'Pandemic forced us to do more with even less' - CWI president Ricky Skerritt

Ahead of board elections, Skerritt on the financial hurdles facing cricket in the Caribbean, being a "player-centric president", and more

George Dobell
George Dobell
Kemar Roach acknowledges reaching the 200-wicket mark, England v West Indies, 3rd Test, Emirates Old Trafford, 2nd day, July 25, 2020

Skerritt: 'The region and the international environment have begun to look at West Indies as a potential force in world cricket'  •  Getty Images

On Sunday Ricky Skerritt, the Cricket West Indies (CWI) president, is hoping to get re-elected after his first two-year term comes to an end. Skerritt's main opponent in the election will be Anand Sanasie, secretary of the Guyana Cricket Board. Skerritt spoke to ESPNcricinfo about his term and future plans.
How perilous were CWI finances when you took over?
I didn't even know how perilous they were. And I was on the board. There was a fair amount of delusion about a lot of things at CWI and our policy of being transparent, accountable and open has brought about a wider understanding of the challenges CWI really faced. We have been very open about the real difficulties in taking CWI forward because of the obstacles in place and the battles that went on and on. We've tried to bring peace and understanding and partnership to really refocus on, as we call it, cricket first.
You said there was "black hole" in the finances. What state are CWI's finances in now?
The biggest problem we were facing is that all of our future cash was spoken for before we even got it. We were living on borrowed future income. So, we had close to USD 20 million in institutional debt. And we were borrowing to pay back lenders. It was all smoke and mirrors. And that's understandable on short-term strategies when there are difficult times for cash flow. But it had become endemic.
So we've been having to tighten belts, focus on cash rather than on profit and loss and get rid of any sort of unnecessary costs. And we've cut our debt down by at least a third now after less than two years. And, with some difficulty, we have improved our ability to meet our obligations, we just could not meet most of our obligations [previously].
We were borrowing money to pay wages. We did that for the first year that I was in office. Right up until the early summer last year we were literally having to borrow to just pay players and staff.
What impact did the pandemic have?
The pandemic made everything more devastating. But it also gave us an opportunity and an excuse to focus on what we really needed to focus on, which was keeping CWI going and getting all stakeholders to understand that it would take sacrifices from all of us, including a 50% pay cut for everybody. We said it would either be that or we would have to lay off a significant number of individuals, which we didn't want to do. In the first year [of Skerritt's term], we were just tightening up and reducing staff based on attrition as opposed to cutting too much. We were just trying to keep control. We said we would do more with less.
The pandemic forced us to do more with even less. And I think that, in the final analysis, we're going to come out of the pandemic more informed and better aware of what's needed going forward.
There's been some criticism from within the Caribbean that you should have placed a higher price on West Indies' involvement in the series in England in 2020. Some say you should have asked the ECB for several million dollars for agreeing to complete that tour. How do you reflect on that now?
First of all, there's no higher price than the health and safety of our players. And we did everything to ensure that we had a partnership with the ECB, their medical people and their country's best medical people working with our medical people and our medical advisors to make sure that we establish a pioneering - and I emphasise it pioneering - bio-safety model, which has become the template for all others that have followed. We are very proud to have been a leader in that.
The criticism came from people who were upset that we tried to re-introduce cricket because, for them, no cricket was going to be used as a failure of ours. This was about carrying out our obligations to the ICC Future Tours Programme.
Those folks wanted me to somehow hold a gun to the head of the ECB and extort money from them because there was this perception that if we didn't go to England, the ECB would go bankrupt. Therefore, they would be prepared to pay any kind of money.
That was ridiculously untrue. There were other teams lined up to go to England and I could bet you that none of them are going to do the distasteful action of seeking to extort money for the trip. It just doesn't happen in ICC systems. There's absolutely no record of a visiting team being able to extort money from a host. That's not how the system works.
Just ahead of that Test series in England, some were calling for the dismissal of your head coach. What does that tell us?
It is a very sad reality that across the Caribbean not everybody really, genuinely loves West Indies cricket through thick and thin. Some of the people have given many hours of support for West Indies cricket but, when it comes to certain matters of politics, you almost can't recognise them.
So, Phil Simmons was unjustly released from his job, years ago. And Phil Simmons was allowed to reapply for the same job some years later when I became chairman. And somehow, there are people who feel that Phil Simmons gets preferential treatment. Phil Simmons gets success the old fashioned way. He works for it. He has failures, along with his successes, which he learns from, and what we have tried to do in CWI is to develop a learning environment and Phil Simmons is the right man for that. We went through a process, a very transparent recruitment process, to put him in place. So when there were people calling for his removal, it was not only shocking, it was very distasteful. And very worrying. Because it reminds us how vulnerable West Indies cricket is to those critics only see their own shadows ahead of them.
What are the achievements you're most proud of as president?
Enthusiasm for West Indies cricket regionally and globally. The region and the international environment have begun to look at West Indies as a potential force in world cricket.
Is there tangible evidence of that?
Well, I can't give you the data off the top of my head. But the fan engagement, the social media interactions, the conversations that are taking place in the media and the upsurge in interests. Even in the areas of politics - which I prefer wasn't the focus - but there is just more dialogue. And the more the dialogue takes place the more constructive it will become.
One of the obvious changes is that you seem to have all the players available again.
I would say that is the second biggest achievement: bringing back, confidence, within the system at the player level. Players, generally, don't trust cricket administrators for all kinds of reasons. History is flooded with confrontation between players and the board. So I certainly can't tell you that there will be no confrontation in the future.
