if it continues to be a good summer, I think it can grow bigger and stronger.”

The Beckenham ground, which missed out on the chance to be a Tier One venue in the women’s game, remains a place of great possibility – a place that could emerge as a vital hub for cricket in a high-density catchment area Kent is keen to realise.

On Thursday, 600 primary schoolchildren will be in the crowd and more than a thousand tickets have already been sold for the final day of the match, when the entertainment will include steel bands and a dance group.

Joseph Campbell, meanwhile, is just pleased to be watching his team in his home town. “I still can’t quite believe that West Indies are playing in Beckenham,” he says. “I suppose if I can’t go to West Indies, West Indies will come to me.”

Source: theguardian.com