First Among Unequals

11th May 2015

Patrolling the Boundary  – a view from the outfield

Joy has not abated in the rum shops of the Caribbean.

Triumph at the Kensington Oval last week has been toasted with liberal amounts of Mount Gay, Angostura and Appletons.

And through our half-full glasses of Eldorado can we see the not-so-far-off glint of a new golden age? Does this new generation give promise of more than one golden day?

I sincerely believe so.

The Caribbean cannot get carried away by success in one match – equally it must not fail to capitalise on the moment.

Victory was based around youth – and these young players are good.

They are West Indies’ future. And the Caribbean needs to invest in them. Equally, they need to invest in the West Indies.

To succeed, WI must all be together as one, and look to ‘what comes next’? In particular, WI need to address and answer the question ‘what comes first’?

To move forward, the answer must be ‘WI do. The West Indies comes first.’

Now is a time of opportunity for the region’s cricket that must be grasped. The great hope and optimism is genuine, and as justified as it has been in at least a dozen years.

WI must respond to the upturn in performance and expectation by laying some preparation for what is to come.

In their great years, the West Indies failed to invest in the future, believing that the conveyor belt of talent would continue producing – that the golden geese would keep laying. Great batsmen were hatched by the dozen, and from the battery farm came a battery of fast bowlers.

But production slowed, output declined and their were no fresh Big Birds.

But the recently concluded Test series against England witnessed the progress of several young West Indian cricketers, and a first blooming of their potential to be cricketers of ability and international standing.

An editorial in the Jamaica Observer this week encapsulated the prevailing mood:

(The) personnel within the team is changing fast… youthful newcomers have performed very well… (and) knowledgeable West Indies cricket watchers know that there are others waiting, who are also talented. 

How to keep these players focused in furtherance of their own careers as well as West Indies cricket is a real challenge. We have seen the effect of the pull of the cash-rich IPL which, in the case of the England tour, clashed directly. All credit is due to Mr Holder, for example, for choosing the West Indies over IPL. But it’s not reasonable to expect that young men will consistently ignore the huge sums being offered in the world’s Twenty20 leagues simply because of their desire to represent the regional team.

Somehow, it seems to this newspaper, there must be a decision to rationalise international cricket so that these fixture clashes do not occur.

The whole world would love the BCCI to negotiate and identify a regular window in which the IPL is played – clashing with no other front-rank cricket. But they’ve not been prepared to discuss it. Until such time as they do, all other cricket nations must make their own provision. For the WIndies, they must look after their own. And make tough decisions.

WI now have the makings of a youthful, impressive, competitive and cohesive team, with the potential to pull the West Indies up from the depths, and once again hold its head high in World Cricket.

The chance must not be wasted – and it is vital that the ethos of this young team must not be disturbed.

There is a collective responsibility for the Caribbean to share a cricketing vision.

I believe that vision already has a name. It is the ‘West Indies First’ policy.

When Richard Pybus was appointed by the WICB’s new President, Dave Cameron as Director of Cricket, he drew up a plan for both the development and prioritising of cricket in the region.

One of the tenets of that plan was the ‘West Indies First’ policy. This identified that Caribbean cricketers owed their first allegiance to playing for the West Indies, and not for other teams in other leagues or tournaments. In short, if the West Indies have a match you should be playing for WI, not an IPL team.

Now is the time to reiterate the primacy of that belief.

Until recently the policy had seemed to have been forgotten, or conveniently overlooked as I alluded to in my blog last week.

No invoking, or even passing mention (to my knowledge) of it had been made in either the immediate lead up to, or during the England series.

This came after the WICB had initially been hard-line on the issue with Sunil Narine back in June of last year; and then wishy-washy when Narine again and Andre Russell rejected the international call in September to play against Bangladesh, preferring to appear in the Champions League T20 tournament. The WICB made a statement at that time, saying that:

The players’ decisions will not have any deleterious effect on consideration for future West Indies selection.

