May 4, 2013

How do West Indies get competitive against the top sides?

It's a big ask, considering Test cricket is being given short shrift and T20 ambitions are being allowed to run rampant

New West Indies Cricket Board president Dave Cameron decided to meet the press following his first directors' meeting in Trinidad last weekend. But he had no grand announcement to make. In fact, what was not announced proved bigger news than the news that was given.

After over a month of speculation about whether Pakistan would tour the West Indies at all this year, the WICB confirmed that no Test matches would be played on the tour. And while limited-overs games have been agreed to, the dates for those are still not confirmed. "They have agreed in principle to play the ODIs but the ink has not gone to the paper," said WICB CEO Michael Muirhead.

The Pakistanis have not travelled to these parts very often. But in their previous seven visits to the Caribbean, outside of the World Cup and World Twenty20 in 2007 and 2010, they have always played Tests.

Explaining the unusual situation, Muirhead said, "Because of the moving to accommodate the IPL we had to reschedule [the Pakistan series]. Having done that, it sort of messed up the schedule altogether." According to him, the WICB wanted to keep the Tests but the PCB was not willing to send its team to play just the two Tests.

All the protracted negotiation became necessary because of adjustments that had been made to Sri Lanka's scheduled tour of the Caribbean. To accommodate the players on both teams who have contracts in the IPL, the teams agreed to forego a two-Test rubber and to instead play a tri-nation ODI series with India in July.

The accommodation of the IPL therefore means that instead of playing four Test series this year, West Indies will only play two. In one of them they have overpowered Zimbabwe, who are making their way back into Test cricket, 2-0, and will tour New Zealand in December. Both those sides lie beneath Darren Sammy's team in the ICC rankings, while Sri Lanka and Pakistan are immediately above.

Had he been given the choice, Sammy would probably have preferred series against those latter two. But West Indies cricket doesn't carry the weight it once did. For a variety of reasons both economic and cricketing, the board has had to settle for what it can get, in terms of when and how tours are arranged, and has been increasingly forced because of the Future Tours Programme to play series in the hurricane season in the Caribbean.

Muirhead is not too despondent, however. "I really think it's a one-off," he said. "Next year we have 11 Tests scheduled." These include series home and away against New Zealand, a home series against Bangladesh, and one away in India. According to Muirhead, there is no chance of what happened this year recurring in 2014 or after. "The ICC and all the nations are accommodating the IPL. We are not scheduling anything [during the IPL period] in the future within the next six years."

It is a concession that has long been mooted. But while such a window may ensure that West Indies have their best players for Test series, it doesn't guarantee an equally pressing need - cricket against the best opposition. By the end of 2014, West Indies will have played nine Test series over a two-year period, six of those being against the three sides below them in the rankings. It is not a programme likely to help them improve their current lowly status. That is a bother to the CEO.

It seems a near-impossible task for a team in West Indies' position to become more competitive against the stronger Test sides when they rarely play them, as is going to be the case over the next couple years

"The problem is that many of the nations above us are playing among themselves and we are not being given much of an opportunity," Muirhead said. "We do have to play them. We are playing India in 2016, England in 2015, we are scheduled to play everybody but it is the frequency... My personal thought is, the more competitive we get the more we can demand... We have a different style of cricket that other nations enjoy."

In an interview last year, Chris Gayle expressed similar concerns. "The lower-ranked teams are playing each other more and are not given the chance to play against the top-ranked teams to create points and be up there and have a crack at the No. 1 position. It's going to be a hell of a leap to get across that hurdle."

This view from the bottom unsurprisingly contrasts with the view from the top, where the higher-ranked sides want more cricket, not less, between themselves.

It seems a near-impossible task for a team in West Indies' position to become more competitive against the stronger Test sides when they rarely play them, as is going to be the case over the next couple years.

The challenge for Muirhead and his board is intensified by the shift in focus that the new Twenty20 leagues are causing among players in the Caribbean. The IPL, the Big Bash and the Bangladesh Premier League between them have lured away the cream of regional cricket, leaving players like Kieron Pollard, Dwayne Bravo and Andre Russell very little opportunity to press for - or in the case of Bravo, to reclaim - a place in the Test team. Worse, their absence from their regional teams has left the four-day tournament weakened, and it also means that emerging cricketers in the islands do not have the benefit of these players' experience, or inspiration.

The Regional Four-Day tournament seems almost to be regarded in some quarters as a necessary evil rather than as an object of desire. Finding a way to revive its stature and improve its quality is a matter Muirhead and the WICB must address urgently, aggressively and creatively. This is because selection in his regional T20 side with the possibility of international exposure and a T20 contract is of much greater value to the average West Indian player nowadays. Even pre-teen hopefuls are targeting IPL cricket as a goal. The beginning, in July, of the Caribbean Premier League will do nothing to redress the balance.

No, the lack of Tests in 2013 is not the biggest threat to West Indies' future in Test cricket; it's what's not happening at home.

Garth Wattley is a writer with the Trinidad Express