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Feature

What's happening to cricket in Jamaica, the land of Holding, Walsh, Gayle and Russell?

Though the country has produced some of the biggest names in the sport, cricket is fading fast from public consciousness there

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
23-May-2024
Usain Bolt brings out his trademark pose at Eisenhower Park, May 15, 2024

Olympic gold medallist sprinter Usain Bolt (right-most) is the ambassador to the 2024 T20 World Cup but his home country, Jamaica, will not host a single match  •  ICC/Getty Images

T20 cricket in the Caribbean is intrinsically linked with Jamaica. It is the biggest cricket-playing island in the region and its most famous sons have been promoting June's T20 World Cup: Chris Gayle, the format's leading run-scorer, and Usain Bolt, the legendary sprinter, are ICC ambassadors; Sean Paul features in the tournament's official anthem.
And yet, in a 20-team, 55-match World Cup staged across nine venues, Sabina Park in Kingston will not host a single game. The reason? Jamaica's government did not submit a bid. The CPL has not staged fixtures in Jamaica since 2019, and this year it will no longer feature a Jamaican team after the Jamaica Tallawahs' owners relocated their franchise to Antigua and Barbuda.
For Rovman Powell, West Indies' T20 captain, the situation is "disappointing". After a series win over England in December, he described Jamaica as "a proud cricketing nation".
"I want to play in front of my home crowd," he said, "but for the last few years, I haven't. The West Indies cricket board [CWI] and the Jamaican government really have to sit down and have a conversation about that."
It is a common refrain: the centre-right Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) government has been widely criticised for what its critics say is a failure to engage with cricket. Olivia Grange, the minister for culture, gender, entertainment and sport, fronted the decision not to bid to become a World Cup host venue and said that she was "obliged to look beyond immediate gratification" and could not defend the cost of staging games.
Wavell Hinds, who scored ten international hundreds for West Indies, was appointed shadow minister for labour and sports earlier this year, alongside his roles as president and chief executive of the West Indies Players' Association (WIPA). "There is a disconnect between the government and the reality of what sports and cricket can bring to the Jamaican people," he says.
"It is unfortunate, and certainly a missed opportunity: failing to bid for a T20 World Cup game and now seeing [how good] the ticket sales have been so far, without a ball being bowled… it's quite extraordinary how the government sees cricket within the sporting industry. They see sports as a whole, but not the impact it can have on the GDP of the country."
Many smaller Caribbean islands have successfully used cricket as a means to promote tourism but Jamaica had four million visitors last year in any case. "I've got to do a better job in making sure the government understands the benefits of what CPL can bring them," says Pete Russell, the league's chief executive, who hopes that Tallawahs will relaunch under new ownership after this season.
Kris Persaud, a Guyanese businessman, has shifted the franchise to Antigua and Barbuda after Tallawahs went four consecutive seasons without a home game. "It just became uneconomical for him to remain there," Russell says. "Jamaica's such a powerhouse of West Indies cricket, but for him it just wasn't tenable. He had a better offer, to be honest, from another government."
The CPL regularly publishes data from YouGov highlighting the positive impact that staging games has on islands' economies due to hotel stays, tourist expenditure and promotional opportunities. But Russell says he has failed to convince the Jamaican government of this: they have been reluctant to grant tax waivers, for example. "The argument that was always put to us was that we should be paying the government for being there."
For Jimmy Adams, the former West Indies batter who recently left CWI after six years as director of cricket, the problem lies not with the government, but the Jamaican Cricket Association (JCA). "I'm not a lover of politicians, but I don't think it's really the government's fault," he says. "If you're going to look for the government to invest millions of dollars, then make the case as the local cricket board.
"Especially in an island like Jamaica, with limited resources and third-world issues - health, education, that kind of stuff - you have to admit you are responsible for making the case… you go and convince the government that it is in their interest to divert money from a lot of other areas into hosting international cricket games. The local association, I would go as far as to say not only didn't do it, they're incapable of doing it, which is a sad indictment."
The JCA has just undergone its first change in leadership for ten years - Dr Donovan Bennett, the long-serving vice-president, has replaced Wilford "Billy" Heaven as president - but Adams is not convinced that anything will change. "With this group of tadpoles in the bucket, put anyone you want in charge and would it make a difference? I don't think so," he says.
