February 5, 2012

Twenty20 leagues put West Indies cricket in a fix

The power struggle in Guyana isn't the only problem plaguing West Indies cricket. The lure of the BPL means that several players will be unavailable for part of the regional first-class competition

As the life is gradually squeezed out of West Indies cricket by supposedly responsible bodies scrapping for its control, it was inevitable that its first-class tournament that started on Friday (still unsponsored and known simply as the "Regional Four-Day") should be as surreal at it is.

For the first time since it was launched in 1966 as the Shell Shield, one of the participating teams, Guyana, has had all its home matches shifted to neutral territory by the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) as a result of an acrimonious power struggle between the Guyana Cricket Board (GCB) and the government that has only worsened. In addition, its scheduled Test against Australia has been withdrawn.

In another, if unrelated episode, the Jamaica Cricket Association (JCA) picked Chris Gayle for the opening match against the Windward Islands, as it had done in last October's regional 50-overs tournament, even though the WICB, the parent body, had declared him ineligible for selection on its teams.

It was a decision that seemed to send a pertinent message to the WICB. Already, it was no secret that the JCA was dissatisfied that Sabina Park, a ground with a long and proud history, was not scheduled for a Test in the forthcoming series against Australia, even after the third was shifted from Guyana.

Then there is the mystifying case of Darren Sammy, Gayle's successor as captain who appears to be in the post in perpetuity.

A week after he fetched US$55,000 from the Sylhet Royals in the new Twenty20 Bangladesh Premier League (BPL) auction, Sammy opted out. One reason, he declared in a lengthy statement, was to be "properly and fully prepared for the challenges" in the series against Australia.

In addition, he said Windward Islands cricket was "blossoming and making significant strides". His contributions as captain and allrounder were "integral to this process" and he was keen on serving his team. It was a surprising contradiction, therefore, when the Windwards arrived in Kingston with Sammy back in St Lucia. The report of why he was missing was given, not by the WICB, but by team manager Ian Allen, who said it had been a WICB "request" for the first match.

"He has had a long couple of years in terms of constant cricket and the understanding is that they want him to get some rest for the upcoming Australian series," Allen explained.

There will be other "understandings" for, given his record, Sammy's place in the team has come under constant and understandable scrutiny. The WICB needs to make the cause for his absence clear.

As many as 12,000 fans turned out to matches at the Sir Viv Richards Ground and Kensington Oval in the recent, unsponsored Caribbean T20; the IPL and Australia's KFC Big Bash pack in five times that number. It's a no-contest. No wonder so many West Indies players put their names up for the IPL auction

While Gayle is on parade on his home patch for the first time since the regional Super50 last October, this is likely to be the opener's last appearance as he is one of the star turns in the BPL (at a price of US$551,000) and the fourth Indian Premier League (IPL) season (US$550,000 and counting).

Nor is Gayle the only one heading east to more lucrative pastures. Kieron Pollard and Dwayne Bravo have also added contracts in the new Bangladesh enterprise to those already renewed in the IPL.

Eight more West Indians join them in Bangladesh over the next three weeks, while Sunil Narine (US$700,000), Andre Russell (US$450,000), Darren Bravo (US$100,000) and Kevon Cooper (US$50,000) were four snapped up in the latest IPL auction. Another 14 hopefuls put their names up but couldn't interest a buyer.

Like their countryman Pollard before them, Narine, the finger-flicking spinner previously all but unheard of, and Cooper, the allrounder, first came to the attention of the Indian franchises through their performances for Trinidad and Tobago in the Champions League in India. It is motivation for others but their team has to first qualify through the Caribbean T20, as they have now done three times out of four.

It doesn't take a degree from St Augustine to appreciate the potential impact of all this on West Indies cricket. The Regional Four-Day goes from February 3 to the final, from April 7-10 (the exact dates of the first Test against Australia). The Australians are in the Caribbean from March 16 to April 29, immediately after which the West Indies head to England for three Tests, five ODIs and one Twenty20 international from May 5 to June 24.

Acknowledging the reality of the lure of such hefty pay days, the WICB has provided NOCs (non- objection certificates) to its contracted players signed on in Bangladesh. Even though it means most miss the first four rounds of its first-class schedule, they will be available against Australia. It is those not under contract, specifically Narine, who must make the difficult choice, if chosen, for the series against Australia and England while the IPL is in full swing.

Two new IPL signings, Bravo and Andre Russell, are contracted so will presumably be on call to the WICB. Narine is not.

His wicket-taking potential makes him a strong contender as much for Test as Twenty20 cricket but, while his Trinidadian team-mates, Pollard and Dwayne Bravo, have stated that their goal remains the Test team, they have already had the benefits of several seasons with various global Twenty20 leagues. The choice might not be so clear-cut for a player yet to bowl a ball to earn his keep from the Kolkata Knight Riders.

As lucrative Twenty20 tournaments continue to multiply (the BPL is the latest) they present a dilemma for both players and, even more so, the game, especially in the West Indies. As many as 12,000 fans turned out to matches at the Sir Viv Richards Ground and Kensington Oval in the recent, unsponsored Caribbean T20; the IPL and Australia's KFC Big Bash pack in five times that number. It's a no-contest. No wonder so many West Indies players put their names up for the IPL auction.

In the meantime, the 2012 Regional Four-Day is underway, watched by a sprinkling of die-hard supporters, with matches at neutral venues and the best players away on duty in Dhaka, Chittagong and other Bangladeshi locations.

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