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Empire Cricket Club: Greatest club born out of a rebellion

The club has produced over 20 Test cricketers and numerous white-ball cricketers for the West Indies.
Last Updated : 03 July 2024, 14:58 IST

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Barbados: When a young Herman Griffith left his house at Bank Hall and walked past an empty garbage plot in the summer of 1914, he didn’t think much of it. It had always been there, attracting as much rubbish as it did delinquents with a fondness for alcohol.

When Griffith walked back to his house that same day, he glanced at the same plot, but in a moment, envisioned an entirely new future for it, for him, for the ‘socially inferior’ Bank Hall. Inadvertently, Barbados, the West Indies and the world would benefit.   

Sandwiched between these two moments is a humiliation which would change the course of West Indian cricket for 110 years and more. 

Griffith was mocked and then told he couldn’t enter the Spartan Cricket Club because he was ‘too poor’. 

The Spartans was made for the middle-class black and creole cricketers, but they, still dictated by their British colonisers, quickly became too elite for the neighbourhood they were supposed to represent. Griffith was part of this neighbourhood. 

Griffith was but a young man with hope. When he was denied that, he searched elsewhere and he found it in that garbage dump. 

Joining hands with a couple of friends and with funds from the neighbours, they cleared the space with their own hands and built a ground with their sturdy feet.  

Today it stands - a bit beaten down, a bit ignored - but proud for this is the Empire Sports Club, and it is the greatest club in Barbados - maybe even the whole of the Caribbean - for it has produced over 20 Test cricketers and numerous white-ball cricketers for the West Indies. 

In fact, a current West Indian Test cricketer is at the bar in the club on the day. Justin Greaves went through a ‘nets’ session with a bunch of his buddies at the single pitch flanked by nets from a forgotten generation, and then came up to get a drink.

“Yo, you good?” “Aight, aight.” 

He returned to his phone and his beer, before switching to a another drink while waiting for his fried chicken to come out of the kitchen. He could smell it already. Chris T, a junior coach here, smells it too. He comes up and gets to ‘liming’ (hanging out). 

“When you’re poor and black you will fight to express yourself one way or the other. When you’re poor and oppressed and you have an avenue to express, you will do wonders,” he says, chasing his sentence down with a ‘Banks’. 

“You know, it’s not about how big the dog is, it’s about how big the bit in the dog is,” he says before taking another sip while getting a nodding approval from Greaves. 

“See that there, ” he says, pointing past the ground and towards a consciously lowered section of the concrete walls. “That’s where Sir Frank Worrell grew up, that very house. We opened up that gap to let people see him. He used to come on over here every day too. He’s from here, you get it? The first black captain from the West Indies used to sit right where you are sitting now. Maybe not at the bar (laughs), but he was here, boy. He was a good man right there.”

He sure was. But this isn’t about Worrell or Charlie Griffith or David Murray or Roston Chase or Jomel Warrican or any of those who came before and will after. 

This is about Herman’s moment which triggered an unimaginable change to the fabric of cricket on the island and beyond. 

David Harris, a former journalist, had called the Empire ‘not just a club, it is part of the social revolution which took place in the last century, a part of the fight for equal rights of the masses of Barbados.’

And you can see it still. 

While there are ‘nets’ still going on, two groups - one very young and the other comprised of teenagers - play football where the 30-yard-circle would’ve been. That’s the thing, though, the ground is so small that you can’t play 11-v-11 cricket, and it used to be smaller. They typically play 5-v-5 these days, but back in the day, there were no such rules. 

“Man, we’d have 25 kids all on the ground, that old small ground, at the same time, you had ten slips, five people next to your feet… Man, you really had to learn how to defend here,” says Richard Barrow, the senior coach, who shepherded Chase in his teens. “Those were some good times.”

You can also see why these men continue to speak of the past as if rekindling the romance of a long, lost friend in their minds.

Making your way up Downey Gap, you’re met by run-down houses, dismantled cars, open sewers and people standing about with liquor in their hands and a quick greeting on their lips. 

This doesn’t feel like some of the more polished, aka gentrified, parts of Barbados. Here you can feel the very essence of Barbados, untouched by the hands of time.  

Once you enter the club, that feeling of poverty and struggle remains in the air, it's rife. Sure, the bar is well stocked, but the club itself is rather modest. It’s alive, though. It’s welcoming, though.

Random men squat on chairs to ‘lime’ on the rusting bleachers. A few mentally challenged folk from the neighbourhood have this spot as their getaway. You can still hear the sound of clanging barbells from the gym from across the road.

“…you know that rebel tour (West Indies tour of South Africa during apartheid)? Yeah, we had a couple of them from here (Albert Padmore and David Murray),” says Roger Mayers, who has been a patron of this club for over forty years.

"These were good boys, but look at this place, you think you wouldn’t jump at the chance to make money if you were from here? We created this club for girls and boys who didn’t have any. Some had a chance to make something of themselves, some had a chance to make money. You can’t judge a man for doing what he must to feed his family. Again, look around, boy,” he says. 

It’s dead, but it’s alive. 

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Published 03 July 2024, 14:58 IST

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