Regional Four Day Competition 2009-10 December 28, 2009

Mixed reactions to first-class changes

Pink balls, play at night under lights and, according to chief executive Ernest Hilaire, 'a cricket festival atmosphere'. The West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) is seemingly intent on extending the festive season well into the new year in its annual first-class tournament.

Some don't share the vibes.

Dudnath Ramkeesoon, Trinidad and Tobago's chief selector, is wary that the pink ball has not had sufficient testing and worried that dew might be a negative factor at night.

Jimmy Adams, the former West Indies captain, now technical director of Jamaica cricket and influential secretary of the West Indies Players Association (WIPA), makes the valid point that Jamaica and, it can be taken, the other teams as well, have not been provided with pink balls for necessary practice under lights prior to the tournament.

Indeed, the ideal would have been a full, pre-season trial in a day-night match over four days at one of the lighted venues. Now the assessment must be made during the first such official fixture, between Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago, in Antigua starting January 15. Consequent controversy is inevitable if that happens to prove unsatisfactory.

Even so, Adams is generally open-minded about the idea. "Let's see what comes of it," is his take, noting that only four pink-ball, night matches are scheduled, after which it can be determined whether it is feasible or not.

If we accept Hilaire's contention that the WICB "had to be brave and try new things and approaches to get fans coming back to the game they love", its simultaneous decision to revert to one-round for the 2010 tournament has met with influential resistance.

As, Dinanath Ramnarine, the chief executive of the West Indies Players' Association (WIPA), immediately noted, the first point of the WIPA's recently-announced insufficient in this modern era of cricket," Ramnarine said. "We have seen that in recent years."

He also claimed that the WICB made its move without consultation with the WIPA, as it should have under the memorandum of understanding between the two, and hinted at "activating the dispute resolution process" unless the issue is further discussed. Given the damage caused to West Indies cricket over the past decade by the constant feuding between the two organisations, such talk is enough to make everyone shudder at the prospect of more trouble ahead.

At least Ramnarine now has the stated support of two WICB directors on this one. Joel Garner, the Barbados Cricket Association (BCA) president, and Azim Bassarath, head of the Trinidad and Tobago board, have both bemoaned the reduction.

There is an obvious reason for the cutback, given by Hilaire in an interview I had with him last month-although, strangely, not in the WICB's subsequent official media release. In these times of the demise of even the biggest banks and most prominent insurance companies, it is the same faced by finance ministers, business executives and housewives everywhere-a lack of money.

For the second year, the tournament has not been sponsored. Neither was the one-day competition in November. Without a proper marketing department, the WICB is unlikely to find one any time soon. It amounts to a serious drain on its treasury that was further diminished recently by the estimated US$2.5 million it put into retainer contracts for 33 players for the coming year. Of those, 18 were signed on as much because of their 'commitment and sacrifice' in answering the last-minute call for the Bangladesh series as the likelihood that they will be needed again by the West Indies.

Garner accepts the point about financial constraints but not as a cause for the reversion to one round for the first-class season. "A lot of things were cut without understanding that they are important to the development (of cricket) and that is one we have to look at in a very serious way," he told me in a telephone interview during the Australian tour.

With opportunities drying up for emerging West Indians in English county cricket, in his day a virtual finishing school for most of the players in the great teams of the 1980s, Garner would like the home season to be longer ("six, seven, even nine months in the year") not shorter. To compensate, Hilaire revealed the WICB is planning for more A team series for the next-in-line players, to be financed by the money saved on the cutback.

The West Indies have had three such series in the past seven years, the last against England in the Caribbean in early 2006. Their Test opponents engage in two, sometimes three, every year. It is a catch-22 situation-either go back to two rounds a season and shelve the A team plan or vice-versa. The WICB and the WIPA between them must make up their minds.

Unless Santa Claus makes a hurried return trip and arrives at the WICB headquarters carrying a sack filled with authentic millions, the A team idea makes more sense at present. While the WICB's dilemma is understandable, it is difficult to follow Hilaire's line that the new plan, that includes the staging of an entire round of three matches in the same territory, will "get fans coming back to the game they love" and raise standards "on and off the field."

Four day-night matches certainly give nine-to-five workers the chance to take in at least the last half of the cricket in the cool of the evening. Their novelty alone should guarantee better crowds than usual. But where will the local interest be in the other two involving neutral teams (Barbados v Leewards in Jamaica, Windwards v CCC in Barbados, for instance) in the same territory?

And how will the new arrangement suddenly lift standards "on and off the field", as the chief executive asserts? The WICB will seek the answers at the end of the season. "At the conclusion the format will be reviewed and compared to experiences with other formats used over the last decade," Hilaire revealed. In the words of Jimmy Adams, "let's see what comes of it."

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