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Between November 2003 and August 2004, West Indies cricket passed through the most agonising period in its history, even by recent distressing standards. The optimism created by a record-breaking last-Test win over Australia in May 2003, followed by victory over Sri Lanka, rapidly evaporated during five tightly packed series.
In 16 Tests, West Indies suffered ten defeats, one by an innings, three by ten wickets, and two by over 200 runs. They beat Zimbabwe and Bangladesh - the only teams ranked below them in the ICC's Test Championship - in one Test each. Even these two enjoyed the better of West Indies in their other, drawn matches. South Africa, at home, and England, in the Caribbean, were denied clean sweeps only by two exceptional innings - Dwayne Smith's last-day, run-a-ball hundred in Cape Town, and Brian Lara's unbeaten Testrecord 400 in Antigua. There were no such heroics in the return series: England completed the dreaded whitewash at The Oval, where West Indies had formalised their own "blackwash" 20 years earlier. The ICC Champions Trophy final brought a timely triumph only a month later, on the same ground as their Test match humiliation. But this euphoria was soon dissipated in an acrimonious row between the board and the players.
The difficulties had been compounded by Sir Viv Richards's exit after two years as chairman of selectors, before the tour of England. It reflected his frustration at the team's performances and the players' sensitivities. A formal letter of protest to the West Indies Cricket Board from the West Indies Players' Association had alleged that he and other selectors "verbally belittled and threatened" some of its members in public.
Stung by the realisation that, after five years of failure, the situation was getting worse, not better, and the fear that West Indies were losing their global appeal, the board announced drastic changes to the running of the Test team and to the domestic tournaments. "If it is true that there is no stronger force than cricket to unify us regionally and give us pride, then we must be prepared to go to bat for the regional game," said Teddy Griffith, the WICB president. "There will be no gain without pain, and the way forward must entail the involvement of those with the skills, talents and ideas to lift us up."
But unity seemed a long way off. In November 2004, most of the players invited to prepare for the one-day triangular in Australia in the New Year initially refused to sign the proposed tour contracts, under advice from the players' association, which accused the board of "an attempt to exploit the players for commercial purposes". This was a similar dispute to the one that afflicted India before the 2003 World Cup, and it required the intervention of the prime minister of Grenada, Keith Mitchell, and arbitration to allow the selected team to go to Australia. But even this was only a temporary solution: the board asserted that "there were still a number of issues unresolved". It was a worrying indication that further confrontation was likely with the revitalised players' association, which had already called a strike of its members before the domestic Carib Beer semi-finals in 2003 and had threatened two others.
The latest dispute coincided with the appointment of Bennett King, director of the Australian academy, as new head coach, the first foreigner at the helm of the West Indies team. This followed a report from a committee headed by the board's vice-president, Val Banks, which recommended increasing the head coach's powers, appointing a full-time manager, and establishing "distinct and discrete roles for the manager, coach, captain and selectors, with clear reporting lines and accountability". The coach would have a fulltime contract, serve on the selection panel, and have the casting vote on the final eleven. The captain would carry out strategy and tactics in collaboration with him. "The coach will be accountable for the team's performance," Griffith said. Compounded by the choice of an outsider, which some saw as an insult to the great legacy of West Indies cricket, it was a radical switch. But it was not unexpected. The board had prematurely announced King as its choice in March 2003, only for him to then turn it down. In the circumstances, Gus Logie, the successful youth team coach, was elevated by default. His contract was terminated "by mutual agreement" in September - immediately after the Champions Trophy success - to accommodate King. The WICB's position was that King came free of the insular baggage that had hindered the seven West Indians who preceded him in the post, none of whom lasted more than three years. As the buck would stop with him, King insisted on choosing his support staff: he brought along an assistant coach, David Moore, and a physiotherapist, Stephen Partridge, fellow Queenslanders who worked under him in Australia.
Yet another Queenslander, Darren Holder, had been recruited earlier as coaching manager, to devise specialist coaching programmes, oversee the Cricket Academy's curriculum and organise an agenda for emerging players. It was a significant position, but the new head coach would be the one expected to make a difference. At least he had an unexpected breathing space to assert himself. A Test series in Australia in 2004-05 was postponed for a year, meaning that West Indies would play no Test cricket between The Oval in late August 2004 and Georgetown in April, against South Africa.
At domestic level, the first-class and one-day tournaments were both to be overhauled. For four seasons, a foreign team and an Under-23 development side had taken part in the first-class competition; since 1996-97, a series of non-first-class teams such as Bermuda, Canada, the USA and the University of the West Indies had joined the one-day competition. Both expansions had burdened a financially insecure organisation with heavy running costs, while adding little to general standards. From 2004-05, both tournaments would feature only the six traditional regional teams: Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica, the Leewards, Trinidad & Tobago and the Windwards. The first-class competition would become a home-and-away league, instead of a single round leading to semi-finals and a final.
Meanwhile, two major sponsorships changed hands. Cable & Wireless ended its association with the Test team after 18 years, preferring involvement with the 2007 World Cup and agreements with individual players, most prominently Lara. They were replaced by a rival telecommunications company, Digicel, in a fiveyear deal. Red Stripe Beer, a sponsor since 1988, withdrew from the one-day tournament which, in the absence of a replacement for 2004-05, had to be called the President's Cup.
The change from Cable & Wireless to Digicel led directly to the impasse between the board and players' association. The board's tour contract required players not to endorse a competitor of its major sponsor unless they had a pre-existing agreement that it had approved. The players' objection was that the board wanted "to unilaterally assume infinite ownership of the players' endorsement rights".
As the board sought solutions to West Indies' decline, it might have sought advice from its Barbados representatives. After failing to reach the first-class semi-finals in 2001-02, Barbados had turned things round so swiftly that they comfortably won both stages of the competition, the league (Carib Beer Cup) and the knockout (International Challenge), in the next two seasons. They extended their unbeaten sequence in the first-class tournament to 21 matches. Though they could not keep the one-day trophy, the Red Stripe Bowl, which they won in 2002-03 - they lost the final to Guyana - their side were Under- 15 champions in April and Under-19 one-day champions in August. The senior Barbados side won all seven first-round matches, a record for the expanded competition. No other team won more than three. It gave them the Cup by a margin of 32 points over Jamaica. But it was in the Challenge that their resilience was most severely tested. In the semi-final, they claimed a hard-fought first-innings lead over Guyana in a drawn match; in the final, they staged a spirited fightback to defeat Jamaica.
Their success once more revolved around their confidence, their preparation, the captaincy of long-serving wicket-keeper Courtney Browne, and a combination of proven experience and enthusiastic youth. Of three batsmen with Test caps, Sherwin Campbell and Ryan Hinds amassed over 500 runs in the competition, and Floyd Reifer was only nine short. Pedro Collins, the left- arm swing bowler, was the tournament's leading wicket-taker with 43 at 18 runs each, while the pacy Tino Best had 37 at 13. It was enough to earn both a Test recall. The left-hander Ian Bradshaw had solid returns either side of his call-up for the one-day squad in South Africa. Indeed, all 17 players used by Barbados made some kind of worthwhile contribution.
The other teams lacked their consistency and relied on too few key players. Jamaica reached their fifth successive final, but were handicapped by the absence through injury of their Test men, Wavell Hinds, Marlon Samuels and Jermaine Lawson, and had to wait for Chris Gayle's return from South Africa to boost their batting. Seamer Andrew Richardson, aged 22, who played for West Indies B in 2002-03, stepped up to claim 36 wickets.
The Windward Islands, whose third place was their highest league finish for 21 years and put them in the semis, had the batsman of the season in the Grenadian left-handed opener Devon Smith. He scored 842 runs at an average of 76 in the tournament, 283 more than anyone else, including four hundreds - three in successive innings. He followed that with his first Test century when recalled to play England, before a broken thumb put him out. His opening stand of 309 with Rommel Currency against Kenya was a Windwards all-wicket record. In the same match, Fernix Thomas's lively pace brought him the season's best figures, eight for 28.
Guyana and Trinidad & Tobago had 40 points each but Guyana advanced to the Challenge round by virtue of winning their head-to-head fixture. Their batting was so brittle that no one scored a hundred until Ramnaresh Sarwan returned from South Africa to reel off two (plus a 95) in three matches. In the semi-final against Barbados, he shared a double-century partnership with Test colleague Shivnarine Chanderpaul, who had been controversially installed as captain, in spite of Sarwan's position as West Indies' vice-captain. If Smith was the season's outstanding batsman and Best the finest bowler, Dwayne Bravo was the top all-rounder. The 20-year-old Trinidadian, born in the same Santa Cruz district as Lara, confirmed his long-recognised potential with 481 runs at 37 and 28 wickets at 13, and made his debut for West Indies. Amit Jaggernauth, an off-spinner with variations of flight and turn who had played for West Indies B the previous season, collected 30 wickets, but Trinidad & Tobago's overall performance was again disappointing. The Leeward Islands, a powerhouse in the 1990s, languished at the bottom of the table with the Kenyans, who followed A-teams from England, Bangladesh and India as the fourth foreign side in the regional tournament. The Leewards were undermined by much the same insularity that affects West Indian cricket as a whole; Kenya simply found seven four-day matches in less than seven weeks too demanding.
Neither side won a match and both were beaten by West Indies B, the Under-23 team, but they did produce a run glut when they met on a perfect pitch at The Valley in Anguilla. Kenya's Maurice Odumbe scored 207, out of 564, and Sylvester Joseph 195 in Leewards' reply, which reached 718 for seven, a tournament record.