West Indies ambling towards edge of oblivion

‘Some of the old generals have retired and gone And the runs don’t come by as they did before But when the Toussaints go, the Dessalines come We’ve lost the battle but we will win the war… Pretty soon the runs are going to flow like water Bringing so much joy to every son and daughter Say we’re going to rise again like a raging fire As the sun shines you know we’re going to take it higher…’

So goes David Rudder’s magnificent calypso to West Indian cricket, one that has become something of an anthem for its diehard supporters. His message, like that of many commentators in the West Indies, is an essentially optimistic one. The empire may be crumbling but it will come again. But why should it? Such lazy assumptions have long been part of the problem within the administration of West Indies cricket and if the largely apathetic response – the weary indifference of the long-suffering – to West Indies’ worst defeat in Test history is anything to go by, it is a false assumption.

Cricket in the Caribbean is in severe crisis. One commentator who recognises the problem is Tony Cozier. His love of West Indies cricket runs deep, but it is not blind and on Thursday evening, as he gave the third Sir Frank Worrell lecture at the London Metropolitan University, he set out a stark message. While interest in the game is still strong, Cozier reckons patience is running thin. If nothing is done soon, he said, ‘then there will come a time when the West Indies will find themselves engaged in the ICC’s world league, struggling to avoid a loss to Vietnam in some tournament in Outer Mongolia’. Judging by Cozier’s pallid complexion in the cold at Headingley, he’d relish reporting from Outer Mongolia about as much as the cricketing oblivion he predicts for West Indies.

The signs of decline are everywhere and they are alarming. On the field, West Indies, a team who went 15 years without losing a Test series before 1995, have not won a single Test match for over two years. The current touring team is the first for generations that does not possess a world-class performer. Observers can relate to a paucity of world-class performers; after all it is no more than blind luck and chance that England can boast one of their own in Kevin Pietersen, but the absence of basic cricketing skills is harder to understand. For a team blessed with natural athletes, this must be the worst fielding outfit to visit these shores for an age. Slip fielders standing in each other’s pockets (although at Headingley it might have been an attempt to keep warm), ground fielding has been shoddy in the extreme, and catching in the deep of barely club standard.

This lack of basic skill suggests a deeply flawed system; and since many of these players have been around the team for some years now, it also reflects on the slide into amateurism that has accelerated over the past few years. This is a team who have to learn again the meaning of such terms as ‘work ethic’ and ‘professionalism’. If you don’t believe me, then you should read the remarkable report of the physiotherapist, Stephen Partridge, following the 2006 home series (it was released on a website called CaribbeanCricket.com). In it he outlines how the players held a meeting in St Lucia during which they decided that the training regime was too intense and forced its cancellation. Of Dwayne Bravo, the brightest of the young players around whom you’d think a team might develop, Partridge said this: his ‘approach to bowling training is minimalist’; that he has ‘largely moved away from adhering to his personalised physical program’; that ‘his diet is of major concern, consisting of sugar and little else’, and that any gains in physical conditioning would be ‘gradual and directly linked to the support we gain from his fellow countryman and patron [Lara]’.

There are those who believe that, as one West Indies supporter said to me this week, ‘there are plenty of young men desperate to play for West Indies, it is when they get into the team that the problems start’. But, surely, the problems run deeper than that and must be linked specifically to an archaic system of first-class cricket, administrative bungling over a period of years, the constant infighting between the players and the administrators and the rising challenge of football (rather than, as is so often reported, other American sports) as the game that really gets the hearts of the urban black youth pumping.

A combination of on- and off-field issues have eroded support so that last year in Jamaica, for instance, there was, for the first time, no first-class cricket broadcast over the airwaves. Simon Crosskill, a Jamaican commentator, said at the time: ‘The final nail in the coffin for regional cricket is the poor standard of cricket… and the fact that very few listeners under the age of thirty-five show any interest in cricket, let alone regional games.’ There is no doubt that there is a generational gap. For the older generation, success on the cricket field was inextricably linked with the movement to independence in the 1960s and the subsequent nation-building. Cricket meant something way beyond its narrow boundaries. The older generation of cricketers, as Cozier said on Thursday evening, ‘needed no reminding of the significance of their performances to the psyche of West Indians everywhere, not least the hundreds of thousands who made their home and eked out a living in England’.

But independence has long been won; third-generation West Indians in England play football and support England, and for the current generation of West Indian cricketers such rhetoric has long lost its meaning. It is difficult not to feel some sympathy for the current players who must constantly stand comparison with the giants of the past. According to Hilary Beckles, the pro vice-chancellor of the University of the West Indies and the leading cricket academic in the region, what is being passed on is not knowledge but ‘condemnation’.

For Beckles the way out of decline was meant to be the World Cup. Looking at Caribbean cricket over the past hundred years, he identified two broad phases: the imperialist phase, pre-independence, and the nation-building phase that coincided with on-field domination. He predicted the aftermath of the World Cup would coincide with a so-called ‘third paradigm’ that would help West Indies cricket develop in the global age.

Although it is too soon to say for certain, if anything the miserable World Cup has accentuated the feeling in the Caribbean that cricket has had its day. What, then, is left to cling on to? A Schofield-type review group, headed by P.J.Patterson, the former Jamaica prime minister, is currently looking into all areas of the governance of West Indies cricket. It is, according to Ken Gordon, the president of the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB), ‘perhaps the most important committee the West Indies Board will ever appoint’. Unlike the Schofield Review, its terms of reference are wide-ranging and it is to be hoped that they use the team’s current decline and the financial situation the WICB finds itself in, to recommend fundamental change when they report on 30 June.

Elsewhere, brooding like Achilles in his tent, is the Texan billionaire Allen Stanford. So far his largesse has been viewed suspiciously by the WICB, but maybe the Patterson group will find a way to bring him and the WICB together. He recognises the need to re-professionalise West Indies cricket, and to that end he has employed 17 Antiguan cricketers on three-year contracts under the leadership of Eldine Baptiste, the former West Indies cricketer, who for many years has been a highly regarded coach in South Africa. That seems to be the obvious template for other regions to follow, especially if Stanford’s generosity embarrasses other West Indian businesses to get involved.

What is clear is things cannot continue as they are. For Beckles, the dominance of the West Indies team over an 18-year period ‘will go down in the history of civilisation as one of the greatest achievements of humanity’. Perhaps he overstates his case, but it is surely one of the greatest sports stories ever told, just as the current decline is one of the saddest to behold. Malcolm Speed, the chief executive of the ICC, may last week have deluded himself that world cricket ‘has never been stronger’, but had he been at Headingley he would have realised that cricket is in danger of losing something precious. Sunday Telegraph, 3 June 2007