Cricket: Rousseau flies in to save the tour

Brian Lara will have to be reinstated as captain to settle conflict. By Stephen Brenkley
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ONE final flight into Heathrow Airport today will determine the future of West Indies' historic cricket tour of South Africa. It will have on board Pat Rousseau, an avuncular looking, white-haired fellow who is no stranger to recent controversy and who holds the key to the settlement of an increasingly bizarre industrial dispute.

Rousseau is the president of the West Indies Cricket Board and his presence is crucial - of greater significance even than the letter of imprecation from another president, Nelson Mandela - to persuading the players of the Caribbean to take up their tools once more. To achieve any kind of positive resolution Rousseau must be prepared to make considerable concessions as well as rescinding several decisions he and his colleagues have already made (and might be deeply regretting). Not least among the latter, and in truth probably paramount, is the reinstatement as captain of Brian Lara. It will be an about-turn unparalleled in the sport but it is also one that Rousseau may have no option but to take.

Not that anything should be taken for granted in a stand-off which was mistakenly perceived at its outset to be mainly concerned with Lara and his ego but is plainly about much wider issues, to wit, all West Indian international cricketers and their status. When Courtney Walsh, the great fast bowler and president of the West Indies Players' Association strolled lithely yesterday afternoon into the lobby of the airport hotel where he and his team-mates have been staying (holed up, in the parlance of the dispute) he was clear in his view.

"It's good news for us that Pat Rousseau is coming," he said, not least perhaps because Rousseau had stated throughout the week that he was not prepared to come. "The West Indian cricket team are unanimous in their wish that the tour takes place. They fully appreciate the importance of the tour both to the Board and to the public of South Africa as emphasised by the letter of Nelson Mandela. We're equally unanimous that the tour can only take place if the West Indies Board met here with us in London in order to finalise contracts for the tour and draw up guidelines for future series."

Walsh read those words from a prepared statement but expanded a little afterwards. He did not think it was really a dispute, he said, but the players merely wanted to negotiate. They wanted to safeguard the future of the youngsters coming into the game. Oh, and the reinstatement of Lara was a major part of the deal.

This strange affair of players boycotting a tour in which they openly admit they are desperate to participate began in mid-August when the West Indian Board first sent out their proposed contracts for the trip. But it took its most significant twist barely more than a week ago in Bangladesh in a moment which may be described as when the economy seats all but broke the fast bowlers' backs.

Simply, the team who flew out for the Wills ICC one-day tournament involving all the Test playing nations discovered that they were alone in having been in the cheapest seats. When you are an athlete tall enough to be a basketball player - and there are several in the West Indies team - this can cause extreme discomfort.

It was probably this apparently trivial slight, as much as anything, which decided the players that it was time to make a stand. As captain, Lara was essential to the cause but he was by no means a lone provocateur. The Board then proceeded to get things badly wrong.

Instead of embarking for South Africa from Dhaka, Lara and Hooper flew to London where they met several other players who had not been to Bangladesh, including Walsh. Others who had been playing in the Bangladesh tournament flew on to South Africa as expected. The players in London, many of them senior, hoped that the Board would listen to their demands for a better a deal. The Board did no such thing. They convened a meeting at which they sacked Lara and his deputy, Hooper, and fined the others who were in London.

This immediately provoked an old-fashioned industrial dispute escalation. The players who were already in South Africa expressed solidarity with their colleagues and flew to London. They were accompanied by the tour manager, Clive Lloyd, who yesterday advised negotiation, and by Dr Ali Bacher, managing director of the United Cricket Board of South Africa, an old hand at cricket disputes, who came armed with the Mandela Letter.

There was an element, as there is in all the best strikes, of "yah boo sucks". The Board outlined what they saw as the sequence of events leading to the impasse. When they proposed the tour contracts, they said, the Players' Association did not respond for more than 40 days. On 27 October the Board agreed an increase of $30,000 to $555,000 in fees for the tour but stuck by their insistence that other long-term issues for fee structures could not be dealt with.

The players responded by saying that the 40-day delay had not taken place and that the dispute was not about fees, "it is about recognition of the rights of the players, respect of the players by the WICB." The Board sent Joel Garner to London to negotiate. He and Walsh appeared on several occasions in the same West Indies side and probably talked over old times.

Players and officials have been shuttling between two Heathrow hotels, conference telephone calls have been taking place regularly, Bacher has been smilingly optimistic. But nothing was happening. On Friday afternoon the players' agent, Jonathan Barnett, a respected but no-nonsense figure, turned up. He looked exasperated when he left. How could he negotiate when there was nobody to negotiate with? Rousseau had to be there. A few hours later Rousseau, who was last before the world when the Jamaica Test against England was abandoned last year, said he would be.

If nothing else, it all demonstrates that cricket can still capture the attention of the world. They should be some Test matches in South Africa this winter.