Allen Stanford poses the WICB the greatest challenge it has faced in the 80-odd years of its existence
The ICC has apparently accepted a request from its "members" to act as intermediary between the West Indies Cricket Board and Allen Stanford in discussions on the proposed Stanford 20/20 tournament in 2008. A statement from the CEO Malcolm Speed said its members recognise the "potential benefits of the tournament for the development of cricket in the West Indies", but wished "to ensure that their participation in any event such as this will benefit as many of the game's stakeholders as possible..."
The interests to be protected are those relating to the Future Tours Programme (FTP) broadcast rights belonging to ESPN-Star Sports. After the difficulty in interpreting what was included in the FTP prior to the West Indies tour of England, it is clear which member's concerns are being addressed. Since Stanford's plan includes a television series, broadcast rights must be protected.
The ICC's concerns are not the only ones being aired. Carib Beer, a regional cricket sponsor, has fired brazen and bizarre questions at the tournament. Colin Murray, sponsor and events manager, objected to the Stanford tournament's timing, in January-February 2008, as he felt it would take precedence over their four-day regional competition, usually scheduled then. Alleging that Stanford had his own agenda and was more interested in his tournament than the development of West Indies cricket, Murray asked: "How is Stanford investing this money to ensure the West Indies Board operations are stable and will continue to benefit from his involvement? What type of funding will the West Indies Cricket Board be getting out of this?"
Murray could well have asked the same questions of his own firm, which has made its Carib girls celebrities at cricket grounds. Has Carib Beer invested in developmental programmes in any sustained way, if at all? If those same questions were asked of his company, he would very likely be the spokesman coming out to say that the responsibility for the development of West Indies cricket lies with the WICB and not a sponsor, and he might very well inflate a Carib bottle and have some Carib girls wine in front of it to emphasise his point.
The Trinidad Guardian, a paper belonging to the Ansa McAl Group which also owns Carib, wrote an editorial asking the same questions. "... Stanford must not be allowed to stage [sic] an event that prepares the regional team for international cricket. Test cricket remains the real thing," it said. "Stanford must allow the four-day tournament its way, as soon after that, the Australians will be here. His tournament would hardly be what is needed to prepare."
It advises the WICB to let Stanford know that he is only welcome if what he is doing is not in conflict with what the WICB is doing. One could say that given the type of practice the West Indies team had before its English tour - none - that there is no conflict here. But that would be facetious.
The editorial ends even more farcically. "And since he seems obsessed with only dealing with the cream of the crop, he owes it to the WICB to put something back into the other end of the scale, where the development is concerned."
To each of the 21 participating territories Stanford has provided US$100,000 in capital investment funding and US$180,000 for development for players and coaches, and support and maintenance of facilities and equipment. It sounds like a good deal: money specifically assigned for these purposes, and Stanford has set up auditing mechanisms to ensure that it is so used. There really is nothing to fear or disparage about the tournament, except that it threatens certain interests. And that is why Stanford's plans have catapulted the old boys' network into such a frenzy.
This month-long tournament is to yield its best players to form a Stanford Super Stars team. Stanford hopes to have four international teams in a knockout competition, with the finalist facing his Super Stars for US$ 20 million. Think about it: Antigua, sea, sun, sand, cricket, and matches featuring, say, Australia, India, South Africa and Sri Lanka. Sexy.
Last year the tournament was an unbridled success. The attention to detail, while impressive, was never oppressive or alienating. Proportionally it was far more popular, user-friendly and exciting than the World Cup that followed it. Stanford had declared a budget of US$28 million for that show. Now he is preparing to invest US$100 million over three years.
Last year's tournament might have been seen as a one-off caper that had been successfully contained when the West Indies Cricket Board thwarted the Super Stars clash. But the idea that Stanford has persevered, re-grouped, expanded, and is prepared to stay with it for five years at least must be sending shivers up and down many rigid spines.
Stanford's foray into cricket has come at a crucial time. West Indies cricket has been suffering for more than a decade. All key relationships are dysfunctional. Players, administrators, sponsors, coaches, and investors are bruised by the skirmishes that keep flaring up. Whatever money can be found after players and administrators pay their hotel-, travel-, meal- and bling bills, gets spent on damage control. Nothing is allocated for development.
Whatever spin the WICB puts on its takings from the World Cup, everyone knows they cannot recoup the investment; they simply do not know how. The event left a bitter aftertaste that no number of upbeat press conferences can erase.
Whether Stanford timed his entry perfectly or not, his success last year has painted a picture of possibility. At the beginning, Stanford admitted that his knowledge of the game was minimal, that what he understood was how to make money. He engaged the services of an advisory board that comprised 14 (now 15, if you add Michael Holding) respected cricketers and made them his counsellors and ambassadors. They have been outstanding emissaries, guiding him through the complexities involved in dealing with territorial governments and presenting the overall development case in the bargain.
"The board thought it was imperative that we have the support of the governments in the region for the Stanford 20/20 initiative. After all, it is the cricket programmes in their territories that are benefiting from this investment that Sir Allen is making," said Wes Hall as they announced the plans. Hall ought to know that what constitutes the "best interests of the game" is purely a matter of who is defining it. Stanford's crime is not his contribution to West Indies cricket, it is his success.
It comes at a critical moment in the saga of the West Indies. For every thing that Stanford does right, the WICB commits 10 wrongs, and people at the end of their patience are watching. The WICB faces the greatest challenge in its 80 years of existence. For the first time, there is something on the horizon that threatens its life.
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Vaneisa Baksh is a freelance journalist based in Trinidad