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Cricket: Ultimate test of love for a cricket nation

Tony Cozier looks back on a week when football stole the applause in Jamaica
It has been a week of contrasting emotions for the sporting people of the West Indies. Beyond themselves with joy on Sunday at Jamaica's qualification for next year's football World Cup, the first English-speaking Caribbean nation to cross the Rubicon of the world's most popular sport, they were dumbfounded on Thursday by the West Indies cricket team's heavy defeat by Pakistan in far-off Peshawar. It was a significant juxtaposition.

Cricket is the one endeavour by which the small former British colonies have collectively made their name in the world. Although there have been individual successes in track and field, principally by Jamaicans, no other sport has come close to matching cricket's record. The Jamaican footballers, for instance, are still only 39th on Fifa's most recent world rankings and Trinidad and Tobago 58th.

As CLR James so pointedly established in his classic book Beyond A Boundary, cricket was pivotal in the social and political development of the region and has provided a path to fortune and fame for those who otherwise would have been confined to a humdrum existence.

Efforts at a political federation have long since foundered on the rocks of petty insularity. But while the proliferation of separately independent mini-states have created their own flags, anthems, United Nations seats and sports teams, West Indies cricket has remained intact through thick and thin, uniting the diverse people through its sheer excellence. Between 1980 and 1995, the side did not lose a single Test series. They have not been beaten by England for 29 years.

But attitudes are changing and cricket's status is being challenged, if not undermined, by the appetite of modern youth for more exciting ways to expend their energies.

The omnipresent satellite television that provides blanket coverage of American football, basketball, and baseball and soccer from Europe and Latin America feeds that craving. In contrast, impoverished terrestrial channels in the Caribbean cannot afford to counter such competition with coverage of the West Indies overseas. Not a stroke of the Peshawar Test was seen on local screens.

So it is not the best of times for cricket to suddenly find itself in crisis. And it is in crisis. The debacle in Pakistan was symptomatic of the bickering that has wrecked attempts at West Indian unity in other areas.

No team boasting Brian Lara, acknowledged as one of the finest batsmen of the day, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, who averages in excess of 50 in Tests, and Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh, two great fast bowlers, each with more than 300 Test wickets to their name, have a right losing by an innings to any opposition. They have done so twice this year - the other occasion was to Australia in Adelaide in January - as well as struggling against the modest opposition of India and Sri Lanka at home.

The truth is that deep divisions have surfaced both in the administration of the West Indies Cricket Board and the team itself. Before the WICB's semi- annual meeting earlier this month, the Trinidad and Tobago Board, one of its six affiliates, furious at the decision to reject the selectors' recommendation of Lara, a Trinidadian, as captain in favour of the incumbent Walsh, charged there was "a plot to destroy Lara at all costs" and that "West Indies cricket administration is heading in the wrong direction".

There has been disquiet in the rest of the Caribbean as to what is perceived as the "Jamaicanisation" of West Indies cricket while a frosty relationship has developed between Walsh and Lara, the captain and the vice-captain. According to those on the spot in Pakistan, it was clearly evident during the First Test last week.

Xenophobia is never far from the surface in small societies and it does not sit too easily with other WICB members that the president, the businessman Pat Rousseau, the director of coaching, Reg Scarlett, and the marketing executive Chris Dehring, each appointed in the last year and a half, as well as Walsh and "A" team captain Jimmy Adams, are all Jamaican. Or that Red Stripe, "the great Jamaican beer", stipulated that the finals of the annual limited-overs tournament it sponsors be held exclusively in Jamaica for each of the five years of the deal.

In contrast, Jamaica's achievement in football has been greeted with universal jubilation. It may be an individual territory, but it is seen elsewhere as a triumph for the entire Caribbean, as the great deeds of the West Indies cricket teams under Garry Sobers, Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards used to be.

It might just be an early sign that the Sobers, Lloyds and Richards of the 21st century, instead of smashing a small red leather ball around the cricket stadiums of the world, will be kicking a somewhat larger one instead.