However, in the same press release, the WICB’s CEO Michael Muirhead “insisted that the Board’s Windies First policy would be in full effect when England come to the Caribbean”:

“Next year during the IPL we will be playing England and it (leniency) would certainly not hold for that …We are informing players in advance about the schedule as to what their commitment to West Indies cricket is going forward, and we expect that decisions will be made to put West Indies cricket first.”

And yet when England were in the Caribbean in April/May, and Narine, Russell, Gayle, Dwayne Bravo, Dwayne Smith, Sammy, Simmons and Pollard were simultaneously in India we did not hear a murmur from Muirhead, or any other demurring.

But I was not alone in pointing out this obvious anomaly. This week an editorial in Barbados Today took a firm line on the issue:

The West Indies Cricket Board has correctly stated that West Indies cricket must come first and it must stick slavishly to that policy. Of course, some balance must be found, and some leeway given for regional players to ply their trade on the global Twenty20 circuit if they so desire. But at the end of the day, the WICB’s focus must be on developing players to compete on behalf of the Caribbean on the international circuit. Choices, of necessity, have to be made.

A situation has developed where the second West Indies team of players dedicated to Twenty20 franchise cricket cherry-pick their tour commitments and then are accepted back into the fold often to the detriment of their replacements. This certainly defeats the purpose of developing cricketers to play for the West Indies first and foremost. We have had situations where the likes of Chris Gayle and Sunil Narine have declined to sign retainer contracts with the Board but are still chosen to represent the region. The West Indies Cricket Board must stand its ground on this issue.

These sentiments I heartily endorsed – and I widely circulated the piece. A fellow Caribbean cricket writer wrote to me:

Thanks for this. I agree with almost every word.

However, not all the region’s cricket observers agree. Another analyst colleague wrote to me to say:

Think the writer is being a bit one-sided though, Dave. As I’ve argued many times before, WICB given its poor history with players can’t do that. Plus we need to think bigger and consider the disturbing role IPL is causing to our cricket, by scheduling its tournament during the prime months of the Windies home season calendar.

He has a point. I replied:

Maybe – it’s a hard call to be so dogmatic about selection, but I confess I also sit that side of the fence. You are absolutely right re the awful scheduling of the IPL and the (deliberate?) chaos the BCCI causes by placing it where it does.

Everyone in World Cricket says they must negotiate to get it placed in an exclusive window that does not detrimentally effect anyone else. And do you know what – I don’t think they care – they will continue to rape and pillage cricketers from other countries wherever and whenever it suits them – and WIndies cricket is the biggest loser. 

The BCCI is never going to do the WICB any favours that are not in their own interest; all the more so since the strike. In that respect the WICB and WIndies can only look after their own. It might be sensible for them to try to schedule their home cricket at a time of year to not coincide with the IPL – but that would mean forethought and planning – things the WICB has never been renowned for!

It’s a tough call, but I genuinely think WI have to REALLY enforce the WIndies First policy – and go hang the consequences.

Even more persuasive in his arguments was Dr Don Marshall of the University of the West Indies, in Barbados, who wrote a response for this blog. Don is a friend and a regular contributor to the Mason & Guests cricket talk show on the island that I co-hosted for two and half years.

Don’s piece can be read in full here, but his most crucial points were these:

Two elements were missing in the rich discussion raised in the editorial: one is that Boards DO receive a substantial sum from franchises for its players via “no-objection certificates” – and this has added to the earnings required in recent years to develop the game and its administration and; two, for the most part, the marquee international players at most agree to play in two such franchise tournaments a year, some in their locally organized T20 brand…

The WICB makes no allowance for an IPL window, leaving the players to seek a NOC from the WICB if they are offered a contract by any of the competing Indian franchises.

The message is that they should accept that the offer of a retainer contract is an advance over what their cricketing forebears endured; and that in terms of estimation and worth, the said retainer, plus the contracts for each West Indies tour of duty together with the allowances result in a much better financial sum than what most cricket nations pay their players.

In these circumstances, the ‘West Indies First’ policy is inflexible, paternalistic and beckons conflict.

Don is quite right to highlight that there is a great deal more to the issue than purely the personal profit of the players involved. Their involvement brings in much-needed income to the WICB.

