Greed, rival sports, guns? Daniel Brigham visits the Caribbean to investigate what went wrong
With West Indies crumbling to another defeat in a recent one-dayer against Pakistan, one man's statement stood out in the quarter-full stands of St Lucia's picturesque Beausejour Stadium. "Pray for the team" was daubed in white paint on a makeshift wooden banner, held aloft by a self-proclaimed `cricket priest'. Although his credentials as a bona fide clergyman were questionable, what mattered was his message.
Fifteen years ago, the only prayers at Caribbean Test venues were from mentally and physically bruised opposition batsmen. Not any more. From being the most crowd-pleasing, dominant, virile force in world cricket, West Indies are now embittered and impotent, involved in an embarrassing and seemingly interminable contracts row and relying on Bangladesh and Zimbabwe to hold them up in the Test rankings.
Shuffling to the beat of a percussion band high in the stands, the priest and his two followers snake their way among their flock: the restless, dispirited, mainly middle-aged crowd. Although the holiday-brochure venue hosted an international for the first time only three years ago, most supporters have a permanently forlorn look. Perhaps prayer is the only answer.
"This team isn't going to get anywhere without prayer," says the priest. "Most of us here know that we don't like it, we don't like it at all, but we can't see it changing any time soon, maybe never. Not with the players we've got coming through, not with this bunch. They're just lazy. And if anyone thinks any different, thinks things will be back to the days we were showing your boys how to play proper cricket, then they need praying for too."
Prayer doesn't work in this match: West Indies lose comfortably (perhaps that should be uncomfortably) by 40 runs. In fact, it's probably best not to rely on the almighty: he appears to be wearing his Baggy Green these days. So if prayer doesn't work, what will? What has to change? A bad West Indies team is bad for international cricket - it's bad for quality and it's worse for the soul of the game. Like the All Blacks in rugby union and Michael Jordan in basketball, West Indies were packaged and sold as the game's dominant brand; they had almost become bigger than the sport. It is rare for champions to be loved by the public but the West Indies sides that dominated from the mid-70s to the early 1990s drew more than admiration. The players oozed flair and the crowds bounced with them; they made cricket cool. Compare the great West Indies sides with the dominant Australian teams of the past decade: the Aussies, although respected, are not loved the same way the Windies were.
The main emotion directed at the current side is sympathy, even pity. Their reluctance to talk to the media and accusations of greed during the contracts row between the players and board has tarnished their public image. That snarl up resulted in the squad picked to tour Sri Lanka missing 10 senior players. The ICC said it would step in and sort out the mess, if asked. It is needed.
Many of the old heroes have to take some of the blame thanks to their constant criticism of the current team; their names create a difficult shadow for the current players to live in, their carping makes it even trickier. One of the more constructive voices belongs to Michael Holding. "The decline hasn't finished yet," he says. "People keep hoping that we've reached ground zero but things are going to get a lot worse before they get better. How much better things get after we eventually hit ground zero, it's hard to say."
It took a long time for many involved in the administration to accept the decline. The individual success of Brian Lara and the long-lived glories of Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh masked the lack of young talent coming through. This left West Indies 10 years behind the top nations. Holding feels that, although long-term decline has to be addressed, there is a solvable short-term problem. "We have a very decent batting line-up that consistently lets us down. Lara, Gayle, Chanderpaul and Sarwan are all great batsmen. They should be posting consistently good scores. That will allow the bowlers, who are already under a lot of pressure to come in and perform straight away, to ease themselves in. It's all about the team helping each other out, and that isn't happening right now."
The statistics back Holding up. In their last 52 Tests before the recent gloomy tour of Sri Lanka, West Indies have been bowled out for fewer than 200 runs on 26 occasions. In those same Tests, the opposition have scored over 450 on 22 occasions. West Indies went on to concede over 500 in 15 innings (including twice against Zimbabwe), and over 600 on four occasions. The whole unit seems to be malfunctioning.
Hilary Beckles, professor of history at the University of West Indies and a director of the snappily named ICC Cricket World Cup West Indies 2007 Inc., recently wrote: "You cannot get a more miserable, self-dividing people anywhere in the Caribbean than West Indian cricketers. It's a miserable community that cannot rise and take responsibility for its own craft." Ask most people on the street in St Lucia about the root cause of West Indies' decline and the sentiments will be similar to Beckles's. It's not hard to find people to talk about this among the crowd. It is, however, impossible to find someone with a good word to say about the current side. Even in the party stand, soaked in beer and good times, the cricket vibe is negative; all the attention is on the cheap beer and music, blocking out another limping performance from their team. Many of the revellers are facing away from play, turning their back on West Indies cricket. What they do have to say comes back to laziness and greed. Although there is sympathy with the players' cause in the contracts row, most fans say they would happily play for West Indies for free.
Financially, West Indies players don't get a great deal compared with other Test sides. Regional cricketers earn little and West Indies Test players are the only ones around the world without central contracts for more than one series at a time. Is it a surprise that West Indians want to make as much as possible while they're at the top?
Lance Gibbs, who famously said he cries every time West Indies lose, appears to be able to hold back the tears throughout their defeat by Pakistan. Maybe he's used to the feeling now but he sympathises with the cricketers: "Although the top players earn a whole lot of money through personal contracts, many of them aren't at the top for long, especially with the current selection policy. They don't have the security of a central contract like players in England or Australia or most other nations now. If you were in that situation, what would you do? It's unfair to criticise these young men for taking care of their future. The board should take better care of them."
Holding is more sceptical: "The money is fine for international players. You know, they're not struggling. That's not what's wrong with the team. The atmosphere in the camp is to blame, some players are stabbing others in the back and there's no longer a family atmosphere like there used to be. It doesn't matter how much you get paid, first of all you have to love playing for your country and to realise that should be above everything, including personal matters."
The team will only begin to change public opinion if they start winning Test matches (unlikely) or become a bit more media savvy (more realistic, if their media team can learn to relax). Arranging interviews with the players involves persistent telephoning, getting up very early at team hotels, waiting for them to emerge, running after them when they sneakily head straight to the team bus, then getting rejected. Their media team guard them like dignitaries; it is frustrating for journalists and readers alike. Some must have something interesting to say. Are the players really that reluctant to talk? More than one source close to the team tells the story of a current West Indies player who got himself out to avoid a man-of-the-match award and the live television interviews that inevitably follow.