West Indies heading for another bitter board-players battle April 20, 2007

Another tour, another crisis

Martin Williamson takes a look at the latest dispute set to hit West Indies cricket

Ken Gordon: is the WICB boss playing by the rules? © T&T Express
It's hardly a secret that West Indies cricket is in a far from healthy state. The national side continues in a gradual decline that dates back to the early 1990s, the domestic game is battling for survival in an increasingly Amercianised region, and the Caribbean has hosted a World Cup which, through not fault of its own people, looks like being remembered for all the wrong reasons.

Against this backdrop, the relationship between the board and its national players, never strong, is threatening to plunge to an all-time low. Over the last couple of years, barely a month has gone by without headlines of contractual disputes or rumours of strikes. But on the eve of the side setting off on a tour of England, the situation is rapidly deteriorating. At the moment, it seems inconceivable that the tour might not start on time, but the board's conduct in recent weeks has left the players deeply unhappy.

The problem is their contracts for the tour. In September 2006, the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the West Indies Players' Association (WIPA) which secured the schedule of payments for all tours conducted under the ICC's Future Tours Programme. The idea was to end the previous system of protracted negotiations ahead of every tour, enabling both the board and the players to plan ahead.

What the agreement did say was that any additional tours or matches - ones arranged bilaterally between boards outside the FTP - would need to be run past WIPA before they were agreed and that separate negotiations would be needed regarding payment. The purpose was twofold. One, was to avoid boards cramming schedules with matches and overburdening the players, the other to ensure that the players were properly rewarded. With bilateral tours, the board receives a fee from the hosts, whereas with tours conducted under the FTP no money exchanges hands.

Early in 2006, the WICB agreed to tour England between May and July 2007. All correspondence at that time between boards made clear that this was outside the FTP, and a senior WICB official party to the negotiations has confirmed that. At a series of meetings between the WICB and WIPA, the most recent being on January 5, 2007, this was acknowledged by both sides. On January 11, the WICB wrote to Dinanath Ramnarine, the CEO of WIPA, and suggested a meeting on January 18 to sort the details out.

While that meeting took place, it was overshadowed by a row of player payments for the World Cup, and those discussions continued right up to the eve of the tournament. The England issue was put on the backburner. But on March 8, Ken Gordon, the WICB chairman, seemingly acknowledged the need to tie up the loose ends regarding the England tour when he wrote to Tony Deyal, the board's corporate manager. "It is most important that we be punctilious in observing not only the letter of our agreement with WIPA but also the spirit of our agreement." Sadly, what followed reflected neither.

In the next fortnight, Ramnarine received no communication from the WICB. On March 29 he and Gordon were both in Antigua to watch West Indies play New Zealand. Ramnarine expressed his concern at the lack of progress and Gordon assured him it would be addressed.

At a time the game is crying out for a united approach, and decisive and open leadership, the WICB seems hell-bent on winning skirmishes while the war is being lost
On April 2, Ramnarine emailed Gordon, copying other board officials, outlining his worries and explaining that the delays were harming the players' morale, already dented by the WICB's approach leading into the World Cup. He received no response. On April 10, 11 and 12 he sent further mails, and finally on April 13 Deyal replied asking for meetings on any day between April 17 and 19.

It may be coincidence, but Deyal's email reopening discussions came on the day that Cricinfo contacted the board about the dispute. It may be a genuine oversight, but the days offered for the meetings were ones which Ramnarine had told board members that he would be away on business on. The meeting has now been rescheduled for this Sunday (April 22).

Any hopes that things would move on seamlessly, however, were scotched with the revelation that far from accepting that there needed to be negotiations over player fees, the board was now arguing that the England tour was within the FTP and, as such, covered by the MOU. In other words, there would be no extra for the players. WIPA, the organisation which should be the first to know of such a manifest change of thinking, have yet to be officially informed of this.

Unless Sunday's meeting proves more productive than many that have gone before it, there is every chance that another stand-off between the two sides is on the cards, raising the question of why the board seems set to adopt such a confrontational stance.

The reason may well be found in West Indies' poor performances at the World Cup. There is a suspicion that the WICB is banking on the public unhappiness with the manner of the side's exit to undermine their position. If the players took a stand then the PR machine might be quick to tell the public that the very people who played so badly were now demanding even more money.

If that is the case, then it's a high-risk strategy and one that is only likely to further harm the game in the eyes of the public. Four previous disputes between the board and the WIPA have gone to arbitration and four times the board has lost. While there is some confusion about what exactly is within the FTP and not - and even other national boards seem unsure about the fine detail - one suspects WIPA is right. There are enough former board members and supporting documentation to suggest that the board's change of tack has come late and is based on something other than a sound legal footing. Even if the stand is based on legal advice, the board is guilty of handling the issue unprofessionally.

And it's not just about money. If the WICB successfully argues that any tour on the ICC's FTP schedule is covered by the MOU then the implications are considerable as it in effect could give the board the ability to pack the calendar with lucrative (for it) tours, and the players would not have any say.

The result will probably be more bitterness and bad publicity, although the gut feeling is that the tour will happen - if it does not, then the WICB better make sure it is on solid ground as it may face a massive law suit from its England counterparts. But at a time the game is crying out for a united approach, and decisive and open leadership, the WICB seems hell-bent on winning skirmishes while the war is being lost.

Martin Williamson is executive editor of Cricinfo