July 16, 2009

Hurtling down an old precipice

Seven times in the past the WICB has come off second best in arbitration with its players, and this time seems no different. Little will change unless the entire structure of the board is overhauled

If anyone in the higher echelons of the West Indies Cricket Board really believed they could do without several dozen of their leading players, the shock of their makeshift team's humiliation at Arnos Vale by Bangladesh, a country with one win in their previous 59 Tests, surely shook them into the real world.

The background to the latest in a string of disputes between the board and its players is well documented. While there is a history of animosity between employer and employee going back generations, the real confrontation started in 2005 and has continued, with a few lulls, ever since.

This time, however, the board appears to be trying to play a game of hardball to which it is completely unsuited. It has issued inflammatory press releases, its president has shunned a meeting with the players he called, and it has even gone so far as to pay thousands of dollars for newspaper advertisements critical of the players. The board's own media department has also been in overdrive, issuing releases stating its position - although proving less prolific when asked to answer direct questions.

The WICB has repeatedly sought to portray the players as highly paid cricketers who want even more. But the reality is, this is not a standoff about pay, but about terms and conditions, and one that had been resolved before the WICB not so much moved the goalposts as rewrote the rule book. The timing of the row might well be connected to board elections on August 11 and pre-election posturing by key men.

As Jimmy Adams said earlier this week, things have changed. Players can now earn better money outside the Caribbean, and yet the board still treats them with the contempt of a Victorian factory owner. The rest of the world has moved on. The WICB has not. The demand on Monday that negotiations could only resume when the players apologised for being naughty boys was verging on pathetic.

Clearly there are two sides to every story, and the players' association, WIPA, has issues it needs to resolve. Michael Holding said that WIPA should "have a good look at their organisation [and] who they represent", but he added that the WICB "are a dysfunctional organisation that needs to realise they are dealing with a modern game and changing times. They have been left behind due to their inept staff and an outdated board of directors, most of whom take up space instead of [offering] something to the organisation or the game."

On seven occasions since 2005, WIPA has agreed to go to arbitration in disputes with the board. On all seven occasions the board has lost. Despite this, which suggests that those responsible struggle to realise when they are on shaky ground, the board has again picked a fight when it appears to have little to support its stand. It's not hard to see which way the eighth ruling will go.

The reputation of the game is in tatters, the players are in open revolt, and sponsors have turned their backs or are preparing to walk away. The only people oblivious to all this are the WICB's executive

And it's not just about players. A source at Digicel, the only significant sponsor of West Indies cricket, said this week that the WICB "don't give a stuff about players and don't give a stuff about commercial partners". The company has been treated with disdain ever since it got involved, and there are growing suspicions that it is growing wary of becoming tainted by association.

The all-time low came last October, when Digicel was forced to take the WICB to arbitration after the board, again seeming to believe it could pull a flanker, in effect sold rights to Allen Stanford it had already signed over to Digicel. The board lost, resulting in public humiliation and a legal bill close to US$1 million. Denis O'Brien, Digicel's head, was even moved to call for WICB president Julian Hunte, among others, to resign. Of course, Hunte didn't.

This was not an isolated incident. The WICB also double-sold mobile rights in the Caribbean, resulting in another climbdown, though, once more, no accountability. Last season there was no sponsor for any domestic competitions. Why would anyone want to be associated with such a rabble?

Closer to home, in late 2007 an independent report into the WICB by former Jamaican Prime Minister PJ Patterson pulled no punches, citing "a lack of high-quality leadership with the requisite capacity for corporate management" among other stinging criticisms. It was quietly shelved.

What is obvious is that this can't go on. The reputation of the game is in tatters, the players are in open revolt, and sponsors have turned their backs or are preparing to walk away. The only people oblivious to all this are the WICB's executive. But in an era where TV income is vital, even the most blinkered of them should have sat up and taken notice at Sky TV's decision in the UK to bin coverage of the Bangladesh series at the last minute because of the dismal fare offered.

In the short term, the dispute needs to go to arbitration. But if we are not to end up back at square one in the medium term, a drastic overhaul of the entire structure of the game is vital. The complex nature of the WICB means it is a nest of self-interest, where little seems to get done other than score-settling and politicking.

That complex structure, however, means that an overhaul is unlikely to happen, so we can expect more of the same until the day comes when the public, commercial partners and the media cease to care. Only then will the remnants of the WICB sit up and take notice. By then, it will be too late.

Martin Williamson is executive editor of Cricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa

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