‘It’s in the blood’: how Barbados became cricket’s ultimate hotspot
West Indies v England at Kensington Oval is a special occasion that takes place on sacred ground; a country so lush by way of cricketing talent per head over the years, Barbados stands out as one of world sport’s most remarkable hotspots.
Before the roll call of great Barbadian cricketers spools down the page, first consider the numbers: with a population of 287,000, the new republic would sit fourth bottom were it ranked alongside England’s 48 counties, tucked between Herefordshire and Northumberland (with more palm trees than either). And yet this 21-miles-by-14-miles island, the most easterly in the Lesser Antilles, is the first in the Caribbean to produce more than a century of international cricketers.
Of the 385 men to play for West Indies since they first took the field at Lord’s in 1928, 98 (25.45%) hail from Barbados, with the far more populous Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago next on 83. There are 90 Barbadians who have played Test cricket on the list and eight more have won white-ball caps alone. Add the four players to cross the Atlantic and represent England – Roland Butcher, Gladstone Small, Chris Jordan and Jofra Archer – and its bat is already raised before getting to its 15 West Indies women and the 11 men to have played for associate nations.
“Everything suggests that it is highly likely the most verdant place in the history of the sport,” says Andrew Samson, the leading cricket statistician, after he and the local journalist David Harris helped confirm the numbers. “If not in terms of square miles then at least per capita. And I would imagine it would be in the conversation for any international sport, not just cricket.”
As England’s cricketers and their sun-seeking supporters have taken in their surroundings during the second Test they will have noted that this is not just quantity but quality, whether walking past the statue of Sir Garfield Sobers, reading the names of Wes Hall, Charlie Griffith, Everton Weekes, Frank Worrell, Clyde Walcott, Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes adorning the stands or spying the two ends, Malcolm Marshall and Joel Garner.
This isn’t just a nostalgia trip either; when West Indies routed England here three years ago, six of the XI were Bajan. The numbers fluctuate and have dropped in the current side – four of the most recent XI – but they are still led by Kraigg Brathwaite, boast a world-class all-rounder in Jason Holder and have Kemar Roach, a fast bowler who went into the second Test 15 wickets away from becoming the sixth West Indian to reach the 250 mark.
“It really just comes back to the love the people have for the game,” says Roland Butcher, who grew up in St Phillip on the eastern side of the island. He went on to become the first black cricketer to represent England when he made his Test debut at this storied ground in 1981 and the local headline read “Our boy, their bat”.
“Cricket is in the blood of Barbadians, it just became a natural thing to us like football is in Brazil. In the past black people were limited in the sports they could do and for me, growing up in the country, all that was available was cricket and track and field. Most of the great players came out of informal cricket, kids playing among themselves. There wasn’t coaching, the game itself was the teacher.”
Theories abound as to why this came to be. Certainly the island had a head start, with St Ann’s Garrison south of Bridgetown the first club formed in the Caribbean in 1806. Some have noted the influence of the military in integrating the sport into society or the club scene, others the island’s porous coral rock and abundant sunshine, which combine to make ideal surfaces for fast bowling and stroke play. For Butcher it also comes down to early heroes and the sharpening of skills in those more rustic settings.
“I think the rest of the region recognises the role Barbados has played in West Indies cricket,” he says. “I’m not sure I agree with the saying that when Barbados is strong, West Indies is strong, but we’ve had such a rich history and legacy of great players here, we’ve always had people to look up to here. That breeds more.
“I would only see the great players on film once a month when a van came to our school with a big screen and they showed maybe an old Test match along with films like Laurel and Hardy. But ultimately it was about playing the sport.
“We played anywhere and everywhere. Playing on the beach, the edge of the surf, the ball skids on from the surface and your reactions have to be quicker. When we played on turf we prepared the pitches ourselves, picking out stones, wetting it and rolling it. But the ball still deviated and you needed sharp reflexes. These may seem like disadvantages but they became advantages to us.”
Butcher has worked as a coach and an administrator in Barbados since his playing days, recently retiring from the island’s first-class selection panel but still a board director and on the Cricket West Indies cricket strategy committee. Contrary to the notion that the region was left behind when professionalism took hold elsewhere, he wonders whether modern coaching has in fact been too regimented and conformist for this part of the world, ironing out some of the instinct rather than enhancing it.
“These days the players don’t find out so much for themselves,” says the 68-year-old. “Before, we were different from the rest of the world, playing free and spirited cricket. But we joined the bandwagon of restrictive coaching and it doesn’t always allow for players to play naturally, they get caught between two stalls.”
It makes an interesting counterpoint as English cricket, blessed with enviable resources and numbers, launches its latest corporate response to defeat in Australia with a game-wide review into structures, elite pathways, competitions and the like. Sometimes it simply comes down to passion.