WEST INDIES cricket has double cause for celebration over the next few days.
The first Test against Sri Lanka that starts today not only inaugurates the Beausejours Stadium in St. Lucia as the eighth, and most modern, Test venue in the Caribbean and the 88th worldwide.
It also marks, almost exactly, the 75th anniversary of the West Indies’ first Test, against England at Lord’s June 23, 25 and 26, 1928.
The stadium, set in the Beausejours hills of Gros Islet, a mile away from the tourism hub of Rodney Bay, was constructed principally from funds from the national lottery at an estimated cost of US$18 million.
It joins Antigua, St.Vincent and Grenada as Test grounds in the once- called “small islands” that were excluded from the mainstream of West Indies until the advent of the annual Shell Shield tournament in 1966.
They have all now at least equaled and, in most cases, surpassed the facilities in Kensington Oval, Barbados, Queen’s Park Oval, Trinidad, Bourda, Guyana and Sabina Park, Jamaica that were exclusively used up until1 1981.
Planned principally to twin tourism and cricket and specifically targeting the 2007 World Cup, the St.Lucia project is a far-sighted investment for an island that is yet to produce a Test cricket.
It was initiated last season with a first-class match against India and has already been filled to its 14,000 capacity for two one-day internationals against New Zealand in 2002 and one against Australia last month.
Except for inadequate vehicular access, a problem that is being addressed, it has proved itself up to world standard in every other regard.
Now it faces the ultimate challenge of hosting the game at its highest level over five days.
The coincidence of the 75th anniversary lends the Test even more significance.
The West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) is commemorating the occasion with various events under the title “Uniting The Region, Exciting The World”.
They were launched with a parade and ceremony during the first one-day international against Sri Lanka at Kensington Oval June 7.
They continue during the St.Lucia Test, to which relatives of those players who were in the 1928 team in England have been invited, and during the final Test in Jamaica June 27-July 1.
A book on the 1928 England tour, written by historian Professor Hilary Beckles, Pro Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies (UWI) and titled “A Nation Imagined”, and a photographic exhibition highlighting outstanding players and matches from each decade of the 75 years, are to be launched in Jamaica.
While the 1928 Lord’s match was the first after the West Indies were granted Test status, West Indies cricket was strong and long since established by then.
The first inter-territorial match was between Barbados and Demerara (now Guyana) in February 1865. The first composite West Indies team toured the eastern United States and Canada in 1886, the first of several representative teams from England came to the West Indies in 1865 under R. Slade Lucas and the West Indies toured England in 1900, 1906 and 1923.
It is a long and exciting road that has led West Indies cricket to its 398th Test match on what was once a cow pasture at the foot of the Beausejours hills in St. Lucia.