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Over the past decade, this space in the almanack has become an annual litany of despair. Last year's report on West Indies cricket referred to "the most agonising period in its history"; the year that followed was to be even worse.
The most acrimonious and protracted row yet between the West Indies Cricket Board and the West Indies Players' Association led to the replacement of Brian Lara as captain, the refusal of most of those selected to tour Sri Lanka, a split between the players, and the intervention of the Caribbean governments. The board's projected loss of $7m for the year ending September 2005, double that of the previous year, compounded the crisis. Meanwhile, the WICB elected their fourth president in six years, and the chairman of the company organising the 2007 World Cup in the Caribbean resigned over differences with the board, heightening misgivings over whether the region was capable of such a massive undertaking.
The latest trouble between the board and players began within weeks of a rare success, in September 2004, when West Indies won the Champions Trophy in England. It was sparked by the board's decision to replace its sponsor of 18 years, Cable & Wireless, with Digicel, an Irish newcomer engaged in a fierce conflict with C&W for the Caribbean's mobile-telephone market. The Players' Association objected to clauses relating to the Digicel sponsorship in the team's contracts for a one-day series in Australia, claiming that they infringed players' rights to sign individual endorsements with other companies, and it advised members not to sign.
The dispute was eventually referred to the cricket subcommittee of the Caricom (Caribbean Community) governments. A provisional ruling enabled the WICB to pick its best team for the tournament in January, though they won only one of their six matches and failed to reach the finals. But the issue resurfaced once the squad returned home, leading to the end of Lara's second stint at the helm. When six players were disqualified from selection for the First Test against South Africa because of their individual contracts with Cable & Wireless, Lara withdrew in protest. He had a C&W contract himself, though he had not been banned because his deal predated the sponsorship switch. Vice-captain Shivnarine Chanderpaul took over.
Cable & Wireless freed its players of their obligations so that they were eligible for the Second Test. But, even after their reinstatement for the rest of the home season, the issue would not go away. When the board named 13 players to tour Sri Lanka in July, ten, including Lara, withdrew. The level of enmity between the parties was obvious in a lengthy media release from the president of the Association, Dinanath Ramnarine, stating that "we are facing a tyrannical and despotic WICB that has suspended its discretion, jettisoned all reasoning and is hellbent at all costs to do the bidding of its sponsor". Obliged to fulfil the ICC's schedule, the board hurriedly assembled replacements, mostly from an A-team already touring Sri Lanka. As it was, eight members of the A-team joined the Test squad the day after signing a collective declaration refusing the summons to do so, which created such internal wrangling that the management felt obliged to move the two teams into separate hotels. Chanderpaul was the only one of the new squad with more than ten Tests to his name.
Meanwhile, back in the Caribbean, there was a public war of words between Cable & Wireless, who accused the WICB of unfair practices, and Digicel. In what was seen as an unusual sign of openness on the board's part, a three-man commission, chaired by retired judge Anthony Lucky, was set up to review the negotiations that led to the change of sponsors. Their 50,000-word report, delivered in August, criticised the WICB, and particularly the then president Teddy Griffith, for their handling of the matter, and concluded that Cable & Wireless had been unjustly treated. But it was compromised when Lucky's fellow commissioners disagreed with his contention, in a separate report, that the Digicel contract was "legally flawed". The board adamantly rejected several of the commission's points, but by then Griffith had resigned because of "personal and family considerations".
He was succeeded by Ken Gordon, a 75-year-old media executive and former minister in the Trinidad & Tobago government, who had a high reputation in the corporate world but no cricketing background. Gordon soon faced yet another resignation and another crisis. In September, Rawle Brancker quit as chairman of the World Cup organisers less than two years into the job, citing his frustration over differences with his chief executive, Chris Dehring, and a lack of support from Griffith and other board members. Controversially, Gordon appointed himself to the position and added Griffith to the new board.
Not surprisingly, West Indies continued to falter on the field. In the calendar year 2005, their record was eight defeats against one win (at home to Pakistan) in 11 Tests. It was even direr in one-day internationals: 15 defeats, with an unprecedented run of 11 including all eight at home to South Africa and Pakistan, against two victories. It was a nightmare for the new head coach, Bennett King of Australia, the first foreigner to hold the post. He and his all-Australian support staff of assistant coach, physiotherapist and fitness trainer never knew from series to series which players they would be working with, if any: more than 30 represented West Indies during the year.