It would not be in the interest of the Board to block any WIndies player’s participation in the IPL by refusing a No Objection Certificate – such an action would be perceived as an act of hostility by the BCCI – and the WICB would be unwise to upset the Indian Board any further – its respective position to it is precarious enough as it is.

The best move therefore maybe to maintain the status quo – but this does not address the issue at hand, namely the continuation of the young WI team ethic and its progression and development as an international side.

Despite the intelligent arguments of Dr Marshall, it cannot, as the Barbados Today editorial points out, be good for anyone to have a continually revolving door in and out of the international side.

The Policy has been stated – let’s either bin it or stick to it – not use it when it suits and forget it when it doesn’t.

West Indies cricket, and its cricketers, and its supporters, need to know where WI stand on the issue. Surely we can find some middle ground?

Personally, I would like to see the policy adhered to – but without animosity towards those that decide their individual financial security outweighs the altruism of indulging the vicarious dreams of the people of the Caribbean in representing them.

That is their personal choice.

But this debate should not degenerate into a crusade against those players. A form of truce can be called.

In that respect, compromise may well be the best option – and something to be openly adopted: to allow the T20 side to be a team of ALL Caribbean cricketers, and allow its sphere of influence to be self-contained and self-achieving. Let all the IPL T20 players take their place under the captaincy of Darren Sammy and happily represent the West Indies in those matches.

As Osman Samiuddin wrote this week, many in the outside world believe that this where the WI’s strength lie anyway.

For the Test Matches, and ODIs players need to make a choice. If they want to play in the T20, that is fine. But that sort of cricket only gets you fit to play that game. And if you choose that over other international representation do not expect to come back. The Selectors and WICB need to make that absolutely clear. Once a player has made that choice, then they must abide by it. There is no coming back.

Some players may be lost along the way. Jermaine Blackwood is a very exciting, dynamic young batsman, and at some point the Indians are bound to come knocking. When they do, if it clashes with a Test or ODI and he, or anyone else for that matter, opts to prioritise their own well-being, then the WICB needs to say, ‘good luck – and goodbye’.

Players can then make their own choice when to leave the stage, and let there be no confusion left behind.

And this includes those that have already made their choice.

I’m thinking particularly of Dwayne Bravo who this week was revealed by Vinode Mamchan in the Trinidad Guardian to be considering a return to full international colours.

As a friend of mine hollered when I forwarded him a link to the news:

NOOOOOOOOOOO!

He briefly elaborated:

The team does not need another bad influence. Dwayne is lazy (regarding training and fitness) and by his own admission not committed to WI. His batting has deteriorated so much that he bats 7 or 8 in the IPL and his bowling lacks the discipline required for Tests.

While I might not put it quite as strongly myself, I would remind readers that Dwayne has only played three first-class matches since his last Test appearance for WI in December 2010. Hardly match fit for a five-day game.

I’m afraid I detect a whiff of a player wanting to re-mount the popular bandwagon at the first scent of the sweet smell of success. There must be many WIndies fans that share my unease and sense of foreboding at a potential Bravo return:

On CaribbeanCricket.com, Besar wrote:

In order for West Indies cricket team improve, we must move on past Dwayne Bravo, Chris Gayle, and those players of that generation. Why would you recall a player who is prepared to walk out of a tour that results in cost of $42 million? A player who has consistently chosen his IPL and other foreign franchises over West Indies cricket? Why would you continue to depend on one who has clearly demonstrated that he will play only under his terms, so that if he does not like the coach he resigns, and returns when the coach is to his liking?

“In the aftermath of the 2011 World Cup when it was decided to work with new players, the team, just like the present, began to show signs of improvement and cohesion; the lobby to bring back these guys produced no qualitative improvement, neither in attitudes or performance. Don’t let this happen a second time, move on without them, you cannot keep discarding young players to accommodate them; a team needs stability to grow. Don’t set that precedent or the next generation would follow suit.

Equally, there will be many who would rejoice at a return of ‘Big Dog’.

