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Saturday, January 31, 2009

Cricket lost in paradise

On a few things in the disparate lands that form the Caribbean all are agreed. Their cricket team is rubbish, the game is in crisis and it cannot be allowed to continue. They have been agreeing on this for 15 years and the continuation has been virtually unchecked.

Examinations of the state of the game, which are regular and earnest, are not so much obituaries as descriptions of a dead man walking. It probably makes it more miserable that way, and if anybody thought it would really be a mercy killing there might be a case for sporting euthanasia.

Another point yielding universal accord at present is that the West Indies will lose the forthcoming Test series to England and thus extend to 14 the number of series they have gone without a win. Back in 2004 they managed to beat Bangladesh.

What makes this run more dreadful is the legendary sequence that came a little while before, the one between June 1980 and May 1995, when the West Indies went 29 series without losing, winning 20 of them. That was at least a cricketing generation ago, and 82 players have represented the West Indies in Test matches since with an increasing lack of success. The one-day arena which has occasionally sustained them is no longer doing so: of their last 24 matches from the start of 2007 only six have been won.

The last hurrah was almost exactly 10 years ago when a team obviously already on the skids somehow managed to repel Australia. In one of the epic series, featuring repeatedly miraculous batting exhibitions by Brian Lara, they managed to draw 2-2. Since then, virtually nothing, and if there has been the odd false dawn it has been easily recognisable for what it is.

Cricket, it seems, after a couple of weeks here, is still in crisis if it is not a shambles. The inertia which has dogged the sport for more than two decades shows no signs of being eradicated. Successive boards have been lambasted for not doing enough and have been followed by boards which have not done the same amount.

Ricky Skerritt was the team manager of the West Indies for four years between 2000 and 2004 and is now a senator and Minister for Tourism, Sport and Culture in the small Leewards Island nation of St Kitts & Nevis. He is as aggrieved and alarmed as everybody else that the decline shows no sign of stabilising and that leadership from the centre remains moribund.

“Everywhere, you have problems with club structure, association management and the whole infrastructure of cricket is going downhill,” he said. “It's a problem at local level but the problem at central level doesn't help that because the central West Indies board is constantly talking, talking, talking and not doing. In addition the selection policy has a total randomness about it. Psychologically for this region this is a very hurtful experience.”

Cricket could still be the glue that binds together an eclectic region. It is true that it is not being played at the same level as it was before. The anecdotal evidence is grim. Go anywhere in the sub-continent from the back streets of Multan to the maidans of Mumabi, or indeed in parts of rural England and impromptu games of cricket are to be seen. In the Caribbean, except where there are Asian communities, they are not.

There are abundant reasons: a losing team, ill conceived development programmes, the so-called American influence and as Sir Garfield Sobers pointed out in these pages a while back the changing culture which sees kids, like kids everywhere, using their time in different ways, such as watching telly and playing computer games. But there are no coaches because there are no coaching programmes. Junie Mitchum, for instance, who played for St Kitts & Nevis against England this week is about to become a level three coach purely because he took his badges in England while playing club cricket there.

Solutions have been offered at a rate to match the losses. The trouble is that none has been implemented. It is a mystery in so many ways because as Skerritt said: “It's a horses and courses situation. If you look back at the successive presidents of the West Indies Cricket Board they have all been good people, people who are care and are capable who have come in with the intention of getting things done and generally have been frustrated by a bureaucratic system.”

The latest presidential incumbent is Dr Julian Hunte, a highly decorated businessman and statesman from St Lucia, and so far there is no real sign that he has been any more effective than his predecessors. The same goes for Dr Donald Peters, the chief executive, who has already been suspended once. There is a row at present - it is one long row in one long blame game while the team somehow keeps turning up - about the fate of a report into Caribbean cricket which was compiled after an inquiry led by P J Patterson, the former long-serving Prime Minister of Jamaica.

It would be difficult to think of a heavier hitter than Patterson to conduct a forensic examination of the ills affecting the game and come up with some answers. In cricket report writing terms he is probably the Sir Vivian Richards of the business - to summon up one of the long gone legends.

Patterson's report, more than 100 pages long, was unwieldy in places but it was thorough, painstaking and brutally honest. It delved into the history and said what should be done in the future. Since it was commissioned by the WICB - or at least one of its former presidents - there might have been the possibility that something would have been done about it. A few days ago Patterson felt obliged to break his silence after months of inaction. At its most basic he wanted to know what the hell was happening, though he put it more eloquently in a letter to the board.

“After more than a year, the people of the West Indies are still in the dark as to the outcome of your deliberations and the consequent fate of our report,” he said. “As presently structured the WICB, as trustees, has no obligation to account for its decisions and actions to stakeholders. Unless extensive changes are made to the existing governance structure and soon, we fear the eventual demise of cricket, lovely cricket. We have no interest in embroiling West Indies cricket in more controversy but we can no longer remain silent.”

The inquiry was emphatic on issues ranging from the establishment of cricket academies first suggested 20 years ago to player education. It remarked on player indiscipline, the failure to modernise administration, the corrosive effect of other sports.

It also urged some blue skies thinking, which should not be out of the question given the surroundings here, suggesting how the game might become a major tourist attraction (witness the hordes of England fans who will descend on Antigua and Barbados next month) and that cricket links could be formed with China which already does business with governments in the region.

The WICB responded to Patterson's complaints quickly but did not directly address them. Nothing continues happen. The academies, for instance, vital to player progress, appear as far away as ever. The Board has repeatedly made a hash of things. Short of real cash because there is no regional television station big enough to pay the sort of fee that keeps the English game afloat, it still manages to upset would-be benefactors.

They have a draft plan of their own, supposed to run from 2008, but it remains a draft. Precious little has been done about enacting it. The lack of a cohesive strategy seems to be repelling the American billionaire Sir Allen Stanford whose establishment of a domestic Twenty20 tournament - later complemented by the infamous Super Series with the $20m winner take all match featuring England last year - seemed to offer financial salvation. Instead the WICB got into a mess, desiring Stanford's millions but wondering how to embrace him and upsetting their official sponsor Digicel into the bargain. Stanford is expected to jump any day.

They have had repeated clashes with players, who remain prone to gross indiscipline, but deal with them ineptly. No recent statement remains truer than that given by Chris Gayle not long after he assumed the West Indies' captaincy. “The WICB say they want the best out of the players but we also need the best out of the board.”

West Indies can still compete after a fashion and in Shiv Chanderpaul they have one of the wonders of the age. In the last two years of Test cricket, over 13 Test matches, he has averaged 104. It has been a tour de force of broad shouldered batsmanship, and it deserves its reward in the next few weeks.

And it should not be forgotten that in one important respect the region has improved. The 2007 World Cup, so disappointing in so many ways, at least saw the erection of new stadiums, albeit too inaccessible in some places. But it is truly something to build on.

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