The discontented players finally returned to the fold for the Test series in Australia in November 2005, after the warring parties agreed to turn to the International Cricket Council and the Federation of International Cricketers' Associations to settle the dispute. West Indies had their moments in Australia, notably when Lara scored his eighth double-hundred and overtook Allan Border as Test cricket's leading run-scorer, but they lost all three Tests.
At regional level, the domestic competitions were streamlined. In 2004-05, they were contested only by the six traditional territories, with the Under-23 side and invited foreign team included in the previous four firstclass tournaments both dropped. Home and away rounds meant that the remaining teams played ten league matches, up from seven. There was an unmistakable shift in the balance of power. Barbados, first-class regional champions for the previous two seasons and unbeaten for 21 matches, lost six out of ten in 2004-05, and slid from top to bottom of the table.
They were replaced as the dominant force by Jamaica, a well-led, wellbalanced side, even when five of their players were on international duty. They comfortably headed the table, with seven victories - including their first five games - and only one defeat, and secured the Carib Beer Cup after victory in the final against the plucky Leeward Islands, whose brave secondinnings fight meant the result was less straightforward than an eight-wicket margin indicated. Chris Gayle dominated the match with hundreds in each innings, but he played only two other games during the tournament. Wavell Hinds and Marlon Samuels also compiled big scores on their return from Australia, but Jamaica's overall success depended on those who played throughout the season.
Donovan Pagon scored 658 runs, which earned him a Test debut against South Africa when Gayle and the others were omitted. Runs also came from wicketkeeper Carlton Baugh and all-rounder Dave Bernard, while fast bowlers Jerome Taylor and Daren Powell led the attack. But Jamaica's most successful bowler was 22-year-old left-arm spinner Nikita Miller, the tournament's leading wicket-taker in his first season. He claimed 39 wickets at under 20 apiece, and later toured Sri Lanka with the A-team. The Leeward Islands, often a disjointed side, enjoyed their best season since the heady days of the 1990s, when they won three outright titles and shared a fourth. Their inspiration was 37-year-old wicketkeeper Ridley Jacobs, in his final season; he signed off a distinguished career with 816 runs, four centuries and an average of 62. His team-mate Stuart Williams, aged 35, was the only other batsman to pass 700 in the tournament. Offspinner Omari Banks took 34 wickets, enough to earn a recall to the weakened Test squad for Sri Lanka.
In October 2004, Trinidad & Tobago were unexpected winners of the limited-overs President's Cup. Making light of the absence of five internationals, including Lara, they defeated Barbados in the semi-final and defending champions Guyana in the final. In January, they beat Barbados again, over four days - the first team to achieve the feat in a first-class game since they did it themselves in February 2002. But defeat in the return match at the end of the qualifying stage cost them the chance to challenge Jamaica in the final. Their experienced captain, Daren Ganga, scored 610 runs, including 265 against the Leeward Islands, the domestic season's highest individual score. Off-spinner Amit Jaggernauth and newcomer Richard Kelly, an aggressive all-rounder, took 33 wickets each.
Guyana, often hit by the weather, drew seven of their ten games. Promising left-hander Narsingh Deonarine and Ryan Ramdass, a thickset opener, both passed 500 runs; Ramdass scored three hundreds in his first full season, and was promoted from the A-team to make his Test debut in Sri Lanka. Another emergency call-up for that tour was Deighton Butler, a strongly built leftarm fast bowler from the Windward Islands. Windwards were bowled out in double figures in three separate matches - one of which they still managed to win - despite the consistency of opener Devon Smith, who totalled 671 runs.
But the board's grim financial situation was taking its toll. The Academy in Grenada for young players was closed after four years, and in 2005-06 the domestic competitions were cut back to a single round of five matches for each team, plus semi-finals and final. These were troubling developments: Bennett King had repeatedly stressed that a proper structure at all domestic levels and a significant improvement in facilities were prerequisites for lifting West Indian cricket out of its prolonged slough.
© Wisden Cricketers' Almanack
As West Indies play their 500th Test, here's an interactive journey through their Test history
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As West Indies play their 500th Test, here's an interactive journey through their Test history