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Trouble in paradise

Trevor McDonald's view

10 January 1998

CRICKET lends itself to hyperbole perhaps as no other sport. The greatest teams can sink to abysmal depths. The finest batsmen can fail miserably, and bowlers once regarded as unplayable can be carted all round the park. Part of cricket's charm is its glorious uncertainty, its never-ending sense of fluctuating fortunes.

Nowhere is the change in fortune more evident than the Caribbean, where there are reasons to suggest that cricket in the West Indies, once the pride and passion of the region, is approaching something close to serious decline.

So dismal is the outlook that Sir Gary Sobers has been contemplating the unthinkable: that England might be victorious in the Caribbean this winter, in the five-Test series starting on Jan 29. And as a pointer to a future West Indians have come to fear, Sobers adds that should England win, interest in West Indian cricket among its staunchest fans will wither and may never recover. Other commentators in the region see no other possible outcome.

It is always possible that England might lose, but they will surely never have a better chance of winning. And not because, as has often been suggested, young West Indians, attracted by thoughts of making big money in the United States, are turning away from cricket and towards basketball or football in droves. West Indians have always looked abroad in the professions and in sport as a way of achieving upward mobility. What is happening to West Indian cricket stems from much deeper causes.

The result is a team racked by divisions, openly at war with the selectors and the cricket authorities; a team dominated by selfish, material interests. One senior official told me: ``The players have lost their pride. Their only interest now is in themselves and how much money they can make.''

To those who know, it is no surprise that the West Indies continue to under-perform. The biggest problem is what the chairman of selectors, Wes Hall, describes as the prevailing atmosphere of ``spiteful insularity''.

Every one of the six cricket-playing nations - Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, Antigua, Guyana and St Vincent - seems hell bent on sacrificing the regional dimension of the West Indian game on the altar of narrow self-interest.

At its best, West Indies cricket has always been something of an article of faith, an acknowledgement that to compete at the highest levels, different islands must ignore the tensions of political disunity and set aside their differences, if only temporarily. They still do, but increasingly these days with obvious bitterness and with a conspicuous lack of grace.

The island constituents of the West Indies team fight openly among themselves about almost everything. They have battles about who should captain the side. The selectors suggested that Trinidadian Brian Lara was the man for the job for the recent tour of Pakistan, but the board, with the presidency based in Jamaica, overruled the selectors in favour of keeping Jamaican-born Courtney Walsh. They disagree over who should play in the team, who should be coach, who should be the manager. They fight at every level about how the game should be run.

It was put to me recently by one Barbadian observer that whereas Worrell, Sobers, Lloyd and Richards saw themselves as West Indian, Lara sees himself as Trinidadian, Curtly Ambrose as Antiguan. This was no criticism of Ambrose or Lara. It is simply the way it is.

The Trinidad authorities mirror the attitude of their top batsman. Confronted with the evidence of the declining fortunes of West Indian cricket - Walsh and his team were humiliated by Pakistan in November and December, and the West Indies then managed to snatch defeat from the teeth of victory in the one-day final against England in Sharjah Trinidad cricket officials talk about how well the island's prospects look in the domestic Red Stripe competition. The very name of that tournament has begun to engender controversy. Jamaica is the home of Red Stripe Beer - the competition's sponsors - and there is a widely held view among the smaller islands that Jamaica uses that fact as a way of exercising a kind of hegemony over West Indies cricket.

Among officials in many smaller islands, the finger of suspicion is pointed at none other than the president of the West Indies board, Jamaican Pat Rousseau.

None of this would amount to anything were it not for the fact that recent West Indies performances suggest the Jeremiahs may be on to something. A situation resembling civil war existed on the tour of Pakistan, where the West Indies lost the three-match series 3-0, twice losing Tests by an innings and once by 10 wickets.

Players were brought into the team by the selectors and dropped, although the captain was consulted only intermittently and the manager, Clive Lloyd, and the coach, Malcolm Marshall, not at all. The selection procedure operates as an independent arm, a long way from the team, and external to it. It might just be possible for other cricketing powers to operate in this way, but for the West Indies it is rank insanity. Manager and coach are known to feel that players are brought into the squad more in the hope that they would do well, than on the basis of having deserved their places.

Opposition bowlers have begun to expose fundamental flaws in the technique of the West Indies' top batting order. The former Indian opening batsman, Sunil Gavaskar, talks about their tendency to play across the line, making them vulnerable to the swinging ball.

Gavaskar feels that Pakistan ruthlessly exploited that failing, even though at times Wasim Akram bowled barely at half pace, and on the best pitches the West Indies have ever encountered on the subcontinent. That should be good news for Andy Caddick and Dean Headley, and for the ever-reliable Angus Fraser.

Most alarming is what some West Indian commentators see as a loss of pride in playing for the team. Losing Test matches is no longer the humiliation it once was. The will to fight and win has been replaced by the reckless gamble of the one-day shot. Of this criticism, not even the great Lara is immune. Shivnarine Chanderpaul is perhaps the honourable exception.

Surprisingly, in assessing this loss of pride, the University of the West Indies offer an interesting opinion. For some time now, they have been tracking what they call ``contours of paradigmatic shifts in West Indian cricket culture''.

They have done so by making serious academic observations about the role of West Indies cricket in the life of the region with lectures and dissertations on subjects like: ``Imperialism'', ``Colonial Education'' and the ``Origins of West Indian Cricket''.

In addition to pondering such lofty matters, undergraduates at the Centre for Cricket Research at the Cave Hill campus, Barbados, which was set up in 1994, have come up with a number of damning conclusions about the current state of the game in the Caribbean. Hilary McD Beckles, director of the research centre and professor of history at Cave Hill, believes the crucial factor in understanding what is happening to West Indian cricket is that the players have lost all respect for the governments in the region, which they regard as politically corrupt, bankrupt and dishonest.

They believe politicians have lost touch with the passions of average people and as a consequence players no longer wish to be West Indian ambassadors in the way Worrell, Sobers, Lloyd and Richards felt honoured to be.

Beckles feels that the players are deeply suspicious of being ``commodified'' by sponsors like Red Stripe or Cable and Wireless, who, he said, were forced to demand legislation to ensure that the players agreed to compete. Beckles said his centre's research found that West Indian players consider the cricket authorities ``old fashioned and primitive'' and have little regard for them.

This would explain the way some players conduct themselves. When the West Indies were last in England, Lara absented himself from the team for four days, and on England's last tour of the West Indies, pace bowler Winston Benjamin came close to blows with an Antiguan cricket official over the seminal point of whether or not the player was allowed to park his car inside the ground.

Players despise these officials and see themselves as mercenaries fighting for themselves in the turbulence of the globalisation of sport. They have observed with scorn the inability of agencies in the region to provide any kind of living for them when their playing days are over.

Sobers has a Barbados roundabout named after him, but has been able to find little serious work in the Caribbean. Viv Richards does some, but has had more lucrative contracts in

Brunei. It took years for the West Indies to decide how to get Lloyd involved again in the game at home.

One sad consequence of this, according to Cave Hill research, is that some players are no longer concerned if they play cricket in the West Indies again. Their hearts and their minds

are elsewhere. Playing for Kent or Gloucestershire seems infinitely preferable to playing at home.

None of this makes an England victory a certainty. Lara's captaincy, confirmed on Wednesday, could be a tonic to West Indies' chances of success, especially as some colleagues regard him as a more astute tactician than Walsh.

Wasim Akram, who watched Lara struggle to make runs in Pakistan, believes the responsibility of leadership may inspire him to great batting again. And Lara may just be the man to mould the West Indies team into a functioning unit.

Those who disagree with that analysis point to Lara's volatile personality, his tendency to be a disruptive influence and the fact he has been reprimanded by the board on more than one occasion.

Trinidadians, who have named a public square after him and given him a mansion, will support him to the hilt. Jamaicans may not and Walsh might have to be persuaded to play under Lara. Lara's other big problem will be to persuade Ambrose not to chuck it all in and give of his best again against Mike Atherton and his England team.

If Lara fails, the consequences for West Indies cricket could be terminal.

Source: The Electronic Telegraph
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Date-stamped : 25 Feb1998 - 18:29