West Indies contracts row August 17, 2009

Fight for power, battle of wills

The impasse is a power struggle for the control of cricket in the Caribbean

When he came to his review of relationships with the West Indies Players' Association (WIPA) in his second annual report as unchallenged president of the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) last week, Julian Hunte, the WICB president, was in bullish mood.

After making the obvious point that the interaction between the two organisations had "reached an all-time low", he charged that the players' boycott of the ticket launch for next year's World Twenty20 tournament in the Caribbean and their strike three days before the series against Bangladesh "represented the highest form of disregard and disdain for West Indies cricket".

"It was simply a case of players feeling so invincible, drunken by the numerous occasions on which had gotten away with whatever behaviour they chose that they can act with wanton disrespect for the game of cricket," he charged.

They were angry words, not unwarranted whatever the supposed grouses the players had with the board. Yet not much more than a year earlier, in his first annual report, Hunte was fulsome in his praise of WIPA president Dinanath Ramnarine's role in "shaping the new relationship between player and board".

He had convinced Ramnarine to become a WICB director on the grounds that instead of being part of its problem he could become part of the solution.

The arrangement was always fragile. When Ramnarine's inevitable resignation came in March, less than two years after his appointment, he cited as the reason as "the direction in which the Board seems to be heading".

Immediately, Chris Gayle (who Hunte had persuaded to withdraw his tendered resignation as captain a year earlier) and his players were shunning official functions and threatening to strike, then actually doing so, over some obscure contractual issues. They were tactics they had used before. All that, it is clear, is nothing more than a smokescreen for what is a power struggle for control of West Indies cricket.

On the one hand, WIPA see the WICB as an archaic, dysfunctional organisation, unable to cope with the demands of the modern game and in urgent need of restructuring. It is a view that is widely shared, not least by the Trinidad and Tobago Board (TTCB), original and vital members of the WICB, who said as much when they chose to stay away from last week's annual general meeting.

Conversely, the WICB believes Ramnarine and his colleagues have a selfish and unrealistic agenda that, as Hunte put it, represents "the highest form of disregard and disdain for West Indies cricket". It is not an opinion confined to the WICB's board room as various editorials, letters to the editor and call-in programmes across the region attest.

Such contrary positions have led to the current impasse, the latest of many, and the decimation of what was already a weak West Indies team. By mutual agreement, the two sides are now before Sir Sridath Ramphal, as renowned a Caribbean man as there is, to seek mediation. It entails compromise but Ramphal himself has reported gloomily on his early meetings with both.

On the one hand, WIPA see the WICB as an archaic, dysfunctional organisation, unable to cope with the demands of the modern game and in urgent need of restructuring. Conversely, the WICB believes Ramnarine and his colleagues have a selfish and unrealistic agenda.

He no doubt is aware of the background of the main combatants. They are significant.

Ramnarine was 29 and at the height of his career as a leg-spinner, with 45 wickets at an average of 30 in 12 Tests, when he retired. "I haven't been chosen for the West Indies for the last two years and I don't think it was because of my performances on the cricket field," he said at the time. "I believe the whole Caribbean knew what was taking place but everyone basically allowed it to happen."

It didn't need a magnifying glass to read between the lines to know that he held the WICB largely responsible.

With the support of former teammates, he got himself elected in 2002 in place of then captain Carl Hooper as head of what was a moribund WIPA and set about ensuring that players would no longer undergo his own perceived maltreatment. With the counsel of prominent trade unionists in Trinidad, he drove hard bargains, calling out the top players from the 2005 tour of Sri Lanka when he couldn't get agreement on contracts (a similar scenario to the present four years down the line) and mounting two brief strikes by players in the regional first-class tournaments.

The upshot has been fees and conditions from the WICB for leading players which were unthinkable when he took over. The link between such sums and performance and the ability of the WICB to remain financially viable do not appear to concern Ramnarine and his negotiators. It is the transformation of the WICB that is their goal.

Hunte, 69, is a former St.Lucia wicketkeeper, politician (for a time leader of the St.Lucia Labour Party) and trade unionist. He currently heads his own insurance company. When he first came on to the WICB as Windward Islands representative in 1973, Ramnarine was two years old. Nominated for the presidency in 1988, he withdrew in favour of the late Sir Clyde Walcott "only in the interests of West Indies cricket". He rose to vice-president before taking up the post of St.Lucia's ambassador to the United Nations in 2003. He was back home in 2007, succeeding Ken Gordon as WICB president after losing in his constituency in St.Lucia's general elections in December 2006.

Recognising the difficulties with WIPA as a major disruption, one of his first moves was to bring Ramnarine on board before flying to the first ICC Twenty20 World championship in South Africa to introduce himself and get acquainted with the players. Like presidents before him, he got nowhere and was left crestfallen by the WIPA's continuing intransigence.

His administrative experience, diligence and enthusiasm led to his successful re-nomination and, with the backing of his remaining directors, he has now decided that reconciliation with Ramnarine and the WIPA is no longer possible. The feeling is seemingly mutual.

Like most politicians, Hunte is also mindful of image. He is referred to on every WICB media release as "Hon. Dr. Julian R. Hunte", in deference to his political positions and an honarary doctorate from the University of Sheffield. His omnipresent role at post-match presentation ceremonies extended in February to his officially handing over the Wisden Trophy to Gayle when the West Indies regained it after nine years at the Queen's Park Oval. Representatives of England, then the holders, watched in bemusement.

He also had his wife and daughter present trophies after ODI series against Sri Lanka and England in St.Lucia, unusual but instructive choices. When reports in the media last year alleged that the WICB had spent big money renovating his office in St.Lucia, which he then leased back, an angry Hunte raised the matter at a lengthy directors' meeting and had his name cleared. A subsequent WICB statement "expressed regret that may have been done to the reputation of Dr. Julian R. Hunte and his family because of the unfounded allegations made against him in the press in recent times".

In other words, Ramphal is faced with an immovable object and an irresistible force. Unless he gets them to shift, their only legacy in West Indies cricket would be to have overseen its ruin.

Tony Cozier has written about and commentated on cricket in the Caribbean for nearly 50 years