What I can tell you is that the partnership that my predecessors had set up with the West Indies Players' Association was a good partnership that has continued to strengthen. But most importantly, the relations with most of the players including many of whom are not members of WIPA, which was at an all-time low, that has stabilised considerably.
We just saw a Super50 tournament where the best players collaborated with us to make themselves available to play whether they were contracted or not. Because the players are beginning to understand that there is goodwill. I have no apologies about being a player-centric president. I've been accused of being too soft to players. You let me see a cricket system without players. You could have it without administrators; you cannot have it without players.
Ultimately administrators - rightly or wrongly - are probably defined by the results on the pitch. The team has remained a bit inconsistent, hasn't it?
Yes, very much so. And let me say, at no time did we predict that within two years, we would see the sustainability in improvement. And I certainly understand that, ultimately, we will be measured by improvement on the field. But remember where we started from: we started from the bottom. In every format. So, what we have to ask ourselves is: how did we get there?
Then we have to make sure that we eliminate all of the problems that have caused us to be there. And put in place the measures that will help us to climb the ladder again, including selection of the best available players. But more importantly, helping all of the players to improve so that they go from one tournament to the next as an improved player. We haven't done a very good job of that in the past.
How confident are you that you're putting the blocks in place to build for the future?
We've been putting the human infrastructure and the technical and technological networks in place. In fact, since October last year, there is more collaboration taking place between coaches, all across the region, than ever in our history.
We have right now, without being able to host tournaments as we would want, been able to identify 45 U-19 players who are already receiving virtual and actual coaching assistance no matter where they live in the Caribbean. It's part of our development plan to get that U-19 team ready for the World Cup, which we will be hosting in a year's time.
Look at what we did with the women's programme. Not only did we put Courtney Walsh in charge of it, but we have significantly improved the quality of the coaching team he has around him. And the very first cricket activity of this year, starting early in January and running for three-and-a-half weeks, was a high performance camp for 26 women of all ages and backgrounds helping to get us started on a new wave of preparation for the next Women's World Cup.
In terms of the Wehby report, while the aim might be to bring in more independence and expertise, some in the territorial boards will say that you're minimising their voices. Is it realistic to expect them to vote themselves out of existence?
That's the million-dollar question. How many of us will be big enough to see that West Indies is cricket is bigger than us individually? It's the most difficult thing.
It's not difficult for me. I could leave West Indies cricket at any time and still have West Indies cricket completely warm in my embrace. I'd still do whatever I can at any level. But there are some people who are so personal about their particular role and position that anything that threatens that, threatens their support for all things West Indies cricket.
All of these people are well-intentioned, ultimately. Cricket volunteers are not always easy to find. Cricket, in the past was run primarily by volunteers. By people who have been doing it for decades. And they get threatened by these folks who come in and don't even know or understand the history. It becomes a potential conflict every time a new person comes in and tries to assert him or herself.
They never seem to want to accept people who didn't come through the belly of West Indies cricket; the local boards and territorial boards. There are some people who are petrified about the possibility of university professors or engineers and doctors who somehow never played enough cricket or didn't come through the board system, coming on to the board. That's why we have independent directors. That's what it's about: how do you get a balance between the cricket people and those that know how to take that and make it work for cricket.
It would appear the CWI relationship with various stakeholders - CARICOM, for example - has improved. And you were close to becoming vice-chair of the ICC board and are now on the MCC Cricket Committee. What do we read into this?
The vice-chairmanship of ICC is an important role, but it's primarily a ceremonial role. It's there as a safety net to cover for chairman. I was asked if I was nominated if I would accept the nomination and I said sure. We need to have democracy in these organisations and people need to believe that there are others who are competing. That's why I welcome competition in this election. But, the fact that, with very little effort, I was beaten by one vote. It said two things: one that the ICC board is clearly divided, which we were not that surprised at, but it also said that in a short time that I have been on the board, a fair number of people believe that I have potential for helping in the leadership of ICC. I'm very honoured by that perception.
Could this improved relationship with the ICC lead to West Indies hosting major ICC events?
Very hopefully. Even though there's still some division and distrust, Greg [Barclay], the new chairman, has come in with a great sense of expectation and I think that there's a fair amount of goodwill towards his leadership. Once a little time elapses you will see some good possibilities coming out of Greg's chairmanship at the ICC.
Is that revenue model idea - an idea which your chief executive [Johnny Grave] originally devised - whereby the host nation share perhaps 20% of their revenue from a the relevant broadcast deal with the visitors, is that still alive?
Everything is alive right now. Everything is on the table right now. And what I think is happening already, is the ICC chair is ensuring that inputs like this will be given an opportunity to come through to the board. His style is to ensure that we get a sort of bottom-up input into decision-making, so it's not just the [ICC] board deciding on everything. He is insisting that the chief executives' committee be allowed to put their recommendations to the ICC executive. So Johnny's paper, which was done a few years ago, is being updated as we speak.
Is there one message you would like to give to people in the region and in particular, those who will be voting in this election?
We are confident that we have helped cricket West Indies onto the right track. And we need to stay on track. We need to move forward. From time to time, we might have to move sideways. But we don't want to go backwards. We have to be very careful because of the delicate vulnerability of what we have achieved for just a short while, that it can go off track very easily.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo