News Analysis

Could white-ball contracts save West Indies?

The likes of England and New Zealand have them already, and West Indies need to consider them seriously if they are not to be deprived of their best players

Tim Wigmore
Tim Wigmore
Dwayne Bravo and Kieron Pollard have a laugh in the nets, Lauderhill, August 25, 2016

What if West Indies could call on Bravo and Pollard for limited-overs cricket whenever they wanted?  •  WICB Media/Brooks LaTouche Photography Ltd

West Indies have always been vulnerable to their players earning more by representing someone else. Garry Sobers almost played in English league cricket in 1963 instead of for West Indies. Two rebel tours took place to apartheid South Africa in the 1980s, exploiting the financial insecurity of fringe players. So those who harrumph that today's Caribbean stars lack the pride of their forebears in representing the region miss the point. West Indies will not return to having their stars available for every game through appeals to romance.
Incentives matter. It is not in the financial interests of West Indies' T20 stars to devote themselves to the national side. While that remains the case, the dispiriting cycle will continue: at full-strength in the World T20, West Indies will remain formidable, but the rest of the time they will be deprived of most of their best players, with predictable results.
The heady talk in April of a resurgent West Indies, after the men and women had triumphed in the World T20 and the Under-19s had won the World Cup, already seems like an age ago. There are a few more trophies on the mantlepiece, but nothing has changed. The internecine squabbling between the players and board continues. Phil Simmons, the most popular coach with the players for many years and the man who oversaw the men's World T20 triumph, has been sacked. Some stars from that tournament are now absent friends; others are only glimpsed in a West Indies shirt when they are underprepared.
Dwayne Bravo arrived in the UAE the day before the first T20I against Pakistan, highlighting how West Indies are emasculated by the absence of contracts for their white-ball specialists: the only WICB contracts are for those who play Test cricket too. All the while, other countries are successfully grappling with the notion of white-ball specialists. England have just introduced lucrative new white-ball contracts, which could allow leading limited-overs players to earn more than Test players. Could West Indies' limited-overs cricket be reinvigorated by doing the same, and creating six to eight contracts for white-ball specialists?
It is much easier for the ECB to award bumper central contracts than for the WICB to do so because the ECB has so much more cash: the result of more lucrative commercial deals. A lack of cash is the reason why, in order to fund the creation of 90 professional contracts in the domestic game, the WICB had to reduce the amount that the top international players earned, and phase out the seniority principle in international payments, under which senior players received higher match fees than less experienced ones did.
The WICB has made some effort to compromise with leading limited-overs players. Outside pre-existing arrangements, the WICB has created a window for the IPL in the cricket calendar. "That is a big chunk of the prime cricket months in the Caribbean. It is also lost revenue for WICB not scheduling cricket in that window," says Richard Pybus, West Indies' director of cricket. "Having done that, we wanted players committing to play in West Indies domestic cricket, to give value to fans and sponsors and bring depth to the competitions. So they would have been able to play in the IPL and CPL, then give a commitment to West Indies cricket, international and local. This hasn't been the case." The WICB has ruled that ODI selection is predicated on playing in the Nagico50, the regional 50-over competition, but as that clashes with the Big Bash, the ruling has left a coterie of players unavailable for ODI cricket.
So while the WICB is far from blameless, to some extent it is also simply a victim of wider financial imbalances in international cricket. And yet even New Zealand, a board with similar financial realities, finds a way to accommodate white-ball-only contracts.
An insider believes that US$100,000-150,000 a year would persuade West Indies players to sign up to limited-overs contracts that allow them to play the entirety of the IPL and CPL but otherwise gave the WICB first refusal over their services, and the right to manage the players' workloads. With such security, players would be less inclined to play in every possible T20 competition.
In Florida in August, the WICB held discussions with limited-overs specialists on how to work together; among the options proposed by the players' representatives was including white-ball contracts and relaxing the requirements to play in the Nagico50. As yet nothing has materialised from the conversations, though the WICB is understood to be considering introducing some form of limited-overs contracts.
An insider believes that US$100,000-150,000 a year would persuade West Indies players to sign up to limited-overs contracts that allow them to play the entirety of the IPL and CPL but otherwise gave the WICB first refusal over their services
There would be significant advantages if they did so. While the cash needed for white-ball contracts - probably close to $1 million a year, depending on the number of contracts - is not insignificant, it could be seen as an investment. If West Indies are able to tie down their limited-overs stars, they would become a much more attractive proposition to broadcasters, sponsors and opponents alike.
In March, Bravo suggested that West Indies could dominate T20I cricket just as they had dominated Tests in the 1980s. While the West Indies of the 1980s generated cash by being invited to tour the wealthiest nations - they toured Australia six times that decade, including four times in Test series - so the side of the 2010s could become huge draws in limited-overs cricket, leaving West Indies better off financially and in cricket terms. Few want to watch the T20 world champions play as meekly as in the two whitewashes by Pakistan in the UAE.
Of course, a new system could create new problems. The WICB's current contracts show an organisation that puts Test cricket above the other two formats. If that changed, then West Indies' limited-overs sides might be strengthened - but at the expense of a further decline in their Test team.
"One of the West Indies' challenges is to keep their best players playing Test cricket," says Tony Irish, the executive chairman of the Federation of International Cricketers' Associations. "Lucrative white-ball contacts may bring some of their current 'free agent' players back to playing ODIs and T20Is but it may well also encourage future West Indies players to make that choice over Test cricket." Irish believes new contracts need to be more lucrative across the board to keep players playing all three formats - emphasising how West Indies are hampered under the ICC's revenue distribution model. However much it is maligned, the WICB faces a series of unenviable choices.
But the current impasse between the itinerant T20 stars and the WICB is debilitating and, without substantial reform, shows no signs of improving. "My feeling at the moment is that things could get worse before they get better," says Eddie Tolchard, managing director of Insignia Sports International, which represents, among others, Samuel Badree, Kieron Pollard, Sunil Narine and Darren Sammy. "There are financial considerations, of course, but in any form of employer-employee relationship, there is a duty of mutual trust and confidence.
"For players to enter into any form of retainer with the WICB, it wouldn't be purely down to the financials. The relationship would need to be better. Goals aligned. Continuity and confidence installed, with everyone knowing where they stand and what exactly they are agreeing to commit to each year, and importantly, a thriving and positive environment for the youngsters to be exposed to created."
If that does not happen, the current batch of T20 globetrotters will be trendsetters in the Caribbean, and young players might use West Indies as little more than a vehicle to attract T20 scouts. Already the lack of availability of West Indies' best players has cost them a place in the Champions Trophy, and the $250,000 participation fee that comes with it. Now, having slipped back to ninth in the ODI rankings after their drubbing by Pakistan, West Indies are at risk of not merely having to play the World Cup Qualifiers, but doing so shorn of their best limited-overs players, jeopardising their chances of reaching the World Cup itself, and thus potentially losing out on the $1 million given to each qualifier.
A new contract system would be no panacea. But increasing the incentives for leading players to represent West Indies would give the team a chance of ending the blame game, and fielding something resembling their best side in the two limited-overs formats. Without substantial reform, the fear is that West Indies' performances in bilateral limited-overs cricket will get even worse.

Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts