May 19, 2009

Gayle spake as he saw

Why the West Indies captain's pronouncements reflect the actions of cricket's administrators

One of the abiding gripes of the hard-bitten hack is the sheer monotony of modern playerspeak. Another day, another press conference consisting of the bleeding obvious, reliant on liberal use of the words "hopefully" ("hopefully we'll win") and "obviously" ("obviously, hopefully we'll win"), with maybe a few "good areas" thrown in. Perhaps the last time a press conference made news was 20 years ago, and not even then for what was said, but rather what was done, David Gower hurrying from his inquisitors at Lord's to attend Anything Goes, thus transiting from one mainly pointless farce to another.

On the other hand, maybe it's no wonder that players say so little given the response when they actually do. Witness Chris Gayle, who generally troubles to move his lips as much as his feet, but who on the eve of the Test at Riverside wearily confessed in an interview with the Guardian that the West Indies' captaincy was "not something I'm looking to hang on to", and that he "wouldn't be so sad" if Test cricket faded away, although some English opponents such as Andrew Strauss "would be sad" because they lacked the panache necessary for Twenty20.

Cue shocked reactions all round, the knightly duo Sir Vivian Richards and Sir Garry Sobers standing up for Test cricket's epic grandeur, their old mucka Clive Lloyd having already chastised Gayle for arriving hot-foot from representing the Kolkata Knight Riders in the IPL.

English fondness for periodic fits of morality was also confirmed, Simon Wilde opining in the Sunday Times that Gayle was "not a leader and never has been", and Steve James in the Sunday Telegraph that he certainly shouldn't be a leader any longer: "Gayle is hardly one of the game's great thinkers. But he is a Test captain of a major nation. And with that comes a certain responsibility. He has abdicated that quite astonishingly."

Yet West Indies is not a nation; it is a region, and a troubled one at that, whose cricket has in recent years seemed at constant risk of falling apart, which would have wearied a skipper of sterner stuff than Gayle. And the fact is, not everyone wants to be a Test match captain - even Allan Border, who captained Australia in more Tests than anybody else, did not want the job, and took a long time to feel comfortable in it. Had Border been held to Steve James' standards of responsibility, his tenure wouldn't have lasted a year.

The last of Gayle's grumblings, meanwhile, obviously breached that quaint sporting omerta concerning comment about rivals. Last night after watching my Aussie Rules team, Geelong, annihilate its opponents, I saw our star midfielder Jimmy Bartel respond to the obvious statement from the television interviewer that it had been a one-sided affair. "No, they took the game right up to us," he insisted, failing utterly to strike a tone of sincerity, but participating obediently in the charade that every opponent is equally respected and every victory is a brand from the burning.

Frankly if the alternative is such phoniness, give me Gayle's candour every time. For that matter, give me Strauss's initial candour in chiding Gayle for his belated arrival, which probably coaxed his rival into a little tit-for-tattle. Test cricket looks dour enough at Riverside without honestly held opinion, even annoyance, being held back too.

The chief beef with Gayle, of course, is his breach of that politesse about the "primacy of Test cricket". But why the sense of affront? A Professional Cricketers' Association survey last year confirmed that more than a third of English first-class players would consider retiring early to take the opportunity to play in the IPL, and a further fifth would court banning, by playing in the Indian Cricket League. Responding to a March survey by the Australian Cricketers' Association, fewer than half of Australia's elite cricketers believed that representing their country would be the ultimate professional accolade in decade.

Personally I consider Gayle mistaken. I believe Test cricket's welfare matters a great deal, for it is the most thorough and exacting examination of the overall quality of a cricketer. But it also benefits nobody if the "primacy of Test cricket" is upheld simply by a polite public agreement not to say otherwise, especially if it is simultaneously being undermined by those who run the game.

Personally I consider Gayle mistaken. I believe Test cricket's welfare matters a great deal, for it is the most thorough and exacting examination of the overall quality of a cricketer. But it also benefits nobody if the "primacy of Test cricket" is upheld simply by a polite public agreement not to say otherwise

For a belief in the "primacy of Test cricket" hardly seems to be shared by Gayle's employer, the WICB, which cheered on as tens of Allen Stanford's mysteriously-gotten millions were lavished on Twenty20 cricket in their region, yet who had to cancel a Test three months ago because the Viv Richards Stadium wasn't fit to graze cattle on.

Nor does the idea that cricket concerns more than merely maximising revenue strike much of a chord with Gayle's hosts, the ECB, which also threw in its lot with Stanford, having studiously sealed Test cricket off from a mass audience by selling broadcast rights to Rupert Murdoch, and putting Dick Turpin and Black Bess in the shade by the highway robbery of their ticket prices.

Heaven knows there aren't many believers in Test cricket at the BCCI, which provides the lion's share of global cricket revenue while seeing to it that six weeks' involvement in the IPL earns most participants more than they stand to make from international cricket for the rest of the year - which cannot but cause any cricketer to reconsider his priorities.

Down here I'm not entirely sure what administrators believe. Last week, for example, I made enquiries with Cricket Australia about when they might be selling a DVD of the recent Australia-South Africa series - the best of recent years, and the best I can remember here. "Naaah," came the answering drawl from the marketing department: Aussies won't buy DVDs of series that their team have lost. I wonder where the empirical verification for that conventional wisdom came from, given that Australia have lost only one other home series in 20 years. But so much for celebrating some of the most absorbing Test matches that Australia have ever played.

In speaking his piece, then, all Gayle has done is leave the hypocrisy to others, and taken global cricket administration at its actions rather than its words. If similar questions began generating similarly honest answers from others, then cricketers might actually be worth listening to again.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer

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