Timely rock for cradle of the Caribbean

It will be a long, hard journey back to the top of the cricketing world - and it starts on the island of Sobers and Co

Half a century ago last Tuesday, a 17-year-old slow left-arm bowler was called from nowhere to play his first Test. He was to become the best all-round cricketer there has ever been. The anniversary of Garry Sobers' entry to the stage and what happened afterwards was joyous and tinged with relief here. The West Indies were glad to have something to celebrate. They were also asking where it all went wrong. The mood was Sobers and sober.

Half a century ago last Tuesday, a 17-year-old slow left-arm bowler was called from nowhere to play his first Test. He was to become the best all-round cricketer there has ever been. The anniversary of Garry Sobers' entry to the stage and what happened afterwards was joyous and tinged with relief here. The West Indies were glad to have something to celebrate. They were also asking where it all went wrong. The mood was Sobers and sober.

"It could be that the other countries have simply become better and the West Indies have not kept pace," said Chris Dehring, the man charged with organising the World Cup in the West Indies in 2007. "Look at the bowlers of 20 years ago and the bowlers now and the difference isn't that great. It could be that the batsmen have learned to manage."

The point is that the West Indies have to catch up again, of which there is little sign yet. The slump has been given more impetus lately by the perceived lack of a work ethic and the uneasy alliance between the coach, Gus Logie, and captain, Brian Lara. It was hardly helped last week when the Carib Beer XI, comprising up-and-coming players, were being being beaten by England, and two of the selectors - the chairman, Viv Richards, and Gordon Greenidge - were playing golf in Grenada. But any lament about the long decline must invariably be accompanied by a rider expressing astonishment at how they managed to stay so great for so long.

"I think it's just a natural talent, but that has to start somewhere," said Richard Lorde. "We have more organised cricket than ever, but that doesn't necessarily mean more people are playing." Lorde is the secretary of the Spartan club in Bridgetown, Barbados, the country's premier league champions, who play on the vast public area at Queen's Park. Clyde Walcott began his career at the club and the pavilion is named after him. Lorde is optimistic that the good times will return because sport is cyclical, but is in no doubt about the imponderables.

"At this club we have 70 boys at least every Sunday morning, from Under-13s to Under-17s, playing and being coached," he said. "But years ago boys used to org-anise their own games in the fields and the streets and you used to see so much cricket being played. In that environment young boys learned from older ones, but now they do other things. They play more soccer, they play basketball and they go to their rooms to play computers." For Barbados, of course, read any town in Britain, if not, yet, Australia.

Dehring has a second, valid opinion. The game worldwide has been radically changed by the sums being paid for television rights. But in the West Indies there are no domestic rights to speak of because each small country has its own (usually almost broke) television service. What about banding together? "Add one bankrupt company to another and you just get greater bankruptcy," said Dehring, who should know, since he is an investment banker by trade.

In a region of cricketing achievement that should still defy belief, Barbados remains the most special case. It is an island nation with a population of 270,000, which not so long ago could have produced an XI to take on the world. Start with Sobers and work down. On the 1966 tour of England, seven members of the starting team were Barbadian; the great team of the Eighties regularly fielded four.

In the current Test side, there are five Bajans, including all four fast bowlers, three of whom come from the same small village of Boscobelle in the north-east of the island. It would be like Ashington throwing up two more like Stephen Harmison today. Barbados have just completed the domestic league and cup double for the second successive season, seeing off Jamaica in the final - and their manager, Tony Howard, has just been seconded to the West Indies team in the hope that something will rub off.

But uncertainty underpins the game. At the Spartan club, a group of old sages were watching the Barbados Under-15s under the wing of Alvin Greenidge, who played for West Indies during the Packer imbroglio. A mixture of the promising and the indifferent was on show, and the best were on their way to St Vincent for a Caribbean age-group tournament.

"They work hard at that age. But something seems to happen afterwards," said one of the observers, Leroy Boyce. "They get into the team and think they've done it when they haven't." Lorde was bullish, because "whatever anybody says, cricket is still the national sport." What if England win the series? "It might be what is needed. But cricketers are still role models, Lara, naturally, but Tendulkar as well. They will continue to play, but people of my generation notice a difference in that they'll drift off after a match, when we used to stay talking, and learning, into the night."

That is not exclusive to Barbados either. And what is happening in Barbados is not necessarily happening in other Caribbean countries.

Unquestionably, the 2007 World Cup is crucial to the region and the team. It is being billed rightly as a world event, a chance to make money and to draw attention to cricket. A presentation last week on plans for the tournament was utterly professional, showed that they meant business, and that they might just overcome natural inter-island rivalry. They are more advanced with three years to go than England were the night before the event began in 1999.

There are logistical nightmares, not least the decision on which country gets which matches. Some $125m (£68m) is being found for new and revamped stadiums. The schedule will be announced in July. There are insufficient hotels and, in a quaint appeal, Barbados residents are being asked to make spare rooms available for B & B. West Indies, Australia, England and India are being kept apart in the group stages, which is nothing to do with seeding and everything to do with the number of fans they bring.

But the prime consideration is having a team for whom it is worth the bother of turning up. What happened in March 1954 concentrated minds last week.

THE BARBADOS BLUEPRINT

* There are nine divisions in the Barbados Cricket Association, a further nine in the Barbados Cricket League, 10 clubs in the Premiership.

* More than 2,000 young players, mostly aged nine to 11, take part in the Cricket Development programme, structured round primary and secondary schools.

* National Sports Council coaches visit over 60 primary schools, usually for an hour once a week.

* Cricket is on the curriculum for all three school terms: two coaching, one the annual primary schools competition.

* Thirty-five players attend a four-week summer camp, followed by trial games.

* The BCA ensure gifted players stay in the same group at Under-15 level.

* Coaches visit only 12 secondary schools; clubs concentrate on weekend coaching. Test players conduct special sessions.

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