December 17, 2015

Is it time for the West Indian nations to go it alone?

Caribbean cricket is at a desperately low ebb, and there's little hope of things improving the way they're going at the moment

Was the West Indies era of dominance a fluke? © Getty Images

We are all dewy-eyed about West Indies cricket. With both frustration and sadness in his voice, one eminent former Australian captain doubted the present team would have beaten the stronger Sydney grade sides of his time. We tell stories of battles past against some of the most brilliant cricketers the world has seen and pick teams that have Clive Lloyd as captain, four fast bowlers, and Jeffrey Dujon behind the sticks.

None of this helps Jason Holder's men. They are victims of history, as were the Welsh rugby team for so long. The only difference is that the Welsh rugby players kept busting a gut. Some of Holder's number look resigned to the inevitable. Test cricket offers no hiding place. Long days and the vignettes that are an integral part of them strip a man bare. One cannot help but feel for Holder, who has been sent to the wolves as much because of a lack of options as anything else. He is a promising cricketer trying to make his way in three formats of a complex and widely profiled game. His standards are high and his dignity unimpeachable. But the captaincy, though a great honour, is surely a burden.

What really grated in Hobart was the indifference in the body language of the experienced players. It is well enough documented that Marlon Samuels strolled from long leg to mid-on as if he were playing a charity match. Nor was he the sole offender. Jerome Taylor and Kemar Roach turned over their arms without any of the zip that gave them a reputation. In Australia, the pitch must be hit hard. Then rumours suggested that a couple of the bowlers all but refused to run in against the wind. Rumours are dangerous and tend to come from dissatisfaction. Then again, the media feed from rumours.

Most of the batsmen simply look out of their depth, both technically and mentally. Having said that, Darren Bravo remains a good-looking player and has Brian Lara for counsel. A big tick goes to Kraigg Brathwaite - like Holder, out of the splendid Wanderers club in Barbados - for his second-innings resilience. His record against Australia is so bad it isn't funny but he just damn well hung in there, winning admirers along the way to his 94. He deserved to carry his bat and would do worse than to start to think like Steve Waugh in such a situation.

It is difficult to see a resurrection. The years of plenty were something of a fluke, as if the stars aligned to produce something astrologers will talk about for all time; a momentary thing of beauty and brilliance and, within it, an irresistible brutality. First the three Ws, Sobers, Kanhai, Hall and Griffith, then Lloyd and the marauders. Yes, Learie Constantine and George Headley created a pre-Second World War stir but not so much that the world feared the opponent as a whole.

The plain fact is that the world and the game change. The Caribbean doesn't. It stands resolutely still in time. The problem is that high-quality players are no longer there to cover for this

Both league and county cricket in England nourished and rewarded the more gifted players before the confidence of life in these nurseries began to create results. Probably, the regions of the Caribbean themselves were no better administered then than they are now, but like the uprising of any dictatorial power that has strength and idealism at its core, the players took hold. Viv Richards and Andy Roberts attended Alf Gover's cricket school in Wandsworth in the early 1970s. Alf felt Andy could bowl a bit but thought Somerset were gambling when they took on Viv. A hunch says that the Viv Richards at the Gover school, when he was around 20 years old, would have found Josh Hazlewood, James Pattinson and Nathan Lyon a handful at Bellerive. The difference is that Viv - as driven a man as the game has known - would have gone on to work it out.

If you haven't been to the Caribbean, you will be delighted by the simple life. Fewer than six million people, an endearing lack of infrastructure, no compelling reason for investment outside its own boundaries - except tourism, of course, and low levels of motivation for much but sun, sea, sand and those glorious sunsets. Wonderful! May it forever be so.

But sport is moving fast. The Caribbean's irresistible lifestyle is not necessarily a recipe for success in the global commercial marketplace. The West Indies Cricket Board is painfully aware of this and appears to be at a loss for answers. Briefly, Allen Stanford saved them from themselves but we know the conclusion of that story.

Heartbreaking as it is to see Chris Gayle, Dwayne Bravo and company drifting to the money elsewhere, it should be no surprise. Previous generations did the same but with blessing because the game was smaller and schedules far less compromising. West Indian players could spend the whole of one summer in four in England: improving their lot in myriad ways and making a living free from the limitations of island life, to which they returned for rum and rest.

Perhaps it now makes more sense for the regions to go it alone. The Professional Cricket League still has the game spread too thinly and "franchises" are a terrible sop - as if a fancy name will change anything. Sometimes it is wiser to turn back time and establish what made things acceptable in the very beginning.

West Indian cricket might benefit from being stripped back to a concentration of talent in Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and one other - Guyana or the Leewards perhaps, though stocks are low. The best players from other islands would have to gravitate to the only first-class cricket available. For sure it would be easier to lead.

The relaxed Caribbean lifestyle is in stark contrast with how fast the game is evolving © Getty Images

A governing board of 17 people seems absurdly overblown. This is made up of representatives from the 16 nations that play under the banner of West Indies. Apparently, recommendations from the Caribbean community (CARICOM) that call for the immediate dissolution of that board are to be thrown out. It is a bizarre situation. One that would benefit from a blank sheet of paper. Autonomy and self-interest might serve well in the present crisis and allow "a big four" the chance to consolidate affairs and needs and drive the future from strength.

The four regions could play six home and away first-class matches against one another - or nine or 12 if need be - and expose the players to a greater fight for places and intensity of competition. Fifty-over cricket will almost certainly stay an inter-island affair, including all associates and neighbours in a league then knockout form with each of the four first-class teams seeded. The Caribbean Premier League would surely remain the commercial animal it is now. Of course, the CPL - any national T20 league - is the root of the fastest-growing problem in global cricket. Put simply, it offers a great deal for not much. It is difficult to criticise West Indian cricketers for deserting the insanity that prevails within the West Indies Cricket Board and taking the dollar elsewhere.

In general, the same opinions about cricket in the Caribbean have been bandied about for a while. Sure, ongoing disputes between the players and the WICB do not help. Yes, other interests suck young talent out of the cricket vacuum and into the ether. From afar, it appears that pitches are not what they once were - slow, low, boring these days. Pride and ambition look to have been lost but defeat after defeat will do that. The plain fact is that the world and the game change. The Caribbean doesn't. It stands resolutely still in time. The problem is that high-quality players are no longer there to cover for this.

The cabal formed by India, England and Australia will marginalise every other major cricket-playing nation. The next to be severely threatened will be South Africa. It may be that, genuinely, the cabal cannot see this. But they are blind. The diminished form of Test cricket is before us, crystal clear. If no one really cares, then fine, carry on regardless. But the lowest common denominator will not sustain the most beautiful game.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK

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