He certainly merits consideration for inclusion, as this item illustrates.

In previous pieces on this blog I have not held back in my condemnation of the ODI strikers in India, and perhaps on occasion have been more than a little verbose in denouncing Dwayne Bravo in particular.

Dr Don Marshall justifiably accused my rhetoric as being ‘overblown’, and felt I was ‘blackening the eye’ of the players involved.

Don had a point!

But nonetheless I still feel strongly about the ring-leaders, and that they should be excluded from appearing in WI’s whites or maroons, in any but a T20 representative format.

That is my opinion, but it is not mine that counts.

Convenor of Selectors, Clive Lloyd’s is one that does, and we perhaps had an indication of his thoughts when he omitted Bravo and Kieron Pollard from the World Cup squad.

However, the West Indies new Coach, Phil Simmons may have another view. He may believe he can re-integrate Bravo and not upset the team ethic that has been recently built. He may even think the reintroduction of Bravo and other returning IPL players will strengthen the team’s dynamic. I hope he gives the issue careful consideration and is not pressed into re-including any players because of a perceived popular demand.

The fundamental issue of whether any player preferred the IPL rather than make themselves available for the recent Tests has to be addressed.

While many West Indians did not feel that, on the whole, the loss of any of them diminished the side (Chris Gayle excepted), that was not the impression of visiting English fans and journalists.

Summarising On Test Match Special, Geoffrey Boycott could be repeatedly heard opining that England were only playing against a 2nd XI, because ‘West Indies are missing half their team’ – an impression repeated by a travelling England supporter interviewed in this week’s Line & Length.

Caribbean supporters may not think the absence of Dwayne Bravo, Gayle, Pollard, Narine etc is substantive, but to the outside cricket world (that remembers seeing these players on TV, often shining briefly but brightly in the game’s shortest format) they are felt to be a tremendous loss. And we have to acknowledge that many armchair viewers in the Caribbean also hold that view.

Both the WICB and its selectors, and the Caribbean in general, has to ask itself: ‘Do we want these players back?’ Equally, do they want to come back?

In a discussion on ESPN Cricinfo, former New Zealand international Iain O’Brien explained to Alexis Nunes the dilemma WI’s IPL players are facing:

What do you want to be a part of? Do you want to be part of somewhere where you are loved, respected and having success? Or do you want to be part of something where you feel like a second class… not second class citizen – that’s not fair – but feel like it’s not all about the cricket, it’s a whole lot more going on behind the scenes? So it’s a tough one for them to decide – but I also get the feeling it’s an easy one for them to decide.

It isn’t an easy decision, and there are no easy answers for an individual identifying his priorities – and duties.

Talking earlier this year to Don Marshall about the repercussions of the WIndies strike, and the omission of the Bravo and Pollard from the World Cup squad, he reminded me that ‘the people need heroes’.

We cannot deny that for some considerable time these players have been at the forefront of the popular consciousness, and their continuing performances and appearances on television have kept them as ‘heroes’ for a great many in the region.

Who are we, us self-acclaimed cricketing ‘cognoscenti’ to deny the masses their heroes just because we think we are right that their exclusion is for the long-term good? And of course we may be just plain wrong.

The fundamental issue here, I believe, is one of representation. The people have a need, and a right to be represented. But who best performs that task? And who has the right to make that judgement call?

It seems to me that the big picture is rather blurred – the vision clouded by the over-riding influence of the IPL.

In the post-war years building up towards the islands’ independence, CLR James was the articulate voice identifying in what way the people of the Caribbean needed to be represented by its cricket, and how – primarily, by the elevation of a black man to be Captain of the region’s team.

He championed Frank Worrell, an intelligent, dignified and passionate West Indian, who like Sir Learie Constantine (subject of a recent excellent BBC radio discussion you can find here) before him, was fully aware of the great import of his public persona to the region’s people, and the responsibility of that position.

Sir Frank was a great man who as a leader personified the Caribbean’s competitive spirit, its identity and its need for recognition – in short he was both a man of the people, and the people’s man. And these qualities he breathed through his teams and his players – entrusting each to be a representative of the Caribbean community.

