Franchises yes, but other areas need upgrading too

20121220tonycozierWest Indies cricket’s hopeful new optimism was clear in the pictures on the pages of Friday’s press.

The smiles across the faces of West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) president Dave Cameron and his West Indies Players Association (WIPA) counterpart, Wavell Hinds, were as wide and as sparkling as the Caribbean Sea.

They were shaking hands after signing a new, long delayed memorandum of understanding and collective bargaining agreement (MOU/CBA) following a board meeting in Barbados at which the innovative franchise team system for the upcoming, expanded first-class season was the main topic.

Clive Lloyd, as esteemed a captain and cricketer as the game has known, was shown alongside them at the head table, clearly happy to be involved in West Indies cricket once more, as chief selector, after an inexplicable hiatus of almost two decades.

They were joined by chief executive Michael Muirhead and director of cricket Richard Pybus, the widely travelled Englishman whose extensive report on ways to reverse West Indies’ prolonged decline has spurred Cameron and his directors into action.

The only obvious absentee was the team’s coach for the simple reason that there is none; according to Cameron, a replacement for the recently departed Ottis Gibson would only be selected after a careful and exhaustive search.

It was an assembly and a cordiality unimaginable over the better part of the present century.

For 10 years, the WICB and the WIPA, under the militant presidency of Dinanath Ramnarine, were at virtual war with each other. Lloyd’s long-serving predecessor, Clyde Butts, and the previous director of cricket (known as cricket operations manager) never had such exposure.

The overriding impression was one of unity. It represented a seachange.

During his time, Ramnarine repeatedly exposed WICB weaknesses and reveled in successes in one arbitration case after another; under him, there were three damaging players’ strikes.

Eventually confronted by Ernest Hilaire, an equally combative opposing chief executive, the situation reached such a stage that chairs were reportedly tossed at one meeting after which the board refused to have more dealings with Ramnarine.

Both simultaneously left their posts two years ago; Ramnarine was replaced by Hinds, his one-time teammate, and Hilaire by Muirhead. Like Cameron, they are Jamaican; it is a relevant coincidence. In addition to Hinds’ altogether calmer manner, they know and understand each other.

For all the potential, such harmony does not necessarily signify a swift turnaround.

The WICB’s ‘West Indies first’ policy that places selection above overseas Twenty20 contracts was forcibly endorsed by Lloyd. It may yet test Hinds’ relationship with his most prominent members.

It could be as early as next April’s home Tests against England that conflict with the Indian Premier League; Hinds immediately showed where he stood on the issue by backing Sunil Narine’s exclusion from the New Zealand series in June after he failed to return from the IPL in time for the team’s preparatory camp.

The new franchise system, to be introduced for the doubled-up season that starts in six weeks, is yet to be monitored in practice. The fully professional Twenty20 Caribbean Premier League (CPL) has been an encouraging rehearsal.

Regional players and, perhaps more importantly, the fans readily accepted the concept so that, for instance, Trinidadians captained the Barbados and Guyana franchises, a Jamaican led Antigua. It made no difference to the public’s support for what they still regarded as their team.

The plan is to make the first-class tournament fully professional with contracts for all 95 players involved, in addition to the 15 already with WICB retainers. Each team would name a nucleus of 10 and place five others into an overall draft.

Cameron and Pybus are, understandably, upbeat about it. However, their premise that the absence of such a structure accounts for West Indies’ decline demonstrates a misunderstanding of history.

Pybus submits that such free movement of players “is actually the best practice elsewhere in the world.

“Where West Indies have been at is that we have been left behind dramatically and that has been reflected in our results,” he claims.

Really? The “best practice elsewhere in the world” has nothing to do with an artificial franchise system, all to do with the fact that the game everywhere else is under one sovereign nation with no restrictions on movement within its borders, for cricketers or anyone else. So it has been from the creation of England’s county championship, Australia’s Sheffield Shield, New Zealand’s Plunket Shield, India’s Ranji Trophy.

They existed when, mainly on the strength of the regional Shell Shield, for all its limitations, West Indies were the equal of any opponent, often the superior of all. The teams represented 11 proudly independent territories; with the exception of a change of residence, players represented their native land.

In an article I did for The Cricketer magazine earlier this year, Desmond Haynes rated the Shield in his time “just as hard, if not harder than Test cricket…and certainly no different in the intensity.”

He and Gordon Greenidge opened for Barbados against the pace of Andy Roberts for the Leeward Islands and, later, Michael Holding, Patrick Patterson and Courtney Walsh for Jamaica.

Viv Richards took on Joel Garner, Wayne Daniel and Malcolm Marshall for the Leewards against Barbados (and was dismissed against them for 0, 3, 4, 13, 46, 0, 45 and 16 in the first half of the 1980s).

So it was as well in the 1960s when Barbados took the first title with a team led by Garry Sobers, including Conrad Hunte, Seymour Nurse, David Holford and Charlie Griffith along with four other Test men.

Michael Holding felt the Shield “overall, wasn’t quite Test standard.” He had stints with Derbyshire and Lancashire in England, Tasmania in Australia and Canterbury in New Zealand but spoke of the “special feeling” he had when gliding in to deliver his thunderbolts for Jamaica.

“I think it means more than just going out and playing another cricket match,” he explained. “You’re representing your people. They were there to see you.”

Times obviously change and the structure of West Indies cricket is probably ready for a shake-up with cross-fertilisation between all its components.

No matter who plays for whom, it won’t make a difference, however, unless the standard of pitches is improved, the umpiring is more reliable and better practice facilities are developed – indeed, to the level they were when West Indies ruled the world.

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