No ask was too big for Shipwreck, Antigua cricket's all-round can-do guy

Melinda Farrell

When at the Rec, call Shipwreck

The patron saint of the Antigua Recreation Ground, Stansfield Joseph has been the man international players and locals alike turn to for all their cricketing needs and beyond

Melinda Farrell  |  

On Sunday morning, April 17, 1994, Brian Lara didn't want a hotel breakfast.

He was not out on 313 after batting for the first two days of the fifth Test against England in Antigua and he wanted something special.

So Lara went to the man who can sort anything out in Antigua, the go-to guy, the one who had taken care of local and visiting cricketers alike for years. Lara went to Shipwreck.

"He came up early in the morning. He tell me, 'Shipwreck, I need a local breakfast from downtown, like bread and swordfish, egg.' I went downtown and get his breakfast for him. Always remember that morning. He made that 375."

I'd been trying to track down Shipwreck, real name Stansfield Joseph, for a couple of weeks after first hearing about him in Barbados. The 63-year old has served as liaison officer for visiting teams and general fixer for locals for decades, and is synonymous with the Antigua Recreation Ground in St John's, where he met me for a chat.

Despite its state of crumbling disrepair, the famous ground shimmers with echoes from the past: the giant Andy Roberts Stand, the faded scoreboard at the Factory Road End, the open-air press box, and the tree that punches through the canopy of Cornelius' Bar and Restaurant, long since boarded up.

As we sit in the shade of the Richie Richardson Stand, Shipwreck points to a spot on the opposite side of the ground, which has been bulldozed. There stood the Double Decker, the party stand where Chicky's Disco provided music, Mayfield the comedian brought the laughs, and super fan Gravy led the partying.

Having hosted its last Test in 2009, the Antigua Recreation Ground today is in a state of gently crumbling disrepair

Having hosted its last Test in 2009, the Antigua Recreation Ground today is in a state of gently crumbling disrepair Melinda Farrell

"Over there's a lot of people and then after the match you have a carnival atmosphere. people stayed up after the matches until about half the evening - 8, 9, 10 o'clock," says Shipwreck. "A lot of people come from overseas and just be in Antigua for Test match. Great atmosphere."

Forget Edgbaston 1995, or any Bradman Test. If I could go back in time to watch any cricket match, it would be one here at the Old Rec. Shipwreck's Rec.

Shipwreck was around for every Test here, from the first, between West Indies and England in 1981, through the "blackwash" series of 1986. For Lara's 400 against England in 2004, and even the ground's swan song in 2009, when the outfield at the new Sir Vivian Richards Stadium was deemed unfit and the match abandoned after just ten balls, resulting in a hastily arranged extra Test at the old ground. Shipwreck was there to help get it ready. "The most ever work in cricket, to get things move up and down," he says.

He points to our left, past the white baroque tower of St John's Catholic Cathedral, towards his old school, Holy Trinity, and recalls his earliest memory of ducking school to watch Antigua play St Kitts.

"I sneaked away from school and came over and somebody reported me to the sister," he laughs. "She give me a break 'cause I always love sports and she tell me, don't sneak out again. Sorry. It was recess time."

A small group of fans have come through the gates a guard had opened for Shipwreck (of course, he only had to make a call to get them unlocked). They wander to the middle and play an imaginary game, emulating the feats of Viv Richards, Michael Holding, Lara and the many other legends who have graced this field.

The ramshackle Cornelius' Bar and Restaurant has long been boarded up

The ramshackle Cornelius' Bar and Restaurant has long been boarded up Melinda Farrell

Plenty of those were from abroad, too. Shipwreck still remembers what they needed. He'd run to the Epicurean to get Shane Warne a burger and fries. Andrew Symonds had to have a Carib beer at the end of a match. Chris Gayle liked chicken pasta. When Sachin Tendulkar ("he was quiet and humble") had a damaged suitcase, it was Shipwreck who ran downtown to get him a new one. When Lara and his team-mates wanted to get to Trinidad for Carnival straight after a match, Shipwreck hustled them through immigration and onto a flight no one thought they could make.

But Shipwreck has served the needs of many who aren't famous. For years he ran an Under-12s competition for young footballers, his other great sporting passion.

"Many people that went to university, doctors and so, they tell me, 'Wreck, if it wasn't for you I would be a bad man. Get into trouble.' Every time they meet me they thank me. It was a great thing at that time. Keep them in school, keep them active."

We run into Hugh Gore, the former first-class cricketer, as we leave the stadium. He tells me Shipwreck should receive a knighthood for all he has done for the island. As we speak, several more people pull up in their cars and holler, "Shipwreck!" Everyone knows him.

Michael Holding responds to his text immediately. "Mercy, good man, always happy and smiling. He was always reliable. If Shipwreck said he was going to do something, it got done."

Danny Morrison remembers great nights courtesy Shipwreck. "He'd go and get your stuff and get organised. Rum, some food late at night, and just drinking here humbly and locally."

A banner advertises the first Test of England's 2022 tour at the Vivian Richards Stadium that replaced the Old Rec as Antigua's major venue in 2007

A banner advertises the first Test of England's 2022 tour at the Vivian Richards Stadium that replaced the Old Rec as Antigua's major venue in 2007 © Melinda Farrell/ESPNcricinfo

Ian Bishop laughs when I tell him Shipwreck mentioned him by the nickname he gave him: The Reverend. "I've never seen him upset, never seen him frowning," Bishop says. Nothing has ever been too hard for him. He's never said no to anything, any requests that we've had."

Shipwreck is close to the four Antiguan knights. He used to lend Richie Richardson his bike to ride home after training. Whenever he meets his mentor, Viv Richards, they greet each other with a hail that came from Richards' father: "Who knows the way, leads the way and go all the way."

And the origin of his marvellous nickname? When he was a child he loved butter and cheese sandwiches, and was notorious for following his friends around to ask for some to, in the local vernacular, "sink 'em!".

"One day they bought the bread and went far away to have a feast. Caught up on them and said, 'Sink 'em!', and one shouted, 'Oh almighty, Shipwreck!' The name stuck on me."

As have the years of watching cricket at his beloved stadium. He points to all the places he stood, as we wander across the field, his recollections of the greats tumbling out of the recesses of his mind and across the grass with the breeze.

"So many memories," he pauses. "So many."

He gives me a gentle hug as we say goodbye. I'd never expected to discover buried treasure in a shipwreck in the Caribbean. But I'd found it in Shipwreck at the Old Rec.

Melinda Farrell is a journalist and broadcaster