There was a real buzz before the first ball was bowled in the Challenge final between Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago yesterday.
Fortunately, the Caribbean Media Corporation technicians were able to sort out the problem on the line just in time and "live" television commentary was transmitted from the peace, quiet and desolation of Sabina Park . The same can't be said for the radio broadcast, but it was in keeping with the anonymity of the alleged showpiece of the regional first-class cricket season that no-one was able to hear what was going on for the first 90 minutes because of a simple matter related to organisational efficiency.
When there aren't enough people around for the Carib girls to wine in front of, even with the additional benefit of regional exposure, you begin to understand what it must be like covering a one-day International in Sharjah between New Zealand and Zimbabwe. A funeral would have had greater atmosphere, while most of the noise floating across the refurbished venue during the first hour actually emanated from the Alpha Girls' Primary School just across South Camp Road as the students there were making the most of what seemed an exceptionally long morning recess.
However the match unfolds, whether or not it produces an absorbing contest and a nail-biting finish on the final day Monday, let us hope this is the last time we see the final as it is presently structured, because it really makes no sense.
Should Daren Ganga's team rally from being routed for 121 and prevail by the most comprehensive of margins to complete a hat-trick of Challenge triumphs, it will not change the fact that Jamaica are officially the first-class champions of the West Indies by virtue of finishing at the top of the standings in the round-robin stage of the season. It was the same situation last year, when Barbados were crowned kings of the Caribbean for a record 21st time and lost handily to Trinidad and Tobago at Guaracara Park .
So what is the point of the fixture? If the sponsors are insistent on a final for the purpose of greater brand exposure, surely that objective remains largely unfulfilled when there is almost no local interest in the match, unless of course the television and radio audience around the region is so massive as to justify its regurgitation next year.
Let us remember that this idea of a Challenge final following the main league format only became a reality with the introduction of an invited team ( England "A" were the first) and a West Indies "B" side in 2001. To circumnavigate the potentially awkward situation of an outsider being crowed champions of the Caribbean, the amended rules mandated that only the top team among the six traditional territories were eligible for the first-class title, although the other two squads could have advanced to the Challenge phase of the season, which incorporated semi-finals and a final.
With the West Indies Cricket Board incurring significant financial losses year after year, the burden of two additional teams in an already draining first-class season eventually proved too much, the elimination of that concept being followed closely by the removal of the semi-finals and leaving just the final to follow after the regional champs had already been determined.
In other words, for what is assumed to be the finale of the campaign, only bragging rights are at stake, except that those rights don't seem to carry too much value given the general disinterest in the fixture.
If the argument is that it gives our players more cricket, whether or not the public is attracted to it, surely one more match--involving two of the six regional sides--doesn't get anywhere near to satisfying the requirement.
Now, with the advent of the Indian Premier League, Indian Cricket League, Sir Allen Stanford's widening ambitions and whoever else wants to cash-in on the marketability of the Twenty20 version of the game, it is quite likely that more of the cream of West Indian talent will be skimmed off to these lucrative competitions.
For this encounter in Kingston, West Indies captain Chris Gayle is not around to lead the home side, while mercurial all-rounder Dwayne Bravo is unavailable for the visitors. Had Guyana advanced to the final, Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Ramnaresh Sarwan would not have been playing because, like Gayle and Bravo, they are involved in the inaugural season of the multi-million-dollar IPL.
If the intention is to stubbornly continue with this fixture, as is, for the foreseeable future, it will be rendered embarrassingly obsolete by the other developments in the cricketing world. Australia have a final in their domestic first-class competition, but there the real title is very much at stake, not just something as superfluous as bragging rights.
Should the people who are putting their money into supporting the competition maintain that there must be a showpiece showdown, then they have to come up with something different to make it worthwhile, and therefore interesting, for an audience that has so much to choose from via television.
How about the English county champions of the previous season squaring off against the new West Indies champions? It could also serve as a competitive warm-up fixture for the visitors ahead of the defence of their title.
Maybe it's impractical, maybe it's too costly, but what we're doing now doesn't make much sense and hardly anyone seems to care, as the emptiness of Sabina Park attests.