3rd July 2015
Patrolling the Boundary – a view from the outfield
“Retired, Reds?” – “No, banned by the Board”
Joseph ‘Reds’ Perreira and I spoke over the phone yesterday, which is a delightful, regular occurrence.
He and I became good friends during my time in Barbados – and I was fortunate, indeed privileged that on cricketing issues, both public and private, he frequently turned to me as a sounding-board. What an honour!
But yesterday he was not happy.
I’ve been privy to his personal disquiet at his ousting as an international cricket commentator – a matter which has upset him a great deal, divorcing him from his great love of more than forty years – but of which, up until now, he has not spoken publicly.
But after many months of mis/disinformation from the West Indies Cricket Board, Reds has decided to give his version of what has effectively been a blacklisting and broadcasting ban by the Board.
But Reds had not been alone in this censorship – other respected colleagues have been similarly deemed persona non grata. Fast-bowlers turned commentators Michael Holding, Colin Croft and Kenny Benjamin have also been outlawed – and most notably West Indies’ greatest living cricket writer/broadcaster, Tony Cozier.
With the recent death of Richie Benaud, he is probably also the WORLD’s greatest living cricket writer/broadcaster.
Cozier turns 75 next week (and Barbados’ Governor General Sir Elliott Belgrave really should consider knighting ‘Sir Tony’ for his services to the great game) – yet he is as astute as ever, and his remains the definitive view and voice of Caribbean cricketing events. We may not always agree with him, but we should never ignore nor disrespect him.
However, the honest assessments of Cozier, Croft, Holding, Benjamin and Perreira are no longer welcomed by the WICB – at least in broadcast terms. They have been perceived to be anti-Board too often, too negative about the West Indies, and too critical of the new WICB hierarchy – which saw Dave Cameron displace Dr Julian Hunte as President in March 2013, and confirmed in the post (despite a challenge from the BCA’s Joel Garner) earlier this year.
Not long after Cameron’s election, Tony Cozier was found to be ‘surplus to requirements’ for WIndies TV coverage; and within a year both he and Reds had also been ‘relieved of duties’ on radio commentaries too. Such a move is scarcely credible.
These are two of the world’s most renowned and revered radio commentators, and while both are in their seventies, both retain an intimate knowledge of the game and players of the region. They have an incredibly deep and detailed sense of WIndies’ cricket history; a profound appreciation and reading of the game’s subtleties; and, perhaps most importantly, extensive experience as broadcasters – as which they are exemplary.
Both Reds and Tony have been asked repeatedly by fans why they are not on the wireless anymore? Especially when the commentaries since their ‘demise’ have been so poorly received. The only ‘name’ commentator on the radio now is Andrew Mason, who while an exuberant and enthusiastic professional, tends to drown in a sea populated by a support cast of flotsam and jetsam – most notably in the smaller islands.
I myself asked Tony a year or two ago: “Have you retired, or have they retired you?” “The latter” he confirmed.
The last few years of West Indies cricket have witnessed a heart-breaking decline from the heights of the 80s and 90s – and of late it’s become more pronounced – the descent, despite a few unexpected but welcome upward curves along the way, being terminal.
Each time the long-suffering WI fans have thought it couldn’t get much worse, it generally has.
And unfortunately many of those fans haven’t been suitably realistic about WIndies’ plight. Beating the Kiwis at home in the 2012 Test series, one of those pleasant bumps in the overall downward trend, left many armchair fans unimpressed: “It’s only New Zealand” they cavilled.
As co-host of the ‘Mason & Guests’ show in Barbados, I retorted that not only was this young New Zealand team heading for the world’s top 4 in the rankings (what an astute prediction!), but I also counselled that we shouldn’t say “it’s only New Zealand” for fear someday they, or Bangladesh would say “it’s only West Indies” in victory over us.
That reality has come to pass, and WIndies are now a more realistic comparison with Bangladesh than New Zealand. And, as cricketing realists Cozier, Perreira, Holding, Croft and Benjamin in their impartial broadcasting have catalogued this.
Their comments have been robust but fair – their criticism being of WIndies’ cricket in general, and the Board, as the principal authors of this great downfall.
But realism and perception have not been welcome music to President Cameron’s ears. He wanted only to hear fluting greeting fleeting WIndies triumphs – exaggerating it, wanting it to drown out the sonorous trumpets of doom. So he had them silenced.
Back in December of last year, Dave Cameron gave a bizarre interview to Grenadian sports journalist Michael Bascombe, in which he expressed his dissatisfaction with Caribbean writers and broadcasters for their continual negative portrayal of West Indies cricket:
“We have a problem in the region in that we have lost for so long and were accustomed to winning for so long that our writers and sportscasters have only bad things to say about the Board and the players.”
I encourage you to listen to that interview, which you can still hear here. I wrote an item for this blog at that time in which I observed:
“It’s not that things are bad, he seems to suggest. No – it’s that the journalists and commentators are misrepresenting the progress and successes of West Indian cricket – presumably in order to further their own agenda of undermining the current WICB regime?”
Both Tony Cozier, and Jamaica’s respected columnist Tony Becca responded to Cameron’s comments (which you can read in full here and here), with Cozier directly identifying himself with the accusations:
“So now we know. According to Whycliffe “Dave” Cameron, president and supreme leader of the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB), it’s not his governing body that’s responsible for the woes that continue to afflict West Indies cricket but rather those of us who write and commentate on the game. It is a Cameronised version of the time-worn ploy of shooting the messenger… (While he) didn’t mention any names, Cameron obviously had some firmly embedded on his mind. Throughout, Cameron made it plain he expects the media to toe his line, whatever the WICB’s several proven shortcomings.”
“There is one issue, Cameron revealed, that raises his hackles above all others. ‘It [cricket] is something that connects all of us, something that identifies the region,’ he said. ‘When we as sports journalists talk in derogatory terms about our players and our administration and administrators, what we are saying to the rest of the world is that there are people in the region who don’t know how to manage and conduct themselves. That, for me, is a big deal.’ And so it should be. But he needs to look at himself in the mirror.”
Tony Becca, meanwhile was pithy in his rejection of Cameron’s criticism:
“The president surely missed the boat this time around. First of all, he is not qualified to speak to journalists about how they do their job. If the president wants to do that, then he must hire special people to write and commentate on cricket. He will then able to call them together, and tell them what he wants of them to do, or not to do. They then can try to please him by trying to protect the game.They can then write and commentate about it in glowing terms, even when they are winning only one out of 45 Test Matches against top teams away from home in the past 14 years, or try to market the game. It is as simple as that.”
Nonetheless, warranted or otherwise in his condemnation of the region’s ‘negative’ journalists, from his earliest days in his presidency, Cameron was determined to control the message. And of course as all media students know, ‘the medium is the message’.
While he couldn’t directly influence the output of the region’s national newspapers, he could, through the TV and radio rights holders control those medium/s – the rights ultimately being the property of the WICB – to grant or withhold from broadcasters. The warning was ‘get on message, or get off the airwaves’.
The last competition that both Cozier and Perreira commented on for the WICB was the Nagico Super50 tournament of early 2014 in Trinidad & Tobago, when the pair were joined by Andrew Mason, with Colin Croft, Tony Gray and Philo Wallace as expert summarisers.
Reds headed up the team, which initially did not include Cozier. But when he was dropped by the TV commentary panel, allegedly at the WICB’s insistence shortly before the tournament, Reds moved quickly to offer him the role of leading the radio commentary panel. After some soul-searching, he accepted.
The team’s coverage was highly professional, including direct radio coverage of the toss and interviews with the captains out in the middle – rather than taking the easier, cheaper option of taking a feed of the pre-match build-up directly from TV. Other innovations included straight-to-air post-match interviews with players, executives, sponsors and supporters. The coverage was a triumph.
It also turned out to be the last hurrah for Reds and Tony, and Croft too – the WICB saying it was time to ‘try other voices’ as they placed their names on an unofficial blacklist. For Reds (and doubtless Tony too) the phone simply stopped ringing.
While they had their suspicions, nothing was officially said or confirmed. But Reds privately knew that his card had been marked.
