'We're 10 or 15 years behind the curve'
There aren't too many who would trade the penthouse for the basement. Ottis Gibson did. Had he stayed on with England as bowling coach, he would have been associated with the most celebrated Ashes triumph in half a century. Instead, he went to the Caribbean in January 2010, to take charge of a side that has been trawling the lower reaches of the international game for a decade.
Gibson played two Tests and 15 one-day games in the mid-1990s, a time when West Indies cricket was in far better health, though the cracks were beginning to show. But it wasn't a sense of unfinished business alone that took him back across the Atlantic. "It's a question I get asked all the time," he says. "The lure of home was quite strong. I'd lived in England a long time and learned all I know of coaching there. I'd like to pass that on in the Caribbean."
He took the job at a time when there were few expectations. Away victories have been as rare as gold in the prospector's pan in modern-day El Dorado, and administrators and supporters alike have come to terms with the fact that there won't be any quick fixes. Gibson, though, is convinced that he's not overseeing a lost cause.
"I was involved with the England team the last time West Indies toured there," he says. "They lost but you could see that there was talent. I'd like to try and build a team with that. Not for now but for the future."
Rebuilding usually involves an amalgam of experience and youth, but in Gibson's case, the formula is complicated by an often uneasy relationship with some of the team's stalwarts. "When I decided to take the job, I looked at who I might have in my team," he says. "[Chris] Gayle, [Shivnarine] Chanderpaul, Dwayne Bravo, [Kemar] Roach, Fidel Edwards, Jerome Taylor. You look at those names and they've performed sporadically. They haven't done it consistently enough.
"When Australia were strong, they had the likes of [Glenn] McGrath, [Shane] Warne and [Brett] Lee playing a lot of cricket together. We haven't been able to build a core like that, because of injury or other reasons. We're trying to do that now. And we have young men like Darren Bravo and [Darren] Sammy. A lot of our guys are under 29 and we can aim to do something over a four-year period."
The path has been anything but smooth in recent times. Gayle wasn't picked in the squad for the series against Pakistan, and has taken out his ire on Indian Premier League bowlers. Chanderpaul reacted angrily to what he saw as disparaging comments from the board, even though he did play a crucial role in West Indies' win in the first Test.
As Gibson assembles his blocks, he's clear in his mind about what qualities he seeks. "I look for hunger - for knowledge and [for] the game," he says. "My motto is simple: if you remain the same, you won't improve. If you stay the same, the opposition can plan for you.
"You can't just come to the nets and hit a few balls. You have to turn up with an objective, and once you're finished, review whether you managed to achieve that."
When he was trying to make a mark as a young man, finding a place in your island team could be as tough as getting an international cap. These days Gibson doesn't feel that West Indian domestic cricket has the same finishing-school effect. "The standard of cricket at home no longer breeds international cricketers," he says bluntly. "Things have changed. Our top players play everywhere around the world, but not in our competition.
"You can say that England's best don't play much county cricket either. But they do have overseas pros. So the good young players are still mixing with them and learning something. Some of our youngsters have played more internationals than they have first-class cricket.
"We also need to do more with the A team, so that the second tier of cricketers can get exposed to a higher level. We're only now starting to put things in place that other people did 10 or 15 years ago. We still produce talented cricketers, but we're playing catch-up."
West Indies' slide down the cricket charts coincided with the game becoming big business. Where they had once been an integral part of Kerry Packer's revolution, the new prosperity and alliances have largely passed them by. While the likes of India and England ink hugely lucrative TV deals, West Indies cricket struggles to stay afloat.
"The ICC has invested a lot in associate nations and they need to for them to develop," says Gibson. "But we're in a similar situation. People think we should be able to stand on our own feet, but finding sponsorship in the Caribbean is a challenge. The team not winning doesn't help. Everyone wants to support or sponsor a winning side.
"When I was with England, if I needed a camera or wanted to send a player to a camp somewhere, more often than not you could make those things happen. Here I have to think very carefully about the staff I can have and what we can afford."
Penny-pinching aside, the influx of money has created other problems for those in the Caribbean. As West Indies succumbed to Pakistan in St Kitts, Gayle and Dwayne Bravo were playing in the IPL's Eliminator game. Kieron Pollard, who skipped the one-day games, will represent Mumbai Indians in the playoffs.
"That's our challenge," says Gibson with a shrug of the shoulder. "Guys can make money playing outside the Caribbean. I don't think our players should miss out on the IPL. There should be a window in the Future Tours Programme so that everybody gets a share of the pie.
"We have the Pakistan series during the IPL, which is why you didn't have many West Indians being signed up. Gayle was one, and that was a travesty. The franchises wanted those who were available for the duration. My task is to build up West Indies cricket, but you do have to factor in things like that."
Gayle's IPL pyrotechnics have fuelled even more debate about the choices that players, provoked by administrators or not, make. Gibson remains confident, though, that there would be no conflict of interest if the itinerary was organised better. "I think a lot of guys still see representing West Indies as the pinnacle," he says. "The IPL makes you a lot of money quickly, if you're good at Twenty20 cricket. What you don't want to see is someone retiring to go and play it."
The creation of an IPL window is, however, secondary to the concerns of teams like West Indies, who feel with some justification that the FTP is loaded in favour of two or three teams. "I hadn't realised that we haven't toured India [the last Test series was in 2002] in so long," says Gibson. "When we were one of the top teams, everyone wanted to play us. The top team brings people through the turnstiles. But we can't improve our current ranking if we're not playing enough Tests."
As the recently released Fire in Babylon reiterated, cricket is unique in bringing together islands scattered over thousands of square miles. Part of the challenge for any coach is to impress that on a younger generation with no memory of the halcyon years. "West Indies cricket is still vibrant," says Gibson. "A lot more of our legends are getting involved with the game now. Like anything else, we just need a spark.
"Our players have to see themselves as role models for a generation, like [Viv] Richards, [Clive] Lloyd and others were for mine. It didn't matter which island they came from. Michael Holding was from Jamaica, but he was a West Indian icon. You respected him, wanted to learn from him."
Learning is what Gibson will continue to stress as India, world champions in addition to being ranked No. 1 in the Test arena, head to the Caribbean in early June. "Young [Devendra] Bishoo flew to the World Cup a week before his first game and bowled brilliantly. Andre Russell also made his debut there. We need to create a learning environment for such players. If we learn from the mistakes, in time we'll get back to winning."
Though some of the senior Indian players will skip the one-day series, the Tests that follow will give the Caribbean's young talent plenty of opportunity to observe some of the game's batting legends at close quarters. "I don't necessarily want my players to watch them bat for two days," says Gibson with a laugh. "More important than how they play, I want them to see how they prepare. I also want them to pick their brains, interact with them.
"If there's someone you admire, talk to him. Find out what makes him so special. If Darren Bravo gets the opportunity, he should talk to Tendulkar about what he's done for the last 20 years that's made him the standout batsman in the game. If he gets a piece of advice that kickstarts his career and he becomes even half the player, then he'll be a fantastic cricketer for us."
Millions of cricket lovers worldwide, with memories of watching a team like no other, would share that sentiment.
Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo