Caribbean crisis hits governments for six

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The run-of-the-mill government business of the small islands scattered through the Caribbean has been supplanted by the latest crisis in the endeavour that unites the former British colonies like no other: cricket.

The run-of-the-mill government business of the small islands scattered through the Caribbean has been supplanted by the latest crisis in the endeavour that unites the former British colonies like no other: cricket.

The newspaper headlines, the editorials, the radio talk- shows have all alerted the political leaders of the dozen micro-states that make up the West Indies team to the issue that matters most to their constituents.

This is the realisation that a sponsorship row between two foreign telecommunications companies means their already struggling Test team will go into a series on Thursday against South Africa without Brian Lara, their one superstar, and two other premier batsmen, Chris Gayle and Ramnaresh Sarwan.

They are three of seven players declared ineligible by the West Indies Cricket Board because their personal- endorsement contracts with Cable & Wireless, the British telecommunications giant, clash with the board's team sponsorship agreement with Digicel, the Irish mobile phone group and C & W's uncom-promising competitor. The WICB signed a US$20m (£11m) five-year deal with Digicel last July, ending an 18-year association with C & W. This inevitably set off a time bomb that the Caribbean Community (Caricom) prime ministers' subcommittee on cricket, headed by the Gren-ada leader, Keith Mitchell, has been working feverishly, but unsuccessfully, to defuse.

Mitchell and his group have proposed one compromise after another. The first was a fragile arrangement that allowed the West Indies tour of Australia in January to proceed with Lara at the helm and the other C & W players under him, all wearing Digicel gear. Since their return, the sponsors, in partnership with WICB on the one hand and the West Indies Players Association on the other, have dug in their heels, and no resolution is in sight.

Developments moved on apace last week, but as a frustrated Mitchell pleaded for reason, the Barbados prime minister, Owen Arthur, basically told him his committee had no authority to interfere, and the WIPA chief executive, Dinanath Ramnarine, the former Test leg-spinner, discussed the issue with the Trinidad & Tobago prime minister, Patrick Manning.

Ramnarine called for an "open inquiry", commissioned by the various heads of government, into the administration of the game. It was a position repeated by several political organisations to Caricom, described by one as "the ultimate guardians of the dignity and welfare of the Caribbean nation".

At the same time, a Trinidad-owned conglomerate, CL Financial, offered to buy out both the Digicel and C & W contracts. The WICB advised them to talk to Digicel, who described the proposal as "rubbish". The WIPA liked the idea of a Caribbean concern taking over.

Before they named their squad for the First Test, the WICB reiterated that, on the advice of their attorneys, all but Lara of the C & W signees remained ineligible because of the conflict with Digicel in their personal endorsements. They left the door ajar for Lara, since his original two-year C & Wcontract was signed in September 2003, when the company were still team sponsors. According to the WICB attorneys, it was "entered into with the constructive knowledge of the board and with their blessing".

In a carefully crafted letter, Lara told the WICB that he was anxious to play but not if he had to abandon "part of the core of players who have represented the West Indies with me over recent years and all of whom are team-mates". The WICB took this as a tacit "no" and announced 14 for the First Test without Lara and the other C & W players. Shivnarine Chanderpaul was made captain as the only one in the revamped squad with more than 40 Tests to his name.

There has been mounting talk of crowd boycotts and demonstrations outside the grounds, especially in Lara's home island of Trinidad, the venue for the Second Test, where he is known as The Prince and treated like a king.

Fears that the WIPA would call all their members out on strike, as they have twice successfully done in the past six years, have not materialised. All those called have turned up to the pre-series camp in Barbados and signed their contracts.

But the West Indies, even with Lara, Gayle and Sarwan and the rest, have been beaten in eight of their past 11 Tests and are above only Zimbabwe and Bangladesh in the Test standings. Their diminished team are on a hiding to nothing against the South Africans.

The heavy defeat anticipated in Georgetown would further increase the pressure on the governments to act. They might have been emboldened by Friday's events in Sri Lanka, where the government dissolved the cricket board, if on different grounds, and set up an interim committee to run the show.

The problem in the cricketing Caribbean is that there are 12 individual governments, among which there is seldom unanimous agreement - not even on cricket.