Rugby Union: A high price for peace

Tony Cozier argues that the Board are reaping the harvest of appeasement
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The Independent Online
THE latest, and gravest, of the many crises that have shaken West Indies cricket to the core was a bolt from the blue. As Brian Lara spoke to me from his hotel in Dhaka last Monday, he was enthusing about his hopes for the imminent South African tour. Developments since have been swift, surprising and baffling. Why things should have come to such a pass remains unclear except that money, as so often in the past, is at the root of it.

Stand-offs between board and players are not new but the most prominent of recent memory were long-running sagas. The West Indian public were forewarned of the exodus to Kerry Packer, the boycott of the South African Test in Barbados in 1992 and the upheavals that led to to the resignation of