One of the truly unique institutions in T&T today is the Queens Park Oval. A mere 10 acres and sixteen perches, it has served as a centre piece, a Mecca, in the hearts and minds of tens, who knows, hundreds of thousands over the 105 years of its existence.
The Q.P.O. occupies the southern extremes of what was once called the St. Clair Government Farm. St. Clair was once a prosperous sugar estate, belonging to the Grey family of Scottish origin. Being Scotts, they may have named their estate for the St. Clair or Sinclair family of Scotland, whose origins are lost in mists of history, but who are best remembered as princes of the Orkney islands. To this day, when the bowling is from the north, the bowler would be delivering “from the farm end”.
St. Clair today is dotted with gigantic samaan trees. These enhance the beautiful homes built there over the years. Originally though, they were imported from India and planted there so as to provide shade for the colonies milk-producing herds of cattle. There are still a few samaans growing around the Oval.
No one seems to know for certain when cricket was first played in Trinidad or Tobago. The game would have come to these isles with the British in 1797 and would have been unknown to the Spaniards, they being more occupied with the bulls, and the French who would have been taken up with balls. Be that as it may, what we do know is that in 1896 there was a Cricket Club by the name of the “Sovereign Cricket Club”, whose pavilion stood in just about the middle of the Grand Savannah, now the Queens Park Savannah.
In those times, the Savannah entertained a wider variety of sports than it does today. There was polo, golf, as well as football, hockey, tennis and cricket. There was also horse racing. Great parks distinguish cities as do cathedrals and splendid concert halls. But cities are particularly distinguished when they are equestrian cities, when splendid thoroughbreds may be seen cantering through the morning mist. Port of Spain was made the meaner when horse racing was removed from her.
Notwithstanding, we still have cricket at the Queens Park Oval. Phillip Thompson, Esq., tells us that it was under the guidance and with the considerable energy of the Secretary Treasurer, Mr. W. C. Nock, that the first pavilion was built. This pavilion, with its famous clock, stood there until 1952. There was a band stand, where the Constabulary Band would play “numbers” from their Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire.
Cricket is a very particular game and as such requires special seating arrangements. For example, there was a School Boys Stand, a Bachelor Stand, a Public Stand and a Members Ladies Stand. It was clearly understood that this was a serious affair and that the members who owned the entire facility did not care to be distracted by school boys, bachelors, ladies or the public at large while they sat under the clock. The "Hoy Poloi" who hardly mattered in those days took to the surrounding samaan trees and other vantage points.
The main entrance in those halcyon days was at the north eastern corner of the ground, and the more affluent members arrived by horse and carriage through an avenue of palms and travelled around the ground to the pavilion. Phillip Thompson says: “Contrary to what the oldest member may tell you, the pavilion clock has never been hit by a cricket ball.” Phil knew these things. He continues in his 'ramblings': "I once however, many years ago, in Toronto of all places, heard a Canadian describe to an Englishman how once, when visiting Trinidad, he had seen Patsy Hendren, by dropping on his left knee (as he put it) drive Learie Constantine 'clean over the pavilion and on to Tragarete Road'. Rum was cheap in those days and the visitor to our Oval must have had a prolonged day at the bar when this sensational hit occurred.”
There is a general assumption that everybody knows everything about cricket. This is not so. As a matter of interest, the origins of cricket are obscure and unrecorded. The 'Guinness Book of Cricket Facts and Feats' suggest the word may derive from old English, Anglo Saxon word "cricce", crooked staff, and went on to wonder whether shepherds may have played it.
Perhaps Edward of England at the age of 16 in the year 1300 may have played it with a Gascon youth named Piers Gaveston.
The first certain reference to cricket according to the above mentioned book was in 1478 in France, and the earliest in England in 1598. The first match was played at Coxheath in Kent 1646.
As you can see for yourself, it has been played for a very long time. Phil Thompson’s little book has all sorts of interesting anecdotes about cricket at the Oval and goings-on at this hallowed shrine of the sport. For example, he recounts: “A boy in short pants was fielding sub for a Shannon player and he ran swiftly around the pull boundary and took a fine catch to dismiss Arch Wiles. Learie Constantine had taken the first of many great catches he was to take at the Oval.”
Cricket, having its roots in Empire, is ultimately about visiting other dominions and colonies, and today, long after the sun has finally set on the largest Empire the world has ever known, cricket continues to be played.
It all started with England vs. Australia, although the purists would tell you that the first overseas match took place in Canada in 1859, with an English team visiting that dominion. But it was really the visit to Australia, in response to a visit from Down Under in 1868, that started the ball a-bowling. There is a great rivalry about some “Ashes”. No one seems to know for sure what was burnt or where it is now. Another great institution is, of course, the M.C.C. It would appear that the Marylbone Cricket Club came into existence in the 1790s for reasons unknown. It appears that law-making powers were assumed and were conceded, defining the game and setting the tone, if you know what I mean. By 1903, the M.C.C. became responsible for selection and administration of all overseas tours. International cricket may have had its genesis with England vs. Australia test matches, but during the 1870s and 1880s, the West Indies emerged as probably the team they both wished to beat. Horace Harragin wrote:
“While the England-West Indies series have been the most durable competition for the Caribbean cricketers, the idea of meeting and indeed beating the Australians became something of an obsession for the West Indians.” He goes on to say that it took all of 35 years to defeat Australia, whereas it took a mere 20 to beat England. By now, you would have gathered that cricket enthusiasts have long memories...
But back to Phil Thomspon’s ramlings:
“In 1965, Bobbie Simpson’s Australian team came to Trinidad, and about 2 o’clock on a hot afternoon during the test, Sobers and Butcher were doing as they liked with the Australian bowling. There was then a grassy mound under the samaan tree in the north-eastern corner of the ground. Suddenly, the packed crown erupted and a goodly section fled into the playing area in a frenzy of alarm. I was sitting in the pavilion with the English writer Denzil Batchelor, when Jack Fingleton, the former Australian test cricketer and then cricket correspondent for the Sunday times of London, came up and asked what had caused the disturbance.
I told him that I would find out, and on inquiring discovered that a jackspaniards nest had fallen from the tree into the crowd. As I put it to him without much thought: ‘They were attacked by a bunch of jackspaniards’ - what of course I should have told my Australian friend was that the crowd had been attacked by a bunch of wasps or better still hornets.
He thanked me and moved on. Later on, I saw a copy of the Sunday Times with Fingleton’s article on that day’s play. To my amazement and amusement, I read that about two in the afternoon, part of the crowd had rushed into the field in alarm, they had been attacked by a bunch of Black Spaniards!”
See what you get when you have an Australian writing for the London Times, covering a test match at the Oval in Trinidad!
What else is there to say, except “Well done, Oval Boys?” The lease has another 94 years to run. They tell me that there is a club within the Queen’s Park Oval, called “The Live Forever Club”. I am not at all surprised - are you?