Poisoned chalices and freelance agents

Ernest Hilaire would have been better advised not to get involved in such issues even before taking up his sensitive position as the latest chief executive of the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) but his stated doubts last week over Chris Gayle’s reappointment as captain, should he and the striking players be eligible for the forthcoming tour of Australia, were well founded.

Hilaire also said that he expected a full strength team to be chosen, as part of the agreed Caricom settlement of the dispute between WICB and the West Indies Players Association (WIPA).

Both present potential problems for while the cats have been away, sulking in their corner, the mice have been playing.

Who, indeed, should be captain if not Gayle? And who now qualify for the full-strength team? Indeed, who will make themselves available, for Caricom can’t make anyone sign a WICB contract if they don’t  want to?

Gayle’s issue is straightforward enough.

He effectively ruled himself out of the post, to which he originally came by default, through comments in his interview with the Guardian newspaper last May during the ill-starred West Indies’ tour of England.

Even though he later pleaded that he was misquoted (which he was not) and misinterpreted (which he might have been), his much published assertion that he preferred Twenty20 to Test cricket and that he would be giving up the West Indies captaincy “shortly” were those of someone uneasy in the role.

He had his run-ins with the board from the start. He openly chastised it for its handling of his appointment, when it was overturned and then restored by the selectors’ recommendation, and for its slackness in failing to get replacement ODI players to England in 2007 in time for warm-up matches.

When then president Ken Gordon demanded an apology, he pointedly refused.

“Will I stand up to the board?” he asked. “Yes, that’s me. I always stand up for what I believe in.”

“There is no love lost between myself and the board,” he added.

It was clearly an impractical relationship but Julian Hunte, Gordon’s successor, was keen to make it work for Gayle was popular with his players and, in the context of previous results, relatively successful.

When Gayle put in his resignation after he was summoned to a WICB directors’ meeting in St Lucia to explain his criticism of the selectors at the end of the ODI series against Australia just over a year ago, Hunte persuaded him to withdraw it.

As with his earlier appointment of WIPA’s head, Dinanath Ramnarine, to the WICB directorate, it was a decision he came to regret.

Ramnarine quit after a year and a half and soon called his men out over the long-running dispute concerning contracts that had led to an earlier strike prior to the 2005 tour of Sri Lanka.

Gayle’s next withdrawal was along with his players from the team he was scheduled to lead in the home series against Bangladesh in July.

My feeling is that Gayle will follow the example of England’s Andrew Flintoff and become a freelance player, declining whatever WICB contract is offered to concentrate on the more lucrative, less demanding Twenty20 tournaments and the like.

He is already on the books of the Kolkata Knight Riders of the Indian Premier League (IPL) and has signed with Western Australia for Australia’s Twenty20 bash in January.

If the West Indies want him for his still formidable batting at the woefully weak top of the order, it would be on a match-by-match or series-by-series basis. But that is less likely.

It leaves a station open that is critical in the present climate of tense relations between board and players but, even more so, between players and players. Whoever is made captain has to be strong enough to counter and control the internal tension that, given the reality of human nature, will be inevitable.

During the 2005 tour of Sri Lanka, when some ‘A’ team players defied the WIPA and joined the decimated Test squad, the two sides had to be moved into separate hotels.

Shivnarine Chanderpaul, who remained as captain through that strike and after, was under such pressure once that his batting went to pot and he quit six months later after a tour of New Zealand.

There is now no readily identifiable candidate for captaincy. Leaders of the calibre of Frank Worrell and Clive Lloyd are in short supply in every facet of Caribbean life and have been for some time.

Chanderpaul and Ramnaresh Sarwan, the two most experienced players of the moment apart from Gayle, have both drunk of the poisoned chalice of captaincy and are adamant that they want no more of it.

Floyd Reifer, summoned from the comfort of Barbados club cricket, aged 36, to lead the hastily assembled nondescripts once the WIPA made its “no cricket” move, is palpably not up to it as a batsman.

With a long career in prospect, Denesh Ramdin would appear the likeliest choice once he understands  the importance of the role, especially at this time.

He is young at 24 but has the experience of 36 Tests and 67 ODIs and a settled place in the team as wicket-keeper/batsman once normal service is resumed.

He led the West Indies at under-19 level and was made vice-captain to Gayle when Sarwan quit prior to the tour of New Zealand last year. It is a post Ramdin held before he joined the WIPA withdrawal.

As Reifer prepares to return to his job at the University of the West Indies in Barbados, he can feel satisfied with the performance of a ridiculed makeshift team that never shirked its daunting mission.

The International Cricket Council (ICC), the Federation of International Cricketers Association (FICA) and ESPN television openly bemoaned the absence of the stars and stated that it would have been better had it not turned up at the Champions Trophy.

Instead, it has shown real resilience, as competitive in its two matches against Pakistan and Australia as its full-strength counterpart might have been.

Against Bangladesh and now in South Africa, some of its players have placed themselves on selection notice.

Fast bowlers Kemar Roach and Gavin Tonge have made an immediate mark at the highest level.

Late in his cricketing life, Travis Dowlin shows the temperament lacking in several others who have had the chance before him in the middle order.

Darren Sammy and Dave Bernard have held their own as all-rounders; Nikita Miller’s level-headed lower order batting against Pakistan and shrewd left-arm spin against Australia were significant advances.

It is not to say that all would automatically find themselves in the “full strength” team. But they present realistic options not previously available to  the selectors.

The pity was that highly talented young players of the future, like Adrian Barath, Darren Bravo, Lendl Simmons, Ravi Rampaul, Andrew Richardson and Xavier Marshall, were denied the chance of such exposure because of an argument that did not concern them.

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