Game, fete and match

Somewhere between silly point and cow corner, James Fuller is bowled over by a great West Indian cricketing tradition, the fete match

Primed for action. Photograph by James FullerThe gladiators return. Photograph by James FullerThe heat of battle. Palm Tree Cricket Ground, Queen`s Park Savannah, Port of Spain, Trinidad. Photograph by James Fuller

Raconteur Paul Keens-Douglas’ skit on fete match cricket lists the elements that add up to success: volume of rum drunk, amount of food eaten, and number of women present. And everyone in the West Indies should play at least one fete match, he cheerfully asserts. I agree.

My introduction to the glorious mayhem of the fete match is a Trinidadian city-v-country clash in Port of Spain’s Queen’s Park Savannah. The combatants are SOBA (St Anthony’s Old Boys Cricket Association – a more imposing name than is perhaps merited) and a combined side from Rio Claro, deep in Trinidad’s rural south.

As departure time approaches in Rio Claro, all is well, with 11 players expected for the 9 am rendezvous.

But reality brings those drunken midweek assurances face to face with a bumpy three-hour drive and the necessity of getting out of bed. Players start dropping like flies. One explains, apparently with a straight face, that he won’t be going because he’s heard the team is short of players.

It’s hard to argue with that sort of logic.

The ravaged ranks arrive at the Savannah with a distinctly unimpressive team of five.

But the spirit of fete match will prevail, and a determination rarely seen in the workplace takes hold. Men who haven’t unduly inconvenienced their cognitive powers since secondary school suddenly unleash a torrent of imaginative, and often ludicrously impractical, ways of fashioning a game with five players.

“What do you think?”
“Nah, man.”
“Well, how about…?”
“What, yuh chupid?”

The SOBA team only arrived with ten players, and a recruitment drive is on. Phone calls are made, favours asked, bystanders dragged from neighbouring games, girlfriends quizzed on cricketing credentials and a final tally of ten versus eight is reached, including a spectator pressed into service in a garish batik holiday shirt and beach shorts.

 

A fete match is a game of endless ridicule; it can hardly be anything else. When you stand 11 weekend sportsmen on baked, uneven ground and ask another two to smash a rock-hard ball at, over and through them all afternoon, there is ample scope for amusement. Especially when you consider most of them will be three-parts drunk.

Rio Claro make 122 in 25 overs. Perched on Carib crates and slouched against cricket bags, the players are drinking beer, mocking their teammates and waiting to bat, shielded from the 34-degree heat beneath a pop-up PVC shade. Around them, vehicles hide behind every available tree and bush – sheltering more from the poor bowling than the sun.

The unwritten art of the fete match is knowing how many beers to consume whilst retaining enough of your faculties to ward off life-threatening injury. It’s a balancing act. An enthusiastically-filled cooler and regular drinks breaks can leave you on the wrong side of the equation. Even if you do avoid a trip to A&E, the combination of alcohol and afternoon sun can, at the very least, waft you into a deliriously drowsy state.

So it is that I stand fielding at point, dreamily regarding the world outside the game.

Beneath Port of Spain’s ever-rising skyline, joggers and power walkers circle the boundaries of other matches while Japanese tourists stroll, blissfully unaware, across the outfields (up to 14 games are staged simultaneously across the Savannah’s grassy expanses every weekend). Two pitches across, rugby is being practised, and on the ground beyond that, football – the goalposts leaning at disturbingly irregular angles, like drunks against a pub wall.

Turning 180 degrees, I watch as a Rastafarian bowler in a neighbouring game stops mid-run-up to attend to his unruly locks, which have unfurled and cascaded down his back to tickle his calves. With a minimum of fuss, he skilfully rewraps the huge length of hair and returns to his bowling mark. I’m a long way from England.

I’m shaken into consciousness by desperate shouts of “Catch it!” in time to witness a blur of leather sailing over my head. A slothful chase and weak return evoke what I take as a playful reproach from my skipper: “Hey, James, what happen? Yuh need a pillow or what?”

He’s not smiling.

Beware the man who says he bowls a bit. It either means he can’t bring his arm above the horizontal, or he’s just represented the West Indies Under-19 team. Today, it’s the latter, as one of Rio’s late recruits is in fact a local first-grade fast bowler. On a wicket where an identically pitched delivery could hit you in the head or the shin, this news is met with uncomfortable murmurings, followed in short time by the gassy pop of beer bottles opening.

SOBA’s innings passes in a haze of confused running, agricultural swipes and inquiries about the batsman’s eyesight. Wickets fall regularly.

As the SOBA number ten strides robustly to the crease, with one run needed, his wife seems unconfident.

“Look how bad Daddy is at this,” she says, rocking her newborn. “He’ll be back in a couple of minutes,” she adds with spousal dismissiveness. And she’s right, two minutes later Daddy does return, rather less robustly.

The final run required for victory is somehow scrambled – but, as there are no scoreboards in a fete match, nobody on the field realises.

“Let them bat out the rest of the over,” says the scorer. “The man facing’s over from New Zealand on holiday.”

One ball later, the New Zealander is bowled and Rio Claro begin whooping with joy, jumping into one another’s arms, high-fiving and celebrating what they believe to be victory. The confusion seems a fitting end to an afternoon defined by it.

As the players reach the boundary and the result is relayed, there’s no heated debate; the serious business of emptying the coolers and getting stuck into a pot of chicken pelau takes precedence.

As darkness descends and Port of Spain’s streetlights flicker into life, the day’s events are endlessly re-run, decisions re-scorned, players re-ridiculed, and plans for a rematch hatched to a backbeat of chinking bottles, laughter and soca.

Long live the fete match.

For more information: www.fetematchcricket.com