November 9, 2008

Will the Stanford success bring lasting change?

There was plenty of optimism that the Stanford Super Series represented a resurgence of West Indies cricket. The coming months will tell if it's another false dawn


No West Indies cricketers have been more thoroughly prepared - technically, physically and mentally - for a tournament © AFP
 

It was a cushy way to pocket a million bucks - or two, or six, or 200, depending on the location of your bank account. A few hours engaged in the shortest format so far devised for international cricket and, at the end of it, a cheque for each of the victorious XI that gave new meaning to the term Superstars was a pretty handy deal.

With England's misery and their meek surrender, the Stanford 20/20 for 20 showdown was even more effortless for the team carrying the name of the gung-ho American who conceived and bankrolled the extraordinary extravaganza out of his own fortune.

The cynics were quick to point out Shivnarine Chanderpaul didn't bat, bowl or take a catch yet became an instant millionaire and that the reserve players, managers, coaches and support staff who watched from beyond the boundary each came off US$150,000 or so richer.

That was the simple interpretation. It was akin to saying Muhammad Ali had to spend even less time in a single bout in exchange for multiple millions. There is, of course, far much more to it than that. As in everything, whether boxing, 40-overs cricket or building a global financial empire, success depends on preparation.

Whatever else may be said about the man, and plenty was during the Super Series week, Stanford doesn't consider failure an option. He spends big and expects big returns for his business. He gets it in other sports in the US such as polo and tennis and through his sponsorship of champion golfer Vijay Singh, who was at his side for the big match.

Had the squad to which he affixed the Superstars tag performed as England did, he would have looked very daft, especially with smoke billowing from his ears. To ensure that he didn't, he insisted on intense groundwork.

No West Indies cricketers have been more thoroughly prepared - technically, physically and mentally. Lance Gibbs, one of the West Indian 'legends' on the Stanford 20/20 board, was appointed manager. Eldine Baptiste and Roger Harper, two former West Indies allrounders now internationally recognised coaches, were put in charge of the cricket. A fielding coach, a fitness trainer, a video analyst and two physiotherapists were added.

An original group of 32 players was assembled in Antigua for two weeks' training and trial matches. It was cut, by a selection panel headed by Sir Viv Richards, to the final 17 who then spent six weeks at a camp leading up to the match.

They were housed in a secluded hotel 40 minutes out of St John's, placed on a nightly curfew and put through tough daily practice and training. Unaccustomed to such rigours, there were inevitable grumbles at the outset but the prospect of a US$1 million payday at the end concentrated minds as did the realisation that such a regime was having an effect. They showed up on the big night unrecognisable as the inconsistent, frequently unfit players who parade under the official West Indies banner.

The transformation was most evident in the fielding of Ramnaresh Sarwan. In white or maroon, he trotted, rather than sprinted, around and lobbed, rather than threw, the ball. Now he was the Jonty Rhodes of the Superstars. Initially unsure of the grind, he was in no doubt by the end that the camp made the difference. Because of his several injuries over the past couple of years, he said he lacked the confidence to push his body. The support staff restored it.

David Lloyd, the Sky Sports commentator, remarked that he had "never seen a West Indies team so disciplined". Jonathan Agnew, the BBC cricket correspondent, said he had not seen one "as fit, focused, motivated or well-prepared". The same could be said, at a lower level, of the admirable Trinidad and Tobago team that beat England's Twenty20 champions, Middlesex, and carried England itself to within a couple of runs of defeat. The lesson is there for every team in West Indies cricket, from club, to territorial, to international.

No sporting organisation in the Caribbean has anything like Stanford's wealth. Indeed, there are quite a few governments that don't. Having to dish out legal fees for their latest fiasco and support the regional one-day tournament without a sponsor, the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) now has even less in its account. But billions are not required to set up structures to properly groom young players for the future.

 
 
There was plenty of optimism - and not only from Stanford himself - that the Stanford Super Series represented a resurgence of West Indies cricket. We've heard it all before. The coming months will tell if it's another false dawn
 

Academies and high-performance centres, at all levels, are scattered across every other major cricketing country. In the Caribbean, they exist mainly in dust-covered reports and creative imaginations. The WICB has long since spoken of a central academy, to be located at the Cave Hill campus of the University of the West Indies, with feeder academies in other territories. It remains only talk.

Last June, Sir Everton Weekes opened the school of excellence at Kensington Oval named in his honour. Coaches have been appointed but, as yet, no students. Significantly, the Trinidad and Tobago board, the most progressive in the Caribbean, has gone ahead with its high-performance centre. Its inaugural nine-week course is modest but at least it's a start that will be built on.

Significantly, in the immediate future, the WICB has managed to arrange a three-week camp in New Zealand for the team as a build-up to its series there of two Tests, two Twenty20s and five ODIs from December 5 to January 13.

For that trip, the support personnel changes from Stanford's to its own, under the Australian head coach John Dyson, and so do the financial arrangements. Captain Chris Gayle and the other senior millionaires under him can help avoid a potentially tricky switch by carrying over their discipline, fitness and focus from Antigua, supporting Dyson and his crew and influencing those who were not Stanford Superstars.

Such qualities are even more vital in the longer game. Concentration and self-control are infinitely more difficult to maintain when the opposition is 300 for 2 near the end of a hot day's Test cricket than into the 20th over under lights at Stanford's ground.

The West Indies set out on nine months' concerted cricket with three ODIs against Pakistan in Abu Dhabi this week to be followed by series in New Zealand and in the Caribbean against England who will be desperate to avenge the humiliation they endured in Antigua.

There was plenty of optimism - and not only from Stanford himself - that the Stanford Super Series represented a resurgence of West Indies cricket. We've heard it all before. The coming months will tell if it's another false dawn.

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