Sabina Park has hosted international cricket semi-regularly in recent years but rarely for major series: England, the most lucrative touring team for Caribbean islands, have not played there since 2009. For the Jamaicans involved in the West Indies set-up, it is a major frustration. Brandon King, the top-order batter, has played 84 internationals but only once on home soil.
"It's hard to believe, but it's true," King says. "Growing up, I always wanted to play for the West Indies but part of that was also playing in front of my family and friends. Sabina Park is still one of my favourite grounds in the world because of what it means to me: I grew up there. I don't feel I have missed out necessarily, because we just haven't played a lot of international cricket here."
Jamaica has a rich cricketing legacy, having produced West Indies players from George Headley, Michael Holding and Courtney Walsh through to Chris Gayle, Stafanie Taylor and Andre Russell. But the island's recent dominance of track and field events means that athletics is the principal sport; and football remains incredibly popular 26 years on from the Reggae Boyz' only World Cup finals appearance.
"Jamaica's sporting culture is about winning," says Jerome Foster, a reporter at Television Jamaica. "Track and field was really put on a pedestal in that glorious timeframe from 2008 to 2016, with the success of both Usain Bolt and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce. That really drove sponsorship and financial backing. Right now, there is no doubt that track and field is our No. 1 sport."
Foster believes that Jamaican cricket is in "a dire state" and says that engagement from fans "is at an all-time low". He is particularly worried by the decline in cricket in schools - both primary and secondary - since the Covid-19 pandemic, primarily due to a lack of funding. It is a concern shared by both Adams and Hinds.
"Normally, we have at least 80 to 90 high schools playing cricket," Hinds says. "We only have 28 now. There's no primary-school cricket and there's no prep-school cricket. We need to return to the days of having participation at all those levels." Adams says he is "alarmed" by the drop-off: "We don't have a strong club structure so we rely on the school system to identify talent. If we lose that, it really makes a big dent."
There is a widely shared fear that the absence of both World Cup and CPL fixtures will compound cricket's decline in Jamaica. While there is still a healthy talent production line, underlined by Powell's ascent to the West Indies captaincy and Andre Russell's success at the IPL, neither player has much opportunity to inspire on home soil.
"You want kids to see, in front of them, that cricket is an avenue," Adams says. "Yes, we have Andre Russell earning good money in the IPL but the kids here don't get a chance to see him play live. He's always overseas. That ties into the issue of schools, where a lot of teachers have love and passion for the game but they can't afford the kit, or a coach to drive the cricket programme, so the kids don't have the chance to play themselves."
Johnny Grave, CWI's chief executive, suggests that Jamaica's decline as a cricketing force has been overplayed, pointing to their recent success in the Women's T20 Blaze and Super50 Cup. He also cites the fact that Sabina Park will host three men's T20Is against South Africa this week as evidence of CWI's desire to stage international cricket in the country.
"Cricket is not being embraced quite as much as we would like by the Jamaican government," Grave admits. "But we're keeping true to our philosophy that every international venue and host country should get regular cricket and that we should spread it around. Sabina Park is one of the iconic, historical venues in the Caribbean and it will host cricket for another hundred-plus years.
"I'm optimistic. I don't think it's a long-term decline. We're doing everything we can to attract international teams and we've taken regular cricket there, despite probably not getting as much support from the Jamaican government for hosting cricket as we would other territories. Hopefully, at some point in time, Jamaica will recognise cricket as an industry, as a platform and a product for economic development, and get on board in a slightly more meaningful way."
The three Jamaicans in West Indies' T20 World Cup squad - Powell, Andre Russell and King - have all publicly aired their disappointment that Sabina Park will not host any fixtures in June. But King remains optimistic that, after a successful recent run in T20Is, West Indies can help "reinvigorate" cricket in Jamaica by lifting the trophy for the third time.
"Players like myself, Rovman and Andre Russell are in a position to help keep cricket alive in Jamaica," King says. "Having matches at home would've definitely helped, but those things are out of our control. We've tried to contribute in different ways over the years but there's more that can be done. I'm sure it's something we'll talk more about amongst ourselves - but winning the World Cup is at the top of the list."

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98