The attitude, approach and sense of representation was handed on and fostered in turn by Sir Garfield Sobers, Clive Lloyd, Sir Viv Richards (among others), and all their teams were proud, representative – and winners.

But you never got any sense from these sides that the wins were not first and foremost for those that the players were playing for, and serving – not themselves, but the people.

Somewhere along the way that has been lost.

West Indies cricketers still have a responsibility to the people – although many observers argue that it is understandable that many players have allowed their own financial well-being to be an alternative priority.

I don’t agree.

The pursuit of personal wealth is of course a natural state of being. But let us not forget that sportsmen are public figures and have a responsibility to the people.

Like politicians, they have a duty to serve and uphold standards.

To be a ‘hero’ comes with a great deal of responsibility. If the individual cannot shoulder it, then he should move into another profession. And is not a convincing counter argument to say that some sportsman do not have a choice – their game is all that they are good at. Being a professional international sportsman is not a job – it is a vocation, a calling, a public service.

This is what needs to be remembered when we look at cricket, and the IPL ‘seduction’.

Comparisons have been made between the free-market forces of the IPL and Kerry Packer’s ‘Cricket Revolution’ in the late 1970s.

In an article today, Dr Rudi Webster asked ‘Is Cricket’s History Repeating Itself? He observed:

(If) basic needs are not balanced, a conflict of values would result in mistrust and bad feelings between cricket Boards and players who are trying to set themselves up financially for life after cricket…

Why (is it) in our economic system cricketers are labelled as mercenaries and are victimised and punished for doing things for which people in other professions are admired and praised – legally maximizing their income and financial status! Why are cricketers held to a higher level of patriotism and loyalty than people in other professions? …

(Boards) should avoid committing the same mistakes about the IPL that their predecessors made during the Kerry Packer Revolution.

I would argue that what may have been right then does not mean a similar stand is necessarily right now.

In referencing cricket ‘revolutions’, the fact that history has conceded that Packer was right has tended to make people assume subsequently that anything done in the name of a free market, or to further empower cricketers is ‘good’ thing.

That is a lazy assumption.

It may be for the greater good, but invoking Packer’s name does not give subsequent upheavals automatic credibility.

Cricketers may be among the poorest paid of the world’s international sportsmen, in comparison to Premier League footballers, tennis players, golfers etc – but they are hardly sitting stooped over a begging bowl.

England and Australian cricketers are handsomely remunerated. Caribbean cricketers suffer by comparison – and yet West Indies’ Test cricketers are among the region’s top 2% re income.

Those with sufficient skill that desire more pay for less work can turn their back on the honour of representing their nation and decamp to the Indian Premier League.

The piles of money changing hands at the IPL are a good thing for cricketers – but not necessarily for cricket as a whole. It’s a lot for not much, and erodes what dinosaurs like myself believe is ‘proper cricket’. But I am probably in a minority.

The pay differences between then and now are not comparable. West Indian cricketers are well paid. Cricket Boards do not have anything resembling the exploiter/exploitee, baron/serf relationship that was still prevalent in 1977.

Cricketers do not earn the wages of pop-stars or motor-racing drivers, but they do earn the wages of Prime Ministers. Personally, I want the West Indies to pick players that are more PMs, less pin-ups.

They are well paid public servants – and need to do everything they can for, and in the name of, their people.

David Oram

David Oram is an Englishman resident in Islamabad following West Indies cricket. When living in Barbados he was the ‘statto’ and sometime presenter of ‘Mason & Guests’ – Voice of Barbados’ weekly cricket talk show, the leading cricket radio show in the West Indies – hosted by the Caribbean’s principal radio commentator, Andrew Mason. You can tweet me at DavidOram@colblimp1983.

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One thought on “First Among Unequals

  1. jeeprunnernner

    West Indies First – agreed. Trust Phil Simmons – wholeheartedly agreed. Wave goodbye to Bravo, Pollard & co – tough call but needs to be done at some point. May as well be now.

    Reply

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