Cricket: Time running out for W Indies

Cricket: Authorities are desperately slow to act as a region's premier sport hurtles towards terminal decline
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THE CHICKENS - and, in light of the recent surrenders, it is not an inappropriate analogy - have come home to roost for West Indies cricket.

The signposts along the way to the humiliation of the 5-0 whitewash in South Africa were plentiful and distinct. Yet the West Indies Cricket Board, its members fearful of upsetting their own insular constituencies and divided among themselves, took no heed of them.

After the fifth Test defeat on Monday, the captain, Brian Lara, blamed, among other things, the lowering standards of domestic cricket in the Caribbean. But they are certainly no lower than in New Zealand, Sri Lanka or Zimbabwe and cannot possibly explain why a team including Lara himself, a record-breaking batsman of rare gifts, Carl Hooper, a quality all-rounder of great experience, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, the left-hander with a Test batting average of over 40, and two great fast bowlers, Courtney Walsh and Curtly Ambrose, with over 700 Test wickets between them, should have been so thoroughly trounced in their last eight Tests overseas - three in Pakistan late in 1997 and now five here.

The more credible reason is the blatant lack of discipline that has been allowed to go unchecked and has become deep-rooted in the team and its performances. How quickly, and effectively, the Board deals with it will determine how quickly the West Indies can recover from the psychological blows it has taken over the past four years.

That means making difficult decisions, about the structure of the team, about star players who have repeatedly performed below their best and, not least, about whether Lara, so frequently the centre of controversy and disciplinary action, is the leader the situation demands.

Time is short. The Australians, even stronger and more unforgiving than the South Africans, arrive in the Caribbean in a month's time for a series for four Tests and seven one-day internationals. Another debacle, on home soil, would further undermine a cherished institution already losing some of its passionate popularity in the Caribbean.

It is finding stiff competition as football, with role models like Dwight Yorke and Jamaica's "Reggae Boyz", gets stronger, as American sport infiltrates through the omnipresent satellite television and as traditional lifestyles become more sophisticated.

Hansie Cronje, the triumphant South African captain, partly credited his team's revival after their upsetting loss in England last summer to the strong and swift action of their Board who called in the team and "let us know it was time us players realised the responsibility of wearing the green and gold of your country... for they felt there were times that we really could have done a little bit better."

The West Indian boot was on the other foot. It was the players who summoned the Board to Heathrow Airport in November where they flexed their muscles with their demands that placed this politically significant tour in jeopardy. The upshot was that they asserted their own control here everywhere but on the field.

Throughout the series, it was obvious they had not trained as hard as they should and that, as with Andy Roberts before him, Malcolm Marshall's advice as coach was being ignored. Several of the players were clearly overweight, the fielding bore no comparison to the brilliant South Africans and the indiscipline was reflected in poor shot selection, bowling repeatedly too short for the conditions and a clutch of schoolboyish run-outs.

Such developments should come as no surprise. As far back as 1992, well before the West Indies' proud record of 15 invincible years was ended, Malcolm Marshall, still one of the finest fast bowlers in the game, quit prematurely. He could sense the coming danger and warned in a newspaper interview: "Everything seems to be going down the drain. There is no respect, no manners."

His assertion was clear from the behaviour of several of the most prominent players. Yet, when the coach of the time, the former captain Rohan Kanhai, reported to the Board that some had no respect for him and had verbally abused him in public on a tour of New Zealand, it was Kanhai who was fired, not the offenders.

He was replaced by Andy Roberts, the great fast bowler in teams in which pride and discipline were the watchwords.

He was appalled by what he inherited. He publicly complained of players with "attitude problems", asserted that the fast bowlers paid no need to his advice and revealed that he actually had to cajole the team to take the field after a break in play in a Test against Australia.

The upheavals within the team in England in 1995, when Lara, even then coveting the captaincy, mounted an unsuccessful campaign against then captain, Richie Richardson, and left the team in a huff, and in the World Cup the following year, when Richardson eventually resigned under pressure and the hapless Roberts was sacked as coach, were further clues that the cancer was spreading.

It obviously needed urgent surgery but the Board did nothing. Instead, it was divided by internal squabbling.

At the height of another undermining furore last year following the Board's rejection of the selectors' recommendation that the incumbent Walsh should be replaced as captain by the Trinidadian Lara, the Trinidad and Tobago Board, one of its affiliate members, charged that there was "a calculated plot to tarnish the image and international reputation using Brian's past indiscretions as the basis for sowing the seeds of destruction" and said it would "stand in defence of its captain, national hero and its world- class performer".

The Board president, Pat Rousseau, a Jamaican businessman with no cricketing background, came to office on a wave of expectation in 1996, heading a "new dispensation", promising dynamic change. It has proved a disaster.

It has been embarrassed by one administrative fiasco after another, causing it a loss of public respect and confidence. It recalled Clive Lloyd, the universally respected captain of the invincibles of the 1980s, as manager but gave him terms of reference that have left his talents underutilised and openly frustrated that he has not been allowed to be more involved.

Its efforts to improve its relations with the players, mainly through a US$150,000 (pounds 90,000) grant to the formation of a permanent players' association headquarters, have been shattered by recent events.

The region's governments have paid only lip-service to much-needed financial support for a sport that has become increasingly more professional and more costly to administer.

And, bowing to public pressure, the WICB appointed to positions of leadership, Lara and Hooper, the two players with the longest disciplinary records against the names. It was a peculiar way of dealing with an fundamental problem of indiscipline.

In short, West Indies cricket is in turmoil.

Lara claims there are no alternatives to those who have played under him here and it cannot be denied that there is not the available talent that allowed the West Indies to field separate, and successful, teams for Tests as well as for Kerry Packer and the debarred South Africans in the late 1970s and mid 1980s.

But the A team, under the strong leadership of experienced fast bowler Ian Bishop, won its series over its Indian counterpart in India six weeks ago and the solitary individual success in South Africa has been the wicketkeeper Ridley Jacobs, at 31 on his first tour and with no previous experience outside the Caribbean.

That should be something for the Board to chew on when it considers the shaky future of a sport that has been so enriched by West Indian excellence and is now devalued by its sorry decline.