As West Indies cricket reels again from yet another debacle on the field, the clamours are naturally out again for the sacking of the present West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) and for the restructuring of the body governing the sport. While I have been one of the critics of the WICB (I even wrote a song suggesting they ‘Take A Rest’), and the many complaints are justified (the latest coming from Michael Holding and Dwayne Bravo), there are a host of other factors behind this decline in the sport we’re seeing, and we have to treat those matters as part of the problem. If we believe that simply replacing or restructuring the current Board will put everything right in our cricket, we are dreaming.
For one, we don’t have the coaching and instruction apparatus, from school level upwards, that existed in the colonial days. With the coming of independence, and each country struggling to develop an individual economy, that system of training and ground maintenance gradually declined from lack of funding, as did inter-island and intercolonial matches of that earlier time. Our facilities for cricket today, generally, rank way below that of the countries we are hoping to beat, and as this is being written Dwayne Bravo, one of our finest cricketers and a former West Indies captain, is pointing to this as almost a “first step” repair. South Africa, at last report, had more than 100 cricket grounds of first-class if not Test standard; that’s just one country. How many does the entire Caribbean have? A dozen? How can we expect to produce world-class cricketers from low-class facilities? Bravo says we lack even proper nets.
Also, at the first-class level we are no longer benefiting from the system that allowed our players to be contracted to clubs in English county cricket where they learned their craft in the varying English conditions. Many of our cricket stars in the glory days, point to that English experience as a crucible that made them better players, as well more mature and disciplined, than would have otherwise been the case. It is a loss that we cannot measure precisely, but we can see it in the low technical level in some of the young players achieving national selection. I recall Michael Holding on a cricket broadcast showing a slow-motion clip of a young fast bowler, playing for the West Indies in a Test, at the peak of his delivery, with a bent wrist.
Another condition we have to face is that West Indian cricket followers clearly have been spoiled from the days when we ruled the cricket world and were very fortunate to have been blessed with a stream of stellar batsmen (the three W’s, Viv, Larry Gomes, Kanhai, Lara); the fast bowling talents of Holding, Garner, Marshall, Roberts, Walsh, Ambrose, etc, putting enormous pressure on opponents; great wicket keepers; and, early on, the spin magic of Ramadhin and Valentine. That parade may have been a spike (I have heard no cogent explanation for it) but it may also have been a result of the factors listed above – better instruction, better facilities, and more intense international experience. On the talent point, it’s worth noting that the ICC list of top ten Test cricketers in the world came out last week…top batsman; top bowler; top all-rounder. In years gone by, we would be well represented; this time, there was not one West Indian in the list. In short, to be fair to the Board, what used to come down the pipe long ago is just not there today.
From a wider vantage, while the WICB’s competence has been frequently derided, it must be acknowledged that the various economic woes in the region have resulted in money for cricket development being generally scarce for successive Boards going back to Pat Rousseau’s days as President. That burden has to be taken into account in assessing how they do what they do, and Dwayne Bravo’s comment this week about the deplorable state of cricket facilities reflects that situation starkly. Cricket grounds in the Caribbean suffer from lack of maintenance, and the generally poor state of pitches at our major cricket stadiums has been frequently cited as contributing to the deficient technical abilities of many of the players selected to wear the maroon colours.
Individually, as well, many observers have pointed out that today’s upcoming cricketers do not come with the “play for the region” stance of their predecessors, and that is another of the “today” attitudes that apply to most athletes in any sport worldwide. Just this week, former NFL coach Herman Edwards was lambasting young players in his sport in the USA for their selfish and “me first” attitudes. It is worth noting that the fundamental factor behind the recent West Indian players’ rift with the WICB that led to the India Test tour being cancelled was not so much from the lateness of their contract but that it showed the players being paid less for that tour than the previous one.
Another factor working against us, once independence came to the West Indies, was that every attempt to erect the framework of regional unity has failed or is failing. Today, as the tension over the CCJ shows, those narrow national interests prevail and show no signs of lessening. Indeed, insiders will tell you that those insular positions remain a daunting problem for the WICB, or for any regional cricket body that may replace it. It is a reality for us and something that Michael Holding has cited in his books as a hurdle that West Indies captains face, particularly when the team loses. In effect, the Board is hampered by the partisan nature of its composition.
Part of the debate, as well, is to blame the West Indies cricket decline on T20. One can sympathize with someone whose interaction with cricket is from the Test Match heyday, but the world we knew growing up in in our team’s winning days is dramatically changed. We live in a fast-paced, scoring-oriented time with lots of sizzle and instant excitement, and the most popular sports are forms born of that same mix. In tennis nobody plays serve and volley anymore; it’s the booming serve. In basketball, the big guy standing under the basket to play defence is history. In the NFL, it’s no longer the four-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust; now it’s the long pass, and sprinters playing wide receiver. Defence in soccer has given way to attacking mid-fielders, and the flashy back-heel pass. That’s what today’s sports fans want, and the success of T20 is part of that new flash. Long time Test patrons and former Test players are on TV sneering at the razzle dazzle of the short game as not “real cricket”, but T20 is packing stadiums with a considerable number of young and female patrons, and now there’s even a league in England. It is the brand in demand in today’s market; to its fans, it is the “real cricket”. Test cricket still has avid followers, and each format of the game should be used to promote the others.
Given the nature of the thing, ten years from now we will likely be still caught up in this debate, but whether there is a new Board, or a restructured Board, it will serve us well to remember “Yes they’ve been a disaster, but the Board is not the whole story.”