Caribbean storm rages round Lara

Corporate row threatens chaos with master batsman the centre of controversy
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The Independent Online

The latest complex saga that has undermined the threadbare fabric of West Indies cricket reached another decisive stage yesterday. Not for the first time in his turbulent career, Brian Lara was keeping an expectant public waiting while he decided whether to make himself available for the First Test of the home series against South Africa, only 12 days away.

The latest complex saga that has undermined the threadbare fabric of West Indies cricket reached another decisive stage yesterday. Not for the first time in his turbulent career, Brian Lara was keeping an expectant public waiting while he decided whether to make himself available for the First Test of the home series against South Africa, only 12 days away.

For once, the master batsman and captain is not the main figure. He, six of his team-mates and the West Indies Cricket Board are caught in the middle of a fierce battle over sponsorship between large, foreign telecommunications companies, Cable & Wireless and Digicel, both interested as much in the burgeoning Caribbean mobile-phone market as in the wellbeing of West Indies cricket.

Lara, Dwayne Bravo, Fidel Edwards, Chris Gayle, Ramnaresh Sarwan, Dwayne Smith and Ravi Rampaul, who all have personal-endorsement contracts with Cable & Wireless, were deemed ineligible for selection by the WICB until those contracts were examined by its lawyers.

Lara, whose contract dates back to 2003, when Cable & Wireless were also the team sponsors, was cleared to play on Friday, since the contract was "entered into with the constructive knowledge of the board and with its blessing". Lara had 24 hours to decide, and may be influenced by speculation that he would be replaced as captain by Shivnarine Chanderpaul. The other six, who signed last May, are still excluded as their contracts were judged "clearly not in the nature of individual contracts and were signed as members of the West Indies team while under contract to the West Indies Cricket Board".

Cable & Wireless, the giant British firm who have operated telephone services in the Caribbean since colonial days, lost their 18-year sponsorship contract with the WICB to mobile-phone group Digicel, the robust Irish newcomers, last July.

The WICB say they failed to match Digicel's US$20 million (£10.4m) over four years. It is the biggest-ever deal arranged by a board who expect to lose US$5m this year and took four months to pay wages for last year's tour of England.

Alert to the open secret of the Irish deal, Cable & Wireless announced in May that they would be regional sponsors of the 2007 World Cup in the West Indies and tied six young players to endorsement contracts while renewing Lara's deal. As none of the seven were under retainer contracts to the WICB, they acted as free agents. The board's conflict of interest was obvious. If not properly handled, it was bound to develop into a dogfight between two commercial concerns with annual turnovers that would comfortably finance several Caribbean countries.

It was also certain that the reorganised, militant West Indies Players Association, who had twice already called a strike and twice more threatened to do so, would try to embarrass the board.

The euphoria of West Indies' triumph in the Champions Trophy in September kept the issue in the background until November, prior to the tour of Australia for the VB Series, the first under Digicel.

The WICB called up 25 players to a preparation camp, setting out conditions they said were "part of the process of transformation of the game in the region to meet the many commercial and other challenges of the new era, modernise the operations and set the game on a sound footing financially and on the field".

The WIPA said that was "an attempt to exploit the players for commercial purposes" and instructed their members not to sign. Only eight of the 25 did.

Australia made plain their reluctance to accept a second-string team and the Caricom (Caribbean Community) prime ministers' subcommittee on cricket got involved to ensure the tour went ahead.

Yet it was always a temporary and tenuous accord, and the players and public were taken aback when a weak and vacillating WICB came out swinging. In a radio and TV broadcast, their president, Teddy Griffith, said Lara and the other six players would not be considered for selection until the board were satisfied their deals were "unquestionably in the nature of individual contracts" and not tied to their membership of the team.

Caricom again became involved, the two sponsors kept issuing more detailed, aggressive statements, the WIPA called for an inquiry into the board and the large Trinidad and Tobago firm CL Financial offered to buy out Digicel's contract. The WICB dug their heels in, calling up a squad of 22 to play South Africa, all of whom signed this time, and omitted Lara and the other six until they could examine the non-financial details of their contracts.

Yet again, the next move is up to Lara.

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