Thursday, January 22, 2009

England's flight of fancy to St Kitts is a pain for passengers

The performances of the England cricket team since they won the Ashes so memorably in 2005 would lend credence to the notion that their players, even the side's stars in Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff, do not walk on water. They do, however, enjoy the privilege of magic carpet rides.

It was by magic carpet that they arrived in St Kitts today for the start of their 10-week tour of the West Indies. Or, at least, a magic carpet of sorts, a Boeing 747 with the Virgin logo spilling all over its tail, as if it had just snagged its famous owner's hot-air balloon.

It was magic because Flight VS29 was not meant to go to St Kitts at all, but Barbados. It was rerouted for the specific purpose of unloading the 16 England cricketers and support staff whose tour starts with a three-day fixture against a St Kitts XI on 25 January.

It was less magic for the players, who knew all about the arrangements, than for the passengers, for whom it was an illusion worthy of the most concentrated efforts of Paul Daniels. Even the Virgin crew, who had been told about the diversion, were unaware of its purpose until a pre-flight briefing this morning.

"It's very exciting isn't it – the England players on board and all that?" gushed one of Richard Branson's red-skirts. "It reminds me of the time we had the James Bond lot on board and we went to Panama." Perhaps clients will be tempted to check the identity of their fellow passengers before embarking on any further flights of the captain's fancy.

"We would like to welcome the England cricket team who embark on their tour of the West Indies in St Kitts," said someone with a microphone. Embark?? Disembark, more likely.

A combination of Virgin's and the England and Wales Cricket Board's PR skills eased the hardship as the back of the plane came to the painful realisation that they would be arriving in Barbados two hours late. Sets of England-branded cuff-links were wafted back from the Upper Class section of the plane, in which the players were spread. So was an autographed picture of the Test squad for last year's series against South Africa. Nice touches.

But not everyone was mollified. "I think it's a bloody cheek, I do," said a large rum-and-coke in premium economy. "I found out last week that we were going via St Kitts, and then only because I phoned Virgin to confirm my flight. They didn't phone me. I would rather give up the cuff-links and arrive on time."

But when the plane disgorged its precious cargo, most of the passengers stood up and applauded. Others took pictures, and faces were pressed against windows until the players had disappeared from view.

I am dashing this off on the ground at St Kitts before leaving for Bridgetown, Barbados, and am feeling mildly miffed. It's not that being in Barbados, in itself, presents any particular hardship. For most, the pear-shaped — and this journey looks particularly pear-shaped for the rest of us at this moment — coral island, the most easterly in the Caribbean, is an utter delight. It's just that I wish my surroundings were, well, more St Kitts-like. The shape of Barbados can also resemble that of a falling tear-drop.

I have to be up before six in the morning to catch an eight o'clock flight to Antigua and, if I scurry fast enough, I may even make the connecting flight to St Kitts.

My fellow hacks caught a flight to Antigua this morning and had to mooch there for five hours while they waited for their connection. But for me, on the team flight, it was even worse, watching the players get off the plane and being powerless to join them.

I did try. At Gatwick [the players had checked in at the nearby Hilton] I pleaded with Virgin ticket desk to allow me to get off with the team. "Even if we did, which we're not," came the truculent reply, "your bags would go on to Barbados so you might as well go with them."

There was a time, long ago, when the act of rubbing shoulders with the stars made you feel as though you were almost one of them. The wearing of a silly moustache even convinced some myopic autograph hunters that I might be Geoff Miller or Peter Willey a quarter of a century ago. The truth is that the likes of Andrew Flintoff and some of the other England cricketers live in a world very different from the one we are familiar with, and perhaps we like it that way.

Just being near the England team does, though, confer certain privileges. I saw Kevin Pietersen, who looked friendly and relaxed. I can also tell you, exclusively, for I peered down the gangway and I have a more than half-decent telescope, that Monty Panesar visited the toilet at precisely 11.43am.

Half an hour later, Ian Bell went to the toilet. I have good reason to believe that any number of England players went to the toilet in the course of the eight-hour flight, though I cannot be certain of this because I had my head down writing a rude letter to Richard Branson.

By the way, if the grinning knight's planes really are any good, why does he insist on breezing around everywhere in that bloody hot-air balloon?