March 31, 2012

The militant man of the people

Board-player relations were at their most acrimonious during Dinanath Ramnarine's time as the WIPA chief, but he was more than just the trouble-maker he was made out to be

Two images come to mind when one thinks of Dinanath Ramnarine.

One, from the Kensington Oval in 2001, when "Dinas" was still very much a player and engaged in a desperate battle to save a Test match against South Africa with Mervyn Dillon. With West Indies collapsing inexplicably on the final afternoon, the pair contrived to survive in farcical fashion, wasting time in the most obvious way, feigning serious injury even, so that treatment could come from the pavilion and more time could be frittered away at the crease. The match referee was unimpressed and Ramnarine was fined, but West Indies got their draw.

Then there is Ramnarine the helper in times of need. The recipients of his aid range from players he represented as head of the players' body, an ageing ex-player too old to have been an association member, or just some ordinary Joe in need of some kind of help.

The last decade in West Indies board-player relations has been heavily influenced by the passion and pragmatism of the outgoing president and CEO of the West Indies Players Association (WIPA). Arguably no single player or administrator has influenced the direction of the game in the Caribbean as much as Ramnarine has done in that time. He leaves the WIPA ship a stronger vessel, if one that steers through rough waters.

The players' association is a transformed organisation from the one Ramnarine inherited in 2001. Before then, it was usually headed by the West Indies captain and run largely by active players. It now has its own office and paid staff, and a network of professional expertise to call on for legal and labour matters.

Even though it is now one of many subjects before the courts, the WIPA, under Ramnarine, has been able to sign collective bargaining agreements and memorandums of understanding - perhaps not quite envisaged in 1973, when the association was first formed, with Rohan Kanhai as president and Deryck Murray as general secretary. The WIPA over the last ten years has forced administrators in the region to take the players' issues more seriously. They have had no choice.

The professional face of the WIPA has developed under Ramnarine's stewardship as president and CEO. The many legal victories it has won over the WICB tell of an organisation sure of its position and committed to defending the rights of its members.

Ramnarine, who retired from international cricket since 2002, has devoted his energies to getting players their dues; and that energy and passion were rewarded with successive terms in office. The players in general seem to trust in his methods, and in him.

The WIPA under Ramnarine has proved an effective pressure group whose skirmishes with the board have at least served to expose many of its inefficiencies. But it has also been clear for some time that the WIPA had gone as far as it was going to go under Dinas

Beginning in 2003, when the semi-finals of the first-class Carib Beer International Challenge were delayed by a day, West Indies cricket has been subjected to a series of strikes by players at the regional and international level. The sources of the disputes have ranged from match fees for first-class players to contractual disputes and image rights issues. In Test series in Sri Lanka in 2005, and in the Caribbean against Bangladesh in 2009, West Indies were forced to field under-strength teams. The 2009 side led by Floyd Reifer suffered the ignominy of being swept in the two-Test series and three-match ODI rubber.

The 1998 standoff in London between senior players and the board ahead of the disastrous first tour of South Africa was perhaps the first indicator to the region's administrators that they were dealing with a new, less compliant breed of player. But the militancy of the Ramnarine era is something the board still has not come to terms with.

The venerable and charismatic Wes Hall, president when the 2003 strike broke out, never quite got over that action. And none of his successors - Teddy Griffith, Ken Gordon and the incumbent Julian Hunte - has been able to tame the WIPA tiger.

Ramnarine and his colleagues, never afraid to go the legal route, have been like a persistent mosquito, continually jabbing at the board and drawing blood. The WICB's response has been a mixture of conciliation, intransigence, and more often of late, arrogance, in the sense of attempting to bypass the WIPA, even when bound by agreements to consult. Last year when the Chris Gayle impasse was bubbling, the WICB even declared it was no longer prepared to deal directly with Ramnarine.

For all the strides the players' organisation has made in representing and educating players and raising funds for charity, the fact is that West Indies cricket is in a more critical state than it was ten years ago. The WICB's archaic system of governance and lack of transparency - repeatedly pointed out by Ramnarine - has much to do with that. But the WIPA's aggressive posturing has not helped either, not as far as the overall game in the region is concerned. Sometimes, even when you are right, it is wise, good strategy even, to give way. The WIPA under Ramnarine was not prepared to give much ground. Ramnarine's acceptance of Hunte's invitation to join the board in 2007 proved but a temporary ceasefire.

So the perception of some in a region unaccustomed to the acrimony that has come into cricket in the last decade is that Ramnarine is a trouble-maker who has taken the game down. That is harsh.

The WIPA under Ramnarine has proved an effective pressure group whose skirmishes with the board have at least served to expose many of its inefficiencies. But it has also been clear for some time that the WIPA had gone as far as it was going to go under Dinas.

Ramnarine or not, there will still be a WIPA, and likely one that will continue to be proactive in defending the rights of its members. A change of face, however, may no longer allow the WICB to claim an obstructionist personality as a barrier to peace.

Ramnarine did right to leave the attack at this stage. Good play.

Garth Wattley is a writer with the Trinidad Express