Cricket sceptic Ben Isaacs is converted at ‘the biggest party in sport’
I have a confession (and 10cc won’t be happy). I don’t love cricket, I like it. My dad put me in front of Test matches at a young age, but nothing could keep me interested. The first time I found it compelling was (aged 15) during the 1993 domestic season when my local county team Glamorgan won what was then called the Sunday League. They were scheduled to play at leaders Kent on the final day in a winner-takes-all limited-overs clash. Led by West Indies legend Viv Richards, Glamorgan put on a display of attacking play that finally made me realise the sport could be dynamic and thrilling.
But nothing could prepare me for what I’m now witnessing. I’m on the east side of St Kitts’ Warner Park, the only section with no seats. There are vendors selling chicken, beer, rum and T-shirts. And there are lots of fans: families having picnics, cheerleaders and people manically waving flags. Then I spot two men arguing. A policeman strolls toward them. I follow. He listens to their cases, and produces a smartphone. He finds ESPN Cricinfo and shows them the screen. “I told you!” says the man on the left. “It was done in three Tests!” The other man shakes his head in resignation and the policeman roars with laughter. Welcome to the Caribbean Premier League.
The competition is in its third season and stands alongside the ECB’s T20 Blast, Australia’s Big Bash League and the lucrative Indian Premier League as the foremost showcases for Twenty20 cricket. For cricket refuseniks, T20 launched in 2003 and is a condensed version of the game. Each team gets 20 overs and there are fielding restrictions to help batsmen rack up high scores. As such, it’s perfect for risk-takers and big-hitters. Unlike the T20 Blast, but in line with Big Bash and IPL, the CPL operates a franchise system across its six teams, with half already under private ownership. There is a salary cap of $350,000 per team for the five weeks, with a rigid structure ($150,000 for local ‘franchise’ players, down to $5,000 for the younger guys). Teams play home and away, plus ‘neutral’ games so fans on each island get to see every team. Because T20 competitions don’t always cross over in the calendar, players can play in numerous leagues through the year.
Fun over money
Financially the league can’t compete with the IPL (its salary cap is just over $10m), but other things attract top overseas and West Indies stars. “I’ve been asked where my favourite place is to play cricket, and this is it,” Kevin Pietersen tells ShortList after team training with the St Lucia Zouks, “because you don’t see the newspapers. When you finish training you swim in the sea or chill on the beach, and you can get away with things here. I’ve been parasailing, on jet-skis, out on boats, drinking rum, having a fun time with the boys.” This would explain why West Indies Test captain and Guyana Amazon Warriors wicket-keeper Denesh Ramdin tells us it’s “the most fun competition in cricket”, and Pakistan star Shoaib Malik says turning out for the Barbados Tridents gives him “a special buzz”.
The teams all stay in the same resort, so can mix and enjoy themselves. And, because I’ve wangled my way in, too, I get to observe it. I’ve never seen such relaxed sportsmen. They grab beers with fans, flirt with women, eat ice creams and – in the case of St Lucia’s Darren Sammy late one night in the hotel casino – ask people what time his team’s match is the next day at Warner Park.
It’s hard to talk about this stadium without mentioning the gents’ bathroom (bear with me). The ground is a picturesque, 8,000-capacity venue, revamped for the 2007 Cricket World Cup, but lacks the heritage of, say, Sabina Park in Jamaica, or Queen’s Park Oval in Trinidad. But those grounds can’t match the view from Warner Park’s press box loo; its wide windows on to the pitch make it one of the best ‘seats’ in the house.
“When I was growing up, the West Indies bowlers tried to bowl as fast as they could and batsmen just wanted to play shots; unorthodox Caribbean drives,” says former England bowler and current CPL commentator Darren Gough. “This tournament has brought that fun back to West Indian cricket. It’s a totally different atmosphere from what you’d find in England. If you go in the hotel casino most nights you’ll see players from every team, plus media and the crew. It’s party-focused, but once the cricket’s on they get very serious. There are rivalries and tension between certain players.”
The CPL bills itself as ‘the biggest party in sport’, and its Caribbean flair is a big part of its appeal. It could be to cricket what the Premier League is to football: the most accessible competition for international audiences. And sights are set on two countries to the north of the Caribbean. “They’ve been to look at a stadium in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Canada,” says Gough. “If it took off there you could be looking at crowds of 50-60,000. You’ve got to take the right brand.”
Pietersen describes the US plan as “a no-brainer”, and Sir Viv Richards agrees: “Some Americans have said to me, ‘Wow, cricket seems to be a boring game,’ but just look at baseball,” he tells me, after reminiscing about his 1993 season at Glamorgan that set this global revolution in motion. “Take it to the US or Canada where there’s a wide range of Caribbean folks who would love to see it, not to mention expats from the UK, India and Pakistan.”
The players might get their wish. “We’ve been looking at playing games in the US and Canada for a few years. If it’s a success then we’d want two teams in North America to join the six in the Caribbean,” reveals Damien O’Donohoe, the CPL’s CEO.
“In five years’ time we’ll be disappointed if we don’t have franchises there,” admits David Brookes, COO of the league.
It’s amazing it’s got this far. “Everyone said it wasn’t possible to stage a league in the Caribbean,” adds O’Donohoe. “We had this vision of everyone playing cricket on the beach, but when we arrived, all the kids were in LeBron James jerseys. Now you see kids in their Tridents or Zouks jerseys, and there’s a tribalism there.”
Tribes at war
The tribalism is on show on my last night. The Zouks are playing the Tridents, with Pietersen and Andre Fletcher smashing boundaries. I follow CPL’s social media foot soldiers Tom Jackson and Nick Sessions into Warner Park’s east stand (entry: $3). Jackson films fans in Zouks T-shirts, chanting what sounds like “You stand up!”. Before he tweets it, a local casually mentions that what they’re saying is patois for (rough translation) “the opponent is being anally violated”. You don’t get that at Lord’s.
Jackson and Sessions go to find less explicit content, but I stay. The moon is bright in the sky like a giant white cricket ball and there are sixes every other minute. The volume increases a decibel with each ball as the Zouks become just the second team to reach a score of 200 in the CPL. I’m practically in the middle of a carnival. And for a night at least, I finally love it.
(Images: CPL T20 Ltd/Getty)