When England made a limited-overs-cricket tour of the Caribbean a few months later, no home commentary was provided for the region, instead the islands’ radio stations merely relayed the BBC’s visiting Test Match Special broadcast.
A year later, when England returned for three Tests, the Caribbean resumed its own commentary service – but now led by Andrew Mason, and without either Perreira or Cozier. Ironically, Cozier DID broadcast throughout for BBC’s TMS, having been a guest commentator for the programme across five decades. Good enough for the BBC – not good enough for the WICB. The extent and identity of those on that (un)official blacklist became clearer at the beginning of the Test series.
Turning up to accompany Andrew Mason on the opening day of the series was former quick bowler Kenny Benjamin – no stranger to strong criticism of the Board. According to him, and as reported by the Antigua Guardian (see here):
“He was told by Barbadian commentator Andrew Mason that he (Mason) was advised by the authorities that he (Benjamin) and others would not be allowed to commentate during the Test Match.”
It was Benjamin who then made public the names of those, alongside himself, who were subject to a broadcasting ban: Michael Holding, Colin Croft, Reds Perreira and Tony Cozier.
The article added:
“Although Benjamin admitted he was in the dark about this latest situation he said that Imran Khan, the WICB’s Corporate Communications Manager, in the past had instituted a ban on him because he claimed, ‘I was too critical of West Indies Cricket and the Board. But I never made an issue of it in the past, and I will not make one now,’ Benjamin told the Guardian. ‘They must know why they have taken that action, so I’m not worried about it,’ the Antiguan noted. He, however, maintained that ‘as a past player with my experience I have a right to be critical and to comment, and give my honest opinion on West Indies Cricket in the interest of the game. Their action won’t change anything.'”
What Reds had suspected, and had been up to now nothing more than conspiratorial whispers, was being repeated and confirmed in the public domain – the WICB had banned him.
But Reds did not wish to rush to comment publicly – preferring to use the report to seek clarification from the Board. A fortnight later he emailed the WICB’s CEO Michael Muirhead:
Subject: WICB BAN??
As you may know I was in Antigua for the first WI-Eng Test. The former WI fast bowler Kenny Benjamin reported in the press, on turning up to work as a comments person on the Test on the radio, was told that he, Tony Cozier, Reds Perreira & Colin Croft was on a ban from your Board. I am unaware of this, & write to you so you can clear this matter. It may be useful to hear from Kenny, who gave that information.
My best regards & I await your kind reply – thanks & regards – Reds Perreira
A day later Muirhead replied:
We at the WICB were also unaware of any ban imposed and since you were one of the parties named it would be more appropriate for you to enquire of Mr Benjamin of the details of the imposition of the ban and provide you with any evidence which he may have.
So not a confirmation – in fact a denial. And perhaps even an implication of mischievousness against Kenny Benjamin? But Kenny could only repeat what he had been told. So while the WICB’s CEO was privately expressing surprise at the notion of a ban, Reds was personally suffering one.
Less than a month later the President also refuted the existence of such a ban. At a WICB ‘Town Hall’ meeting at the University of the West Indies in Barbados, he was directly asked by a member of the audience if the regional body had banned Tony Cozier and Michael Holding? According to a report in Barbados Today (which you can read here) Cameron responded that:
“In Cozier’s case, he said the veteran journalist and commentator was suffering from poor eyesight, while Holding’s commitments overseas had prevented him from being available in recent times: ‘There is no ban on Mr Cozier or Mr Holding. The challenge is Mr Cozier has gotten to an age and everybody needs to agree that he’s not actually seeing very well anymore. And I’m being very, very frank… it has nothing to do with him as a person,’ Cameron pointed out. ‘We don’t believe that the quality of the commentary benefits from having him on television. He still continues to do radio. ‘The issue we have with Mr Holding is that our season runs counter to the season in the UK and whenever we ask him to do commentary he is always working with Sky back in the UK, so as far as they are concerned there are no issues,” he stated.”
