Mitchell: Still hope of a Windies revival
Alison Mitchell charts the demise of Caribbean cricket and finds there are encouraging signs for the future
It is difficult to see how this Test series against the West Indies will end in anything other than a three-nil drubbing to England. Victory at Edgbaston, while impressively ruthless from England, came after an insipid contest. For the sake of the match and the spectacle, it must be hoped that the West Indies will approach Headingley with more verve, more ambition and more match awareness.
Teams can be outplayed, of course, and a young bowling attack will often struggle with consistency, but the most depressing thing about the West Indies performance at Edgbaston was the lacklustre and naïve way they went about their business in the field; rarely attacking the ball, rarely putting the batsmen under pressure when a quick single was taken and, most frustrating of all, failing to take immediate advantage of the new ball when the lights were on. It was a head scratching moment, or, if you were the coach Stuart Law, a head in your hands moment.
The problems stretch deeper than what we see manifest on the field of play though. At Test Match Special, we have been working with the excellent Trinidadian commentator Fazeer Mohammed. He believes he has been watching the game decline in the West Indies over the course of the last 20 years, long before Twenty20 cricket started dominating the calendar.
Other than when they have toured Bangladesh or Zimbabwe, the West Indies have won only three of the last 97 Test matches they have played away from home. The heady days of Test victories in Melbourne and Perth in 1996/7 are but a distant memory. It is instructive to note that legends such as Brian Lara, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh were still playing when this dismal run began with two innings defeats and a loss by ten wickets on the 1997 tour of Pakistan (mind you, the formidable Wasim and Waqar were still playing then as well). Mismanagement at board level has been the root cause of the decline. Politicking and in-fighting in the corridors of power have dogged West Indies cricket for too many years. A gulf of mistrust between players and administrators has got wider and wider.
So the decline is not a recent phenomenon to be blamed solely on the advent of lucrative T20 Leagues, which have lured Chris Gayle and others. These leagues have taken advantage of a situation where international cricket became an unattractive option to the best players in the Caribbean.
The man now tasked with the mammoth challenge of trying to build the West Indies back up is former PCA commercial director Johnny Grave. He has been in the job for six months, and was at Edgbaston to witness the team’s innings defeat first hand. In an interview with the Jamaica Gleaner this week, he acknowledged the scale of the problem facing the West Indies and stated his desire to change a culture – which might be easier said than done.
“After years of politicking, and interminable rowing between the board and players,” he said, “it is possible to see the contours of a new age for Caribbean cricket; one in which the Windies will focus on external foes – their opponents on the pitch – rather than internal struggles.”
His effort at changing the image of the board started with the rebranding of West Indies Cricket to ‘Cricket West Indies’. One of the first things to have been implemented was the temporary ‘amnesty’ over the regulation that allowed only those who played in the country’s domestic 50 over competition to represent the national team.
A change in eligibility rules won’t necessarily make the showpiece players flock back to the national Test team, though. Grave does, however, intend to offer white-ball only contracts to certain players in a bid to secure their services for ODIs as well as T20s. In the meantime, Gayle and Marlon Samuels are returning for the ODI series against England next month. It looks like Sunil Narine will make himself available for selection soon, but he wants to have a stint in the Regional Super50 first. The availability of big names is surely only a temporary solution. A short term fix. Trust and working relationships need to be established for the long term. More significantly, players need to be compensated at a level that bears a more favourable comparison with the pay deals on offer in T20 leagues.
This issue is certainly not one that is confined to the West Indies, but Grave is
It is possible to see a new age for Caribbean cricket; one in which the Windies focus on external foes rather than internal struggles
at least aware of the bare economics of the situation and the necessity to incentivise players, particularly to play Test cricket. The question is, where will this money come from? To what extent should the ICC be responsible and offer a helping hand? How many countries can the ICC do this for and, then, where does it end? Cricket West Indies have been able to secure an extra US$48 million from the ICC – an increase on the amount originally allocated to them in the funding period 2016-2023 – but the board will need to work hard to add to that in a sustainable way.
A bright note at least is that from conversations with Fazeer Mohammed and also Curtly Ambrose in the TMS box, it seems the passion for cricket among fans in the West Indies remains strong. Cricket matters in the Caribbean. What the public really want is a national team to be proud of – now, and into the future.
Alison is a commentator with BBC Test Match Special and presents Stumped, the weekly cricket podcast from the BBC World Service www.bbcworldservice.com/stumped
Back for ODI series: Chris Gayle and Marlon Samuels
Hanging his head: West Indies captain Jason Holder leaves the field after being dismissed by Stuart Broad in the first Test at Edgbaston
New broom: Johnny Grave