March 03, 2007
The Kenyans fly into the Caribbean today as the last of 16 teams to arrive for the World Cup Cricket and the foreign fans will not be far behind, their holiday bags light with tropical shirts and sun lotion.
Chief organiser Chris Dehring predicted some time ago that the tournament would be “either the very best thing that happens to the Caribbean or the very worst”. We are about to find out which it is to be.
A happy tournament will give West Indies cricket a dozen new or remodelled stadiums and tens of millions of dollars in profits, while showing its fractious island nations the benefits of co-operation and perhaps leaving 50,000-odd visitors and millions of television viewers sold on the idea of Caribbean tourism.
A disastrous World Cup, blighted by bad organisation, crime, or some other misfortune, could bankrupt local cricket bodies, set the islands quarrelling and leave disgruntled visitors vowing never to spend another dollar in that part of the world.
Dehring said yesterday that he was sure the event would be a success, brushing off fears the infrastructure of the nine small, mostly poor island nations could be defeated by the most complex and ambitious cricket tournament in history. “You will see. The stadiums will be ready on time, everything will work and everyone will have a fantastic time,” Dehring said from Jamaica.
Boria Majumdar hopes Dehring is right, but he has his doubts. A cricket historian at Melbourne’s La Trobe University who has been to four World Cups, Majumdar has just spent a week in Barbados and came away seriously worried.
“A lot of people are concerned that, after 10 years’ preparation, they are still working day and night in the last two weeks to finish the (Kensington Oval) stadium, but I don’t think that’s the problem,” Majumdar said in London yesterday.
“They will get the ground finished in time and it is an excellent stadium.
“The problem is everything else visitors will come across, like roads that take two hours to go five kilometres and airports that take ages to get through.
“The food is decent but the service is horrendous – it already takes about an hour and a half to get a pizza in a restaurant, and when 40,000 visitors land it will blow the top off the place.
“The only grounds for optimism about the whole thing is the attitude of the people, who are determined to enjoy the whole thing.”
Jamaica’s new airport is not finished, the new Sabina Park stadium has been bogged down with construction delays and millions of dollars of promised beautification works never happened.
There has been a malaria outbreak in the western suburbs of its capital Kingston, gang violence has killed more than 100 people in the past two months, and farmers have warned that a drought has left them struggling to provide enough food for the visitors. This week an earthquake even struck the islands.
The organisers insist there are still hotel rooms, internal flights and match tickets for latecomers but Majumdar said, “if you haven’t already booked everything just forget it”.
All this, however, will be lost on many Australians who have been scared off travelling to the Caribbean by prohibitive visa requirements.
A cover-all visa, which officials say was designed to allow free passage between the islands for the duration of the tournament – but has been seen in some sectors as an exploitative tax on cricket fans – has been an administrative and public relations disaster.
Only Australian, New Zealander, Indian and Pakistani fans had been asked to pay $130 for the visa that took months to issue and prompted one official, Trinidad and Tobago honorary consul in Australia Mike Agostini, to resign in protest.
The Australian government has issued a travel warning advising tourists to be cautious of violent crime and a high incidence of AIDS in the islands, while the US State Department went further and said large gatherings there carried a danger of terrorism or other violence.
“Walking after dark, including on beaches, can be dangerous,” according to the Australian warning, “due to the increased risk of robbery and assault. Crime, including sexual assault and robbery, has also occurred after travellers have accepted ‘spiked’ food or drink.”
India has gone further, its players will be protected by 16 National Security Guard commandos, an Indian newspaper reported yesterday.
Over the past few years, Indian players have been protected against threats from Islamic militant groups by local guards during tours in Asia.
But elite commandos being sent to venues as far away as the West Indies was unprecedented.
Dehring, a former investment banker who has worked on the World Cup since the West Indies first decided to bid for the event more than a decade ago, insists the Caribbean is getting a bad rap.
“I am disappointed with the Australian travel warning.
“It is a little sad because the standards by which the Caribbean is judged are not fair, when you look at the things that happen in other places like Australia,” he said.
“Some of the England team got held up in their hotel in Sydney during their last tour there and it just faded from the news. Imagine if that happened here, it would have been a shambles in all the press.
“I am very, very confident that this tournament will compare very favourably to other World Cups. We have set ourselves big hairy audacious goals and we are going to meet them.”
Every stadium would be finished on time, he said, insisting he was not aware of any government being forced into an Athens Olympics-like splurge of spending to get things finished on time.
The state of roads, hotels and other services varies between islands, and Australia seems to have drawn some of the best venues for both its players and fans, having only one game at most in Jamaica. If it makes the final, Australia will have played at five venues, beginning with three opening-round matches in tiny St Kitts between March 14 and 24. The smallest host nation, St Kitts has only 35,000 people but it managed to finish its new 10,000-seat stadium long before any other island, thanks to a hefty donation from Taiwan’s government.
“St Kitts is probably the jewel in the crown of the Cricket World Cup,” Dehring said. “Everything works, it is a beautiful place and everything is within walking distance.”
Australia’s next three games will be between March 27 and April 8 in Antigua’s new stadium, donated by China, which replaces the famous Recreation Ground where matches were more like street parties.
The Australians then go on the road for an April 13 match in Barbados, where the cheapest room at the Barbados Hilton will rise to $1220 from $340 a week earlier.
Their next two games, on April 16 and 20, will be in Grenada, where another stadium donated by China has fallen behind schedule, then a semi-final match would be midweek in Jamaica or St Lucia before the final in Barbados on April 28.