Within twenty-four hours Michael Holding himself had replied to the article in the online publication’s comments section:
“As usual Mr Cameron is being a stranger to the truth. How come after being contracted by SKY since 1998 and working on cricket in the Caribbean since that time until 2012 all of a sudden, my commitments to SKY started preventing me from doing cricket in the Caribbean? The fact of the matter is that when the production of West Indies cricket was moved from the hands of TWI/IMG to the current company, they were instructed not to employ me. And further more, England were just in the Caribbean playing against the West Indies, was I committed to some other England team why I wasn’t out there working on that series? Since the new production company took over West Indies cricket, I was never asked to work on any cricket out there so I could never have said I was not available. I have no problem if the new company thinks I am not worth having on their commentary team but please don’t say my commitments for SKY keep me away or I ever said I was not available.”
Holding’s response was carried in several papers – as was Cameron’s initial assertion about Cozier’s fitness, physical rather than a perceived suitability, to cover cricket. This was clearly a serious slur against Cozier. While nobody accused anyone specifically of lying, in the words of former UK MP Alan Clark, someone was being “economical with the actualitie”.
A couple of days later, Cozier took the opportunity to respond to Cameron’s slight, appearing (ironically) as a guest on Andrew Mason’s weekly radio cricket talk show, ‘Mason & Guests’ (which you can hear here – Tony features in the show’s first half hour). Mason asked him directly about it:
AM: “We can’t let you go without asking about the recent comments coming from Dave Cameron about your not seeing well as the reason why you’re not doing TV and radio commentary – do you want to respond to that, Tony?”
TC: “Well I don’t know Dave Cameron at all. I’ve never said a word to him, or him to me. And I heard what he said. Well, this is the third time he’s come out and used something different as why myself and Michael Holding are not on. I was signed up last year for the 50 overs tournament in Trinidad by TV by the company that was sub-contracted by the WICB. They got in touch with me and asked if I was available. I said “yes”. A few days later they rang and said “sorry, but the Board has scratched your name from the list of commentators”. I said “on what grounds?” They said the Board has told them they wanted a more varied mix of voices from the area – not just Trinidadians and Barbadians. As it turned out there were four Trinidadians, Jeffrey Dujon a Jamaican and Barry Wilkinson from Barbados. Then, more recently Cameron said there were experienced commentators in the Caribbean who, as good as they might be, are bad for the game because they criticise the Board. Now he comes and says this.”
AM: “Has it upset you, Tony? Greatly?”
TC: “What it has done is prevented me getting work. I’ve done every single series in the West Indies on TV since the first series here in 1990, and then last year I was not employed by either radio or television. The BBC’s Test Match Special when they came here asked me if I was available – and I did all three Tests here. So obviously I’m not having too much trouble with my eyes. I’m watching cricket by braille.”
AM: “What are you going to do about all this?”
TC: “What am I going to do? I don’t know – have a beer or something. You know, I mean, I know it’s over. They’ve stopped me coming on. There’s no way I’ll go back on whatever happens, even if I was cleared and all that, I’d say “I don’t want it anymore”. It really has left a very bitter taste in my mouth. It’s not only myself – Michael Holding has come out very strongly on this whole issue. Dave Cameron said Michael wasn’t employed because of his conflicts with Sky Television, but as Holding pointed out they were just here in the West Indies. He’s never turned television down. So I don’t know. It’s not something the President of the Board should be getting into. He should be looking after the cricket and ensuring that the insularity which has always ripped West Indies apart is diminished.”
AM: “Tony, we want to thank you very much for coming through and talking to us. We wish you well.”
TC: “Well I was going to say I’ll see you sometime, but you know my eyesight is so bad, so…” (Studio laughter).
Last week the third edition of the Caribbean Premier League got under way – with the focus of the first week being fixtures in Barbados and St Lucia – Cozier and Perreira’s home turf. Neither was any part of the TV or radio broadcasting.
While I haven’t myself heard the radio broadcasts, I have watched the TV coverage. The commentary has been, almost without exception, awful, with Ian Bishop and Daren Ganga apparently the only WIndies commentators. The use of almost entirely overseas commentators is a big insult to the Caribbean by the CPL organisers.
The delightful Isa Guha was (sadly) absolutely appalling in the Tridents games; Darren Gough is dreadful; Damien Martyn little better; and while Danny Morrison (despite being VERY OVER-THE-TOP), and one or two others are professional broadcasters, they clearly know scant about Caribbean cricket – and can’t even recognise the non-international local players.
