No win situations and ‘Slow Death’

It was like the good old days and there was joy long absent from the faces and in the voices of the thousands of West Indians who packed the stands. The mood, previously all gloom and doom after repeated failure and submission, had changed over the previous six weeks on the growing evidence of refound spirit and confidence.

There had been whispers about more trouble between the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) and the West Indies Players Association (WIPA), given weight by the boycott of the first day of the regional matches a week earlier and the bemusing protest in the first ODI in Guyana through the masking out of the sponsors’ name on the players’ shirt sleeves.

But this appeared to have blown over by the time the series reached Barbados with the West Indies’ superiority in the short game already clear from the outcome of the solitary 20/20 Internationals in Trinidad and the two ODIs in Guyana.

Captain Gayle’s assertion to the media prior to Friday’s match that “I don’t think we’re going to boycott anything” was heartening. Conciliation and common sense was in the air.

“We have an understanding with each other – the team, players, WIPA and the board,” he added. “There is some sort of change, some sort of communication going on.”

According to Gayle, things were “looking pretty good”. He was sure everyone would benefit from the outcome of the discussions between the two organisations so that “the cricket can actually go on rather than go into a dispute again”.

Amen to that – except that it wasn’t.

Gayle’s tune had changed by yesterday morning as he hinted darkly at a possible boycott of the fifth and final ODI in St. Lucia on Friday. Apparently, things had not gone as smoothly at the deliberations as he and the WIPA representatives had expected.

Friday is still some way off and there is time for resolution of the still unresolved issues. But West Indies cricket has been this way several times before and we know to be wary.

The people of St. Lucia, who filled the Beausejour Stadium to overflowing in the last ODI against Sri Lanka last year, should be advised to hold onto their money for the time being.

What remains maddening and mystifying is that basically the same old sticking points are allowed to crop up over and over, whatever dispensation is in charge.

While each side points the finger of blame at the other and WIPA boasts that it has won every arbitration contested against the manifestly inept WICB, the game suffers.

Does anyone around the negotiating table care? Is anyone asking just what would be achieved by a boycott in St. Lucia except to deprive fans there of cheering a West Indies team at last making everyone proud again?

Did no one notice the elation at Kensington on Friday – and at the Queen’s Park Oval and the National Stadium at Providence before that?

Surely those on both sides must recognise that they have once again wrestled themselves into a no-win situation, whatever some legal luminary called in to separate them might say.

Without a settlement, the certain losers would once more be the game and the players they are entrusted to promote and protect.

Some recent West Indies board presidents and captains may differ but it is difficult to argue with the long held maxim that the umpire’s is the most difficult, most thankless job in cricket.

Steve Bucknor has done it at the highest level for 20 years, as a matter of course, without complaint and, in spite of his many laurels, without show or conceit.

It is an eminent career that ends today at Kensington Oval in the fourth One-Day International between West Indies and England when the tall, slim Jamaican makes the last of the unhurried, considered decisions that have earned him the nickname “Slow Death” and removes the bails for the final time.

There are others who have gained similar international respect and fame but Bucknor’s record of 128 Tests (he was the first to 100) and, after today, 180 ODIs in the middle is unparalleled. He officiated in each of the last five World Cup finals, another standard.

The extrovert Englishman, Dickie Bird, spent 23 years as the game’s most identifiable umpire. His countrymen Frank Chester and David Shepherd, two far less demonstrative, but no less esteemed, individuals, went 20. Neither stood in as many matches.

The Australian Col Egar and Bucknor’s fellow Jamaican Douglas Sang Hue were highly rated by players in the days before the International Cricket Council (ICC) formed its so-called elite panel in 1994 and umpiring became a full-time profession entailing constant travel to the four corners of cricket’s limited but far-flung domain.

Bucknor’s longevity, like the others, verifies his quality. As his time exactly coincided with the sharp decline in the fortunes of West Indies cricket, his excellence provided some comfort for despairing fans. There were, inevitably, high-profile controversies. He would have been prepared for them by his experience in his debut Test, at home at Sabina Park, when play was held up for 35 minutes while the crowd vented its anger at a decision for a keeper’s catch by his umpiring partner, the late David Archer, against Viv Richards that Bucknor confirmed from square-leg.

There were mistakes, to be sure, but what he could not have been prepared for was his treatment following the Sydney Test between Australia and India in 2007-08.

The Indian board, adamant that two of his decisions had caused them to lose the match, demanded his removal from the next Test in Perth, threatening to order its players take up their bats and pads and head home if he wasn’t. Shamefully, the Australian board bowed to India’s financial pressure. The repercussions of such a submission have been increasingly realised since.

Bucknor soldiered on, the regard in which he is held manifested by the guard of honour mounted by the Australian and South African teams for his final Test in Cape Town earlier this month and the many tributes that have poured in the past week. The last will be from the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB), players and fans at Kensington today.

Now a fit 62, and a former football goalie and international football referee, Bucknor says he now intends to take up masters track and field.

While he is at it, he might lend a helping hand in raising the standard of umpiring at regional level. Hearing recent complaints from players and officials, it is badly needed.

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