West Indies arrived yesterday. They were utterly unheralded where once they would have been feted and feared in equal measure. Their formal unveiling as the first tourists of the summer will take place in Hove this afternoon, though the most excited response will barely rise above a shrug of the shoulders.
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Cricket in the Caribbean, once so joyous and victorious, is in an unholy mess. It is not simply that the team are losing too often but that the game is being so woefully run that there is a serious danger of the world passing it by.
The recent domestic first-class cricket competition was an embarrassment and a shambles. It lacked both a sponsor and quality, with match after match being done and dusted in three days.
There is talk of secession in the air and going it alone, whether it be in Jamaica, or Trinidad, or Guyana. Talk is one thing, action another and a split by one or more seems unlikely. If for no other reason than it would leave any breakaway country without international cricket for at least a generation, while it regrouped and sought full membership of the ICC.
Throughout the region the game in the individual countries which make up the West Indies Cricket Board is in turmoil. Government intervention in Guyana, supported by the former West Indies captain Clive Lloyd, has brought virtual meltdown and court action yet to be resolved. In Jamaica, the Prime Minister, the highly regarded Portia Simpson Miller, became involved in a testy exchange with the not so highly regarded WICB.
In Trinidad, there has been a rapprochement recently between the board and the country's government but there are still bitter disputes between opposing factions in the game which threaten to undermine progress. The Windward and Leeward islands seem to be in worse disarray, with no elections having been held for five years and no annual reports made either to the central governing body. Antigua, in the Windwards, was where so many great players – Viv Richards, Andy Roberts, Curtly Ambrose – came from. Were it not for it being the headquarters of the WICB it would now be a cricketing backwater. The WICB has made several misjudgements. Chief among them was commissioning an inquiry by B J Patterson, a former Prime Minister of Jamaica, who made a series of recommendations about the future direction of a game in a thorough, wide-ranging report. None has been implemented.
If everyone agrees that the present system is unsustainable, no one agrees how it can be changed.
Meanwhile, the team struggle on. For much of the past decade the players have been in conflict with the board and Chris Gayle, the former captain, has not played international cricket for more than a year. Although there are clear signs of more friendly relations generally, the way ahead is fraught.
Too many players are being lost too often to Twenty20 competitions around the world for the board is perpetually cash-strapped, having scant television income. Apart from Gayle, Dwayne Bravo, Andre Russell and Sunil Narine are plying their trade in the IPL when they should be in England.
It is widely expected that they will lose the three-Test series (probably 3-0). The squad of 15 is far from hopeless. It contains players of genuine talent, five of them no older than 23. It also possesses, in the 37-year-old Shivnarine Chanderpaul, the batsman who is officially the world's best. Chanderpaul returned to the top place in the ICC rankings with his stoic displays in the recent home series against Australia.
But as a whole they lack nous. Too often they have failed to last the distance in Test matches, putting themselves in positions of control which have been too easily wrested from them. Many of their players, especially but not exclusively the batsmen, look ill-equipped for the peculiar, stringent demands of long-form cricket.
It cannot be easily rectified, although Ottis Gibson, the coach, who was formerly England's fast-bowling coach, has introduced more discipline. He has also been loyal to his preferred captain, Darren Sammy, which may prove costly. Sammy is a resolute character but his ability at the highest level is in doubt.
Yet the playing aspect of the operation is in rude health compared to the administration of the game across the Caribbean. In almost every territory there is either discord or disruption.
Guyana, Chanderpaul's home country, provides the most extreme example. The Government has intervened in the running of the country's cricket board, forcing the resignation of the board's president after police raided his home looking for computer files which may yield evidence of misdeeds.
An Interim Management Committee was set up, under the chairmanship of Lloyd, the great Guyanese batsman. But the ICC condemned the Government interference, albeit half-heartedly. This leaves Lloyd in a peculiar place: chairman of an apparently renegade IMC, yet also still chairman of the ICC's cricket committee. In an unexpected turn of events, the Guyanese High Court found in favour of the board and the case reaches its next stage on 16 May, the day before the first Test at Lord's, in the Caribbean Court of Justice.
Ricky Sanasie, the GCB secretary who has refused to buckle to Government pressure, is in no doubt of the outcome: "The board is functioning on a skeleton basis until the decision of the Caribbean Court of Justice, where the GCB has challenged the actions of the Government. I am not confident that they will back off, given the way they have acted in the past.
"But what I am confident about is winning the case at the CCJ because we have an airtight case and the Government is wrong. The GCB has been here for 63 years. The GCB has the authority from the WICB to regulate and administer cricket in Guyana. If we're not allowed to operate cricket in Guyana nobody can."
That is precisely the way that the WICB looked at it and in a rare moment of decisiveness condemned the Government. But there is an uneasy feeling that not everything in Guyana was above board – representatives from only one of the three counties took part in the elections – and that is why Lloyd made a stand.
The effects have already been damaging. The WICB moved one of the recent Tests against Australia from Guyana to Dominica, where the team also had to play its games in the first-class competition. Until the court verdict, the game in the home of the world's best batsman is at a virtual standstill. And there is a widespread view that, no matter what the CCJ does, the Guyanese Government will not go away.
Azim Bassarath, the president of the Trinidad & Tobago Cricket Board, is at least aware of the deep-seated problems across the region. "There was no sustained programme put in place to reproduce those great cricketers of the Seventies and Eighties. One or two did emerge but the rest were of a poor quality. My concern is what the WICB is doing to ensure that we return to the glory days. I know it is trying with A team tours and for two years now we have had the high-performance centre in Barbados, but the regional tournament is of a very, very poor standard. This is a concern not only for the WICB but for all the territorial boards."
When Trinidad qualified for the inaugural Twenty20 Champions League back in 2009, there was serious discussion about secession from the WICB. The country have continued to produce high-quality cricketers but Bassarath, elected a year ago ahead of the outstanding former West Indies wicketkeeper Deryck Murray, has quashed such talk.
"As long as I am president of the Trinidad board I would not entertain anything that would divorce ourselves from the WICB," he said. "You would have to bear in mind the length of time our players would not be allowed to play Test cricket and for Trinidad to be recognised as a full ICC member. In the past when Antigua had great players, Andy Roberts, Viv Richards, there was talk about going it alone and in the Sixties and Seventies when Barbados had eight or nine players there was talk about them going it alone and they didn't."
The sentiment was echoed by Lyndal Wright, the president of the Jamaica Cricket Association, where there has been particular enmity recently between it and the WICB, with continual nudges and winks about ploughing a lone furrow. The Prime Minister, Simpson Miller, effectively doused that in a considered speech she delivered to the association, in which she also stoked the ire of the WICB by criticising its handling of the Gayle affair.
Offended, the board issued a condemnatory statement without considering that Simpson Miller had also reinforced the need for unity. Thus nudged, Wright too is now talking of them all being in it together. "It's like an argument in families, they happen but they are made up," he said.
But cricket in Jamaica is in serious trouble, a fact concealed by their recent fifth successive victory in the Caribbean first-class competition. "The game is doing well in schools but at club level we have real problems. They simply do not have the funds," Wright added. It is a microcosm of difficulties throughout the Caribbean. Whatever they do in England, the game is in peril.