July 8, 2007

Stanford and the State

West Indies cricket is in a trough but its value is recognised by billionaire Stanford and the various national governments

Is the West Indies Cricket Board wary of Allen Stanford? © Cricinfo Ltd
Michael Holding's observation that, when "cricketers kept coming through", the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) thought they were doing okay, and now they are clueless, presents the problem precisely.

Some months ago, Deryck Murray, part of the legendary team with Holding, was quoted as saying that, "In the amateur days, people didn't realise the serious structure, albeit informal, that we went through. Our administrators didn't see it. They thought a Garry Sobers fell out of a tree."

It isn't that the WICB has not been exposed to more counselling than a psychiatric hospital; it is simply that it has ignored recommendations for the development of West Indies cricket. Its standard exoneration clause has been no funds for development programmes.

With its legal status as a private entity, its accounts and contractual dealings remain shrouded in the kind of secrecy that only affords a glimpse when a gusty, leaky wind blows its skirts up.

The WICB is not an active board in the realm of development. A case in point: seven years ago the University of the West Indies managed to persuade governments under the Caricom umbrella to co-host a conference on the state of West Indies cricket.

At this conference, the WICB representative - vice president Clarvis Joseph - revealed the WICB's plans, including a three-year strategic plan introduced to bring "some level of planning" and which would focus on the cricketer and cricket development. He spoke of logistic planning and specifically mentioned a decision to ensure that the West Indies cricket team would travel to England ten days ahead of its first game when on tour to ensure that players could acclimatise.

Joseph also spoke of the Caribbean Lottery Programme, an idea in the works for some time as a means of financing for the WICB. This was June 2000. Yet, on July 4, 2007 as Caricom leaders wound up their 28th heads of government conference in Barbados, Grenada's Prime Minister, Keith Mitchell, announced that the heads had endorsed a financial plan for cricket which involved a new regional lottery to be set up by September. The same lottery of a decade ago, the one Ken Gordon cited as one of his first-year goals, being trotted out as a brand new financial initiative for saving West Indies cricket.

Mitchell, chairman of Caricom's Cricket Sub-Committee also announced that an academy is to be set up by year end with proceeds from the lottery.

Far more instructive is the Caricom announcement that these "new" initiatives had come as the result of a presentation made to them by the Governance Committee appointed by the WICB with a broad mandate to fix West Indies cricket. This Committee, headed by P.J. Patterson, the former Jamaican Prime Minister, was to present its report to the WICB in time for the AGM at the end of July. It has reported first to Caricom, and seems to have opened the door to governmental control.

"They are recommending that we establish a professional league because it is clear that the lack of available opportunities for cricket at an all-year-round level is affecting our players. That together with a cricket academy, which is going to be led by the University of the West Indies because it is not just about the talent and technique but also about the mind and the educational and social development of these players, together with contracts for players," said Mitchell.

None of these recommendations are new. All and more were contained in the report presented to Caricom in 2000 after the conference. That conference presented data collected by national groups representing regional cricket territories, and compiled a list distilled from 200 recommendations based on consultations done prior to the event.

I had at the time drawn attention to that conference report, suggesting that it remained relevant and, given its comprehensive nature, should form the basis of study by the Governance Committee. Its chairman was dismissive of that report, which he had received as a Caricom leader in 2000, and was not inclined to view its existence as any more than a public relations exercise. Instead, the Governance Committee has set up an online forum inviting comments and recommendations, and up to July 5, had received 65 responses.

Mitchell has signalled the unbridled licence now to be taken by Caribbean Governments in light of their massive expenditures in preparation for Cricket World Cup. "Certainly, governments do not want to be involved in the selection of players, of teams and so on but to say that we should not be involved is ridiculous because we've already been involved significantly by the level of investment on behalf of the taxpayers," he said.

The next move is for these governments to meet with the Governance Committee, the WICB and the unnamed lottery company in order to rescue West Indies cricket from its parlous state.

Just a few months after staging a World Cup predicted to bring windfalls to the West Indies and the WICB, the situation seems dire enough for governments to be called in as rescue acts. The WICB seems almost like an afterthought.

Stepping in as saviours of cricket will bring more problems than solutions. They need to understand that the cricket problems are the same as societal ones, and they have failed to solve those.

Despite Mitchell's expressed reluctance on the part of the politicians to get involved, they have moved with alacrity to deepen investment. It indicates their lack of confidence in the WICB's competence. But is it prudent to put the development of West Indies cricket in the hands of politicians?

Some recent developments tell that several agendas influence decisions. Word is that, despite the announcement that the planned academy is to be led by the UWI, there was considerable lobbying for the restitution of the abandoned Shell Academy at St. George's in Grenada. Word is also that because the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago has declared his own moral war on gambling, the regional lottery received no support from his end. Discussions around this apparently involved making a cash donation instead. This was followed by confident calls from the country's sports minister for the prospective academy to be located at the controversial Brian Lara Stadium in Trinidad. Barbados supported the idea of the academy being UWI-led, because the hub was to be the Cave Hill Campus. Thus, large decisions are influenced by territorial issues of turf and ownership.

Already, the plague of development has been that decisions are based on lobbying and trade-offs and while that may be the norm in political environments, it is the environment least suited for developmental enterprises.

While political agendas have generally been kept behind the scenes, what is changing is that there is more overt involvement. A former government minister is WICB president, a former prime minister is paid to lead this Governance consultancy; a former politician is the only nominee for the presidency; a group of prime ministers is taking on the role of financial advisers - and the politics of that kind of involvement will take its course.

This energy might be generated by fear of what might lie behind the US$100 million that Allen Stanford has put on his cricket table. Reports have been heralding it as a fuel injection for the WICB but it is not so. While the WICB is being offered some millions, the money is spread out for the next wave of the Stanford 20/20 tournament. Three things have made Stanford's enterprise threatening to the WICB. One is his financial power, another, his support by the fourteen legends who form his advisory board, and finally, his record of success.

In this sad script, Stanford offers an alternative ending. He has set up a parallel organization, and is running it innovatively, relevantly and successfully. It presents a formidable challenge to the WICB, whose irrelevance has been confirmed at all levels and whose existence is finally being questioned.

Whether Stanford's model should be the way forward is not likely to cross their minds as a positive move, instead the forces will gather to preserve the status quo.

But no politician has provided the leadership required in the Caribbean. One look at the social decline is enough to say that they too are clueless.

Stepping in as saviours of cricket will bring more problems than solutions. They need to understand that the cricket problems are the same as societal ones, and they have failed to solve those. They need to remember what CLR said, "If and when society regenerates itself, cricket will do the same."

Vaneisa Baksh is a freelance journalist based in Trinidad