Gayle v WICB all over again
As the one-time baseball legend and master of malapropisms Yogi Berra might have put it, it is like déjà vu all over again. Rows between board and players have become as much a part of West Indies cricket over the last ten years or so as diplomatic flare-ups at the United Nations. Those involving Chris Gayle especially have been a recurring theme.
The script is constant. One of Gayle's typically forthright criticisms offends the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB). It demands that he retracts. He tells them just where to get off. The animosity becomes inevitably and increasingly bitter.
The latest standoff has flared over the past couple of months, since the end of the World Cup, mainly over the contradictory reasons given by WICB chief executive Ernest Hilaire and Gayle for the opener's omission from this season's home series, his flight to the Indian Premier League (IPL) and his resentment at the way he felt he was treated by the WICB.
Gayle stated his case in a lengthy and widely circulated radio interview in which he was bitterly critical of Hilaire, the selectors, coach Ottis Gibson (who he termed "a user") and the WICB in general. For their part, Gibson, Hilaire and WICB director Sir Hilary Beckles said some pretty uncomplimentary things about Gayle, either directly or indirectly.
It was clear that his return to the team was untenable against such a background. The upshot was the meeting between Hilaire and West Indies' team management, on the one hand, and Gayle, West Indies Players Association (WIPA) president Dinanath Ramnarine and vice-president Wavell Hinds, on the other, at the Pegasus Hotel in Kingston last Wednesday.
Given that Hilaire and Ramnarine, two fierce, unyielding adversaries, were on opposite sides of the table and conscious of the history of Gayle's earlier run-ins with the WICB, it was not surprising to learn that the discussions were tempestuous and inconclusive.
Intended to clear the air, it left it, instead, more polluted than an Icelandic volcano.
While the two sides now engage in their usual propaganda war, it would surely have been more beneficial for the matter to have been heard by the WICB's independent disciplinary committee, headed by Justice Adrian Saunders of the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ), rather than by those so directly concerned.
As it stands, Gayle's relationship with the WICB remains even more strained than when he acknowledged, after their first standoff in 2007, that "there is no love lost between myself and the board". He was two weeks into the captaincy he was to hold until last October when, in his regular column on the internet on behalf of sponsors Digicel, he slated the WICB for its incompetence in failing to get specialist players to England in time for a warm-up match prior to the three ODIs. He also let it be known that he wasn't too pleased that the WICB had initially knocked back the selectors' choice of him as captain for that series, only to subsequently relent.
Ken Gordon, then WICB president, so resented such public comments by the captain that he and tour manager Mike Findlay told Gayle, at a "lengthy meeting", that such remarks were "totally unacceptable, ill-advised and caused unnecessary embarrassment to the WICB". They were sentiments almost identical to the WICB's in the present case.
Back then, Gordon issued what was termed "a strong reprimand" and insisted on an apology. In addition, he said he would have his board "take the matter further after the tour". Gayle's response was as belligerent as his batting. "Will I stand up to the board? Yes, that's me," he countered. "I always stand up for what I believe in and when I'm wrong, I'm wrong and when I'm right, I'm right. If there are going to be any consequences you have to stand up and deal with it as a man. I'm always ready for anything." Nothing much has changed in the interim.
By the time Gayle returned home from the 2007 England tour, Gordon had resigned. Julian Hunte, who remains in office four years on, took his place. In an effort to regain the players' confidence, he let the matter rest, going as far as appointing Ramnarine a WICB director.
By 2008, Gayle was entrenched as captain but was again unhappy, now that he was not engaged enough in selection. Once more, he publicly expressed his frustration. "The majority of the time we discuss about selection and sometimes I get something totally different," he told the Trinidad Express during the home ODIs against Australia the West Indies would lose 5-0. "It's difficult on my side."
Soon, he had had enough. Immediately after the series, he sent in his letter of resignation as captain to the WICB. He decided to change his mind, reportedly only after discussions with teammates and with Hunte.
It was an ironic twist in light of future events.
By June 2009, Gayle and the leading players went on strike two days before the first home Test against Bangladesh. Hunte was scathing in his condemnation. "It was not about action against the Board, it was a statement on the attitude of the players towards West Indies cricket," he fumed in his annual report. "It was simply a case of players feeling so invincible, drunken by the numerous occasions on which they had gotten away with whatever behaviour they chose, that they can act with wanton disrespect for the game of cricket."
Then, on the 2009 tour of England, followed Gayle's notorious and widely quoted interview in the Guardian newspaper in England in which he said he "wouldn't be so sad" if Test cricket were to die out. He stated he preferred Twenty20 cricket, claimed that he "didn't want to be captain" in the first place and would be "giving it up shortly".
What has followed since has been contradictory and confusing.
As captain, his batting average in Tests was almost ten runs an innings higher than when he was in the ranks. When he declined to sign a WICB retainer contract last year and was sacked as captain, it was widely interpreted as his release to play more of his supposed preferred Twenty20 cricket in the IPL, the Australian Big Bash and whatever else might be available. Yet, in his first Test under the new skipper, Darren Sammy, he amassed a small matter of 333 against Sri Lanka. It was hardly the way of someone who wouldn't be so sad if Test cricket died out.
After the World Cup, he said he wanted "to get back on track as quickly as possible" after treatment for a groin injury since his "ultimate goal was…to play and represent West Indies" (for the home series against Pakistan and India). It is a goal that can only be realised if he, and the WIPA, and the WICB suppress egos and grudges and adopt a more conciliatory attitude towards each other. Otherwise, Gayle's future could be confined to Twenty20 bashes and the West Indies denied their most dominant and entertaining player.
Tony Cozier has written about and commentated on cricket in the Caribbean for nearly 50 years