For West Indies Test cricket to be saved from extinction, major reform is needed


Current West Indies coaches Phil Simmons (left) and Curtly Ambrose experienced the dominance of their side’s golden era first hand but now find themselves swimming against the tide. Photograph: Dan Peled/AAP

ALLAN Border had played seven series against the West Indies. Six had been lost, and one drawn. This time would be different. Australia’s last-wicket pair was, somehow, on the brink of regaining the Frank Worrell Trophy. Only two more runs were needed for Australia to win the fourth Test of the 1992-93 series at Adelaide and secure the series with a game to spare.

Then along came Courtney Walsh. He located a brutal lifter that compelled Craig McDermott to edge behind, at least in the umpire’s reading: the West Indies had won by one run. As Australia inched towards victory, Border sat in the Australian dressing room, juggling a cricket ball. When the umpire raised his finger Australia’s captain launched his ball to the ground: “An entire career’s worth of frustration captured in a single gesture,” as Malcolm Knox put it.

It was an image of a man who felt that he would never beat the West Indies. Border was right: while the series was tied at 1-1 going into the fifth Test, Curtly Ambrose consigned Australia to an innings defeat in the decider. Border scored a pair. In a 16-year international career, he would never beat the West Indies in a series.
Twenty-two years on, the West Indies have been transformed from the team Australia could not beat to the side their own fans do not want to see. Between 1979 and 1993, the West Indies played 24 Tests in Australia. In the 14 years since being pummelled 5-0 in 2000-01, the West Indies have played just six Tests down under. No one is relishing the seventh, which begins in Hobart on Thursday. The sum of the West Indies’ preparation for this tour comprised a 10-wicket battering by a Cricket Australia XI including six players making their first-class debuts. Ticket prices at Hobart are one-third cheaper than when Sri Lanka visited three years ago.

What has happened to the West Indies between Border’s agony at Adelaide and their humiliation at Allan Border Field last week cannot be explained away by sport’s cyclical forces. The striking aspect of the West Indies’ decline is not merely their descent from the imperious team that went 29 Test series unbeaten until Australia’s epic triumph in the Caribbean in 1995, but how much worse the side is than in the 30 years after the second world war. From 1945 until the end of their 5-1 defeat in Australia in 1975-76, the West Indies won 46 and lost 41 of their 142 Tests. Since England’s unlikely triumph at Lord’s in June 2000, the West Indies have won just 14 of their 132 matches against the top eight Test sides; 80 have been lost. Meanwhile, Bangladesh qualified ahead of the West Indies for the 2017 Champions Trophy.

The issue is not merely about whether the West Indies can recover on the field. It is also about whether the West Indies will survive in its current form, or break away into its composite parts. The possibility should not be discounted; Trinidad and Tobago have mooted a split to senior figures in the ICC. A breakaway within 10 years “can’t be discounted,” Richard Pybus, the West Indies director of cricket, told Guardian Australia.


Courtney Walsh celebrates the wicket that carried his West Indies side to their famous victory at Adelaide in 1993. Photograph: Getty Images

Whether the West Indies avert that fate and can lift up their Test performances to the level of New Zealand and Sri Lanka, say, is not merely dependent upon the talent and tenacity of their players. For all the explanations for the West Indies’ decline – from the collapse of team unity and the sense that the West Indies represented a vehicle for black empowerment to the (much-exaggerated) rise of American sports, the mind-numbingly slow pitches – maladministration, in the Caribbean and the wider international game, provides the best explanation for the extent of the West Indies’ problems.
“All of us are very clear, the issue of the governance and structure of West Indies cricket – this is the fundamental issue,” Grenada’s prime minister Dr Keith Mitchell said on Friday. Mitchell was speaking in his position as chair of the Caribbean Community’s Cricket Governance Sub Committee. In October, Caricom advocated the immediate disbandment of the WICB, who its report described as “antiquated” and “anachronistic”. Both the WICB and its members – the six territorial boards of Trinidad & Tobago, Barbados, Jamaica, Guyana, Leeward Islands and Windward Islands – “do not respect the basic tenets of good governance” within their operations. Two decades after New Zealand Cricket reformed itself to replace provincial representatives with a streamlined board of independent directors selected on merit, the West Indies need to do the same.
Good governance is not sufficient for success but it gives countries the best chance of achieving it. That is especially true with an entity as complex as the West Indies, whose cricket team comprises 16 nations and territories.

The WICB’s $42 million debt to the BCCI, incurred after the walkout of the tour to India last year, shows the ultimate cost of poor governance. Terrible relations between the WICB and the players have also meant that the West Indies often pick an under-strength side – to the despair of Phil Simmons, recently restored as coach after being suspended for objecting to the continued exclusion of Dwayne Bravo and Kieron Pollard from the ODI team.

