Peering through the cricket smoke

Among a number of vexing matters grinding us in the Caribbean, one of the most vexing is the state of our cricket and, in parallel, the raging controversies about our West Indies Cricket Board (WICB).  Approaching that subject today, I do not pretend that I come to put out the fire; I am merely hoping to dispel some of the smoke, while more formidable advocates, such as Deryck Murray, Ian McDonald, Tony Fraser, Romain Pitt, et al, concentrate on the flames.

With all our shortfalls, we have been blessed in our region, over the years, with some very incisive minds, and I declare, as the intellectuals might say, “ab initio”, that what I present here is drawn from a range of exchanges, over several weeks, with some of those astute folks across the region who shall remain nameless in case my assimilation proves flawed. That said, and with the understanding that this is but a piece of the puzzle, here we go:

Up to my eyebrows in this subject as many of us have been for some time, I found myself stymied by two issues with the WICB:  what was it that propelled the Board to make the move of registering itself as a company in the British Virgin Islands, and secondly, can we once and for all clear up the Board’s reference to “shareholders” in the organisation which confuses us all including, in recent days, even the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago, the Honourable Keith Rowley?

The history here is that in the early days in the Caribbean there had been no central body to administer our cricket among the various territories; West Indian cricket tours abroad were informally organized by some of the major clubs in the region. However, the colonial authorities felt the sport would benefit from central organization, and so the West Indies Cricket Board of Control was formed with its first official meeting taking place on 22 January 1927 at the Bridgetown Club in Barbados with representatives from the Windward Islands, Trinidad & Tobago, Barbados and British Guiana. Delegates from Jamaica and the Leeward Islands were invited but were unable to attend.

The organization was to operate with a President, a Secretary, and a Board made up of two representatives from each of its six territorial boards (Jamaica; Barbados; Trinidad & Tobago; British Guiana; Leeward Islands; Windward Islands).

That organisation, which we now know as the West Indies Cricket Board, has had a tempestuous life, filled with controversy, coming to a peak in recent years with several calls for its reorganisation or restructuring, amid accusations it had become answerable to no one for its rule, but with the WICB staunchly resisting these calls.

One event that plays a critical part in the impasse took place in 1998 when the WICB incorporated itself as an International Business Company (IBC) in the British Virgin Islands (BVI).  Experts on this issue contend that there was a purely financial reason for this move: the IBC designation creates a tax saving for a company so registered.  (Cricket-playing Caribbean countries such as Barbados, St. Lucia, Guyana, etc., prohibit IBC’s; however, they are legal in the BVI, hence the location choice.) When, however, the BVI then routinely required the WICB to provide a list of its shareholders, an insider says that the cricket body, having no shareholders in the conventional sense of the term, apparently listed instead the 12 representatives from its territorial boards.  This development explains the frequent WICB assertion that it is answerable only to its “shareholders” – a response that puzzled us for years. Who are these mysterious shareholders?  We now know that they are, in fact, the twelve representatives from the six territories.  This meant, as a one-time cricket official put it: “Territorial reps now being referred to as ‘shareholders’, could not possibly disapprove something that they had previously approved as a ‘territorial rep’ and vice versa.”  In essence, the “shareholder” label is merely a nomenclature tactic being used to deflect criticism.

There is another reason, however, for the IBC move, and it has to do with funding.  Over the years, as operating expenses rose and revenues declined, sponsorship had taken on greater urgency for the WICB, and the organisations being so approached  had themselves become more careful; with all the ensuring controversy about the WICB’s doings, they wanted to ensure that they were dealing with a standard commercial entity, e.g., “who are your shareholders?”  With none of those in the corporate sense identifiable in the WICB, some legal whiz, perhaps in Antigua, must have calmly proposed the regional reps to fill that role, solving the dilemma in the process. (I’m speculating here, but he/she probably got a four-course thank-you dinner at the island’s prestige Holiday Inn.)  One legal mind in Barbados reminded me that the WICB Directors were not, as in a Company, elected by all the Shareholders; in an unusual manner, they were simply appointed, two each, by their respective territorial boards. It is a singular distinction.

Another barrister argues that the various Prime Ministers in recent times calling for WICB restructuring made a cardinal faux pas by addressing their concerns to the WICB rather than to the owners, namely the six territories.  He contends that the Directors cannot dissolve themselves – only Shareholders can – and given our insularity, a unanimous Shareholder resolution could prove impossible. One lawyer had suggested the strategy of one of the territorial boards going to the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) to argue that the WICB is affecting that country negatively by its actions; only the CCJ can pass an order that would be binding across the region. It is revealing that although similar suggestions have been mentioned in the regional press, no Member territory took such an approach to the CCJ. One can see that as vindication for the WICB’s operation, or as further proof of our regional insularity – your choice.

With some of the smoke cleared but with the embers still very much alive, questions of change in the WICB remain and the recent action of the Indian Supreme Court, in dismantling the self-serving nature of their Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), in a similar accountability impasse, is worth noting. However, one expert contends that the historical insular positions taken on diverse issues in the region over the years show no signs of weakening, and, as one lawyer put it, “the difficulty of getting the six reps to agree on anything” remains the major stumbling block to any substantial change.  In that scenario, the only hope, as cricket fan Ian McDonald told me, is for a Mandela-like figure to emerge in the region to pull the whole issue together in a charismatic fashion.  Given, however, how long it took for such a saviour to emerge to solve the apartheid impasse, and the very rare qualities Nelson Mandela possessed, I am skeptical of the “Mandela” solution coming to bail us out.  But in the words of Mr. McDonald, who, I hasten to add, is not one of my “lawyers”, all we can do is hope.

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