There are plenty of good Caribbean commentators available – they should be being used. This is something which was addressed with the CPL organisers last year, and they promised a change. But it hasn’t happened – and the Caribbean notices this sort of thing. At the moment the CPL is, on the surface, a great success. But look a little deeper and there are worrying danger signals. This is theme I will return to in a future piece.
The people of the Caribbean are furious at hearing foreigners comment on THEIR competition. One correspondent observed:
“Speaking as a consumer, I hate watching these people who have no Caribbean connection doing the various commentaries on the CPL. Why do our governments sit idly by and allow this to happen? We have these jackasses prattling their nonsense as experts about a place and a culture they do not know. I think ultimately their aim is the overseas TV money that they’re going after.”
It isn’t only Perreria and Cozier who are angry they are not being heard on commentaries.
Reds enjoyed attending the Zouks’ games at Beausejour, and to be warmly greeted by old friends and new – many visiting especially for the tournament, and pleased to see him – and pleasantly surprised to find him in rude health and voice (as you can hear by listening here to Peter Miller’s interview with Reds for his ‘Geek & Friends‘ podcast). ‘But why isn’t he broadcasting?’
This week Reds finally decided to speak publicly about his exclusion.
He spoke on St Lucia’s Newspin on RCI radio, and called the popular Barbados current affairs show, Brass Tacks, hosted by Peter Wickham (you can hear Reds on the programme here, from about nine minutes in), to clarify that neither he nor Tony Cozier had retired. They had been seemingly blacklisted – as Kenny Benjamin had previously revealed – but which both Dave Cameron publicly, and Michael Muirhead privately, had denied:
RP: “I just want to square with the people of Barbados who’ve been very good to me over the years, especially people in the cricket world, and explain that my broadcasting opportunities are coming to an end. Recently there was a statement from Kenny Benjamin saying that he was one of four people banned by the WICB. The names including Tony Cozier, Colin Croft, Kenny Benjamin and Reds Perreria. I wrote to the CEO of the WICB for clarification if there was a ban and he suggested I go back to Kenny Benjamin to find out more. I didn’t understand the passing of the buck back to me, but whatever’s happening is most sad.”
PW: “What exactly is at the bottom of all this? Are they saying you’ve been banned?”
RP: “Well I’ve been trying to find out. Recently someone said Tony Cozier’s eyesight was gone. I’m not aware of that. I followed Tony on the BBC during the tour and he was spot on. So really and truly I’ve been trying to find out.”
PW: “Does Cozier know?”
RP: “Maybe hints. Nobody has said anything to me. Recently there were four matches in St Lucia and I wasn’t used at all. Basically, I just want to square with the Barbados people and people of the Caribbean. I’ll continue to be active. Last season I was probably the most active 4-day commentator – matches in Barbados, St Vincent and St Lucia – six in all. So it’s not that I’m inactive, but there’s something in the wind and people should say.”
PW: “I get the impression you don’t know why this is happening, or don’t feel comfortable saying.”
RP: “I wrote to the Board so that they would at least clear the matter up. If there’s a ban, say there’s a ban. Maybe one day I can get the reason. I’ve been fairly square with the Board. I haven’t been anti-Board; if they’ve done good I’ve said so; when they haven’t I’ve had a different opinion. That’s what you expect a journalist to do.”
PW: “Over the years you and Tony Cozier have been two of the foremost commentators known in cricket. The contribution you’ve made goes beyond saying. I believe persons like yourselves still have a whole lot to offer and should be given the opportunity. There is obviously something going on behind the scenes. There’s politics involved that’s becoming quite nasty.”
RP: “Thank you, Peter.”
PW: “Thanks a lot for calling, sir.”
Reds and I chatted the next day. We decided I’d write this piece – and include the following phone conversation:
DO: “This has been your career and livelihood and something you love – how does it feel to be divorced from this thing you’ve loved for forty-plus years?”
RP: “It’s a feeling of being left out unfairly, of being cast away and not given an opportunity to do what you can still do at the highest level. I still have the passion for it. I’m active on radio and TV stations but there seems to be a total isolation from international or CPL broadcasting.”
DO: “Dave Cameron recently said Tony Cozier wasn’t commentating anymore because his eyes had gone. Has anyone suggested that to you?”
RP: “A number of years ago that was deliberately used against me by someone not wishing to see me continue. But anyone hearing me knows they’ve not gone. That was just a ploy to get me off the panel.”
DO: “It seems as though yourself, Cozier, Holding etc have been ousted because you’ve been objective in your criticism of the WICB. But is it healthy for the Board to have ‘yes men’ as their resident broadcasters?”
RP: “I wouldn’t say ‘yes men’. But men not prepared to ask difficult questions of executives in the best interests of cricket.”
DO: “There are still commentators who are critical of the Board, in particular Fazeer Mohammed and Ian Bishop. Are their days numbered?”
RP: “At the moment Fazeer’s not being used on the TV for the CPL which surprises me. We also haven’t heard Jeffrey Dujon. But a CPL minus those two… well only Ian Bishop and Daren Ganga as main Caribbean voices, with a little from Barry Wilkinson.”
DO: “Is there home CPL radio commentary? Is that controlled by the WICB?”
RP: “Yes, the radio has a separate rights holder.”
DO: “But you and Tony Cozier were not invited to be involved?”
RP: “No. I certainly made myself available. And with four matches in St Lucia, and I’m three hundred yards from the ground! And Cozier doesn’t live much further from Kensington.”
DO: “Something is amiss. This is an emotional thing to have been detached from. Yourself and Tony Cozier are the two most famous radio broadcasters the Caribbean has ever produced. Does it hurt you when people have met you recently in St Lucia and been surprised, 1) that you’re not broadcasting, and 2) that you’re alive and well and keen to do so?”
RP: “The Caribbean people are hearing me, and know I’m well. I have regular programmes here in St Lucia, and give reports for VoB in Barbados – so people know I’m still working. But you can’t be part of something if you’re not selected. If you’re not selected you can’t go on. But career-wise I can look back at a great opportunity to broadcast and to visit all the cricketing centres of the world, watching all the international cricket West Indies played under Clive Lloyd and Sir Vivian Richards. I worked in South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, everywhere. I look back and draw good memories of when our cricket was in the highest standard of the world. I did the 1975 World Cup with Tony, and John Arlott and Trevor Bailey and Fred Trueman and Brian Johnston. I’m happy to be part of a very great era when our cricket was great and we, as broadcasters, had to try to match the quality of the cricket in front of us.”
DO: “You mention those great names of radio – it’s unfortunate at a time when we’ve just recently lost Richie Benaud, one of cricket’s greatest ever broadcasters, that we have people of the calibre of yourself and Tony Cozier being put out to pasture when you still have so much to share with us.”
RP: “I had the honour of seeing Richie play as a young man in Guyana in 1955 – and both myself and Tony Cozier got to know Richie and his family very well. Every time we went to the Sydney Test we knew where to go below the grandstand to find Richie and his basket of chicken, and white wine and other things. We haven’t just lost a great broadcaster, but we’ve lost someone who was fair and we got to know very well.”
DO: “But you’re not ready to sign of yet though are you, Reds? The fact is you’ve been signed off by others. Tony Cozier said the other day that if it was all put behind him and he was asked to come back, he wouldn’t. He said it’s left a very bitter taste in the mouth. If you were asked, would you come back?”
RP: “Yes. You can’t be bigger than the game. If you’re asked to do a match you forget all that’s happened in the past and bury what’s been done to you because you have a responsibility to the Caribbean people. You have a responsibility to telling the story in a constructive way. And I’d still like to come back and tell the story with the right structure, in the proper manner, in the right way.”
Frustration at being forcibly muted and prevented from doing the thing he loved had taken Reds to bursting point. Yet the disappointment at being one of two great sports broadcasting icons to be unjustly silenced was tempered by the depth of sympathetic responses he’d encountered.
I’m hoping you will circulate this to those you know. Maybe by spreading the word we can shame those responsible into letting us hear the words of Reds, and the others, over our airwaves again.