The paucity of sound administration in the Caribbean is also evident in the lack of infrastructure of the sport. While other countries used the explosion of wealth in cricket in the last two decades to professionalise, the West Indies “got left behind,” Pybus reflects. Two fundamental failings he cites are the historic absence of 12-month contracts at domestic level, and the lack of a dedicated coaching department to educate coaches throughout the Caribbean.

That cricket is still not compulsory on school curriculums throughout the Caribbean shows how the WICB has struggled to build relations with the nations who make up the West Indies. The anaemic pitches that are now the norm in the Caribbean are both a symptom and cause of the West Indies’ plight; most stadiums are owned by governments who “want labour at low cost,” Pybus says.

So there is a lot that West Indian cricket can do to help itself. While on-field performances have remained terrible, Pybus’ report into the organisation of Caribbean cricket last year (naturally his remit did not extend to governance) has led to significant reforms of domestic cricket. Belatedly, the WICB has introduced 90 professional contracts for domestic players, allowing them to train full-time; the 2014-15 first-class season was the first in which each team played a minimum of 10 first-class games rather than six; and there are tentative signs of first innings scores improving in domestic cricket. All of this might be welcome, but the West Indies cannot afford to skirt around the need to reform a board whose structure is unreconstructed from its formation in 1927.

Yet unless the structure of all international cricket is made more equitable there is only so much that internal reforms within the West Indies will achieve. The West Indies are not merely victims of their own poor governance, but that in the wider international game today.


West Indies director of cricket Richard Pybus says that in the next 10 years, a breakaway of the island nations that comprise the West Indies cricket side cannot be discounted. Photograph: Munir Uz Zaman/AFP/Getty Images

“Some boards are in a really tough spot quite apart from how well or badly they are run because of the existing international cricket landscape resulting primarily from last year’s ICC restructure,” says Tony Irish, the executive chairman of the Federation of International Cricketers’ Association. As a result of the power-grab by Australia, England and India last year, the West Indies are $42 million worse off than had the ICC distribution model remained unchanged: money that the WICB, who suffer financially from the region’s economic weakness, will not readily find elsewhere. Worse, because the “Big Three” are so much wealthier, they will have more money to invest in their own domestic cricket – and so have more money to tempt West Indians to play in domestic T20 competitions instead of international cricket. Trying to avoid clashes between the West Indies and the IPL might be just about possible; avoiding clashes with Australian and English T20 competitions too will not be.

The problem is not just how the ICC distributes its cash but its lack of leadership. Eight years ago, in the months before the first IPL tournament, the ICC mooted a plan to prevent the IPL disrupting international cricket. Around three per cent of IPL revenue would go into a pool. Proceeds from this would be used to match the IPL salaries of cricketers if their national team had a clash with the IPL, meaning they would not lose financially by playing for their countries, and to reimburse owners for their absent players. Had the idea got off the ground, domestic T20 leagues could have been prevented from decimating the West Indies, and there would not be six West Indians playing in the Big Bash instead of against Australia in the Test series.

The lack of a proper schedule in international cricket, beyond ICC events, is another systemic problem for the West Indies. Consider an interview Chris Gayle gave to the film-makers of the documentary Death of A Gentleman in 2013 (it did not make the cut of that vital film).

“I don’t know what will happen for West Indies. The top teams are going to play more against the top teams, and occasionally you might get two or three Test matches against a top team, so where does that leave you as one of the teams below? How you going to look at it? It’s ridiculous. You want the game to uplift you got to make everybody play against everybody…”

Men like Gayle can hardly be criticised for preferring to earn many times more cash playing in domestic T20 cricket than in desolate stadiums, playing series lacking context or lasting value. As scheduling between the Big Three has become more aggressive – Michael Clarke played 57 of his 115 Tests against India or England – so series against sides like the West Indies have been squeezed. That makes the side less attractive to sponsors and broadcasters, and less able to pay their players at rates remotely competitive with IPL wages, and exacerbates the huge financial advantage the Big Three enjoy after the ICC reforms. If the ICC is serious about helping the West Indies and, indeed, all the 102 ICC members beyond the big three, it would do well to listen to its CEO David Richardson’s idea of leagues in Test and ODI cricket (with gaps outside the schedule to allow extra bilateral matches), creating a context that would make international cricket more attractive for players from the have-not nations and give those countries greater financial security.
Two weeks ago, Shashank Manohar, the BCCI president and new ICC chairman, criticised “the three major countries bullying the ICC”. His words were a reminder that, for all the self-inflicted element to the West Indies’ decline, the iniquitous running of world cricket today has accelerated their descent.

In the batting of Darren Bravo, Kraigg Brathwaite and Jermaine Blackwood, the pace bowling of Shannon Gabriel and the leadership of the admirable Jason Holder, there remains abundant talent in the West Indies. If they are not harnessed into a solid Test side – the sort of team, at least, who do not give Cricket Australia cold sweats about being so atrocious that they ruin the marquee Boxing Day Test – it will be an indictment of the leadership of the ICC and WICB alike. If the West Indies continue to flounder in Australia and beyond, it is not only the WICB who should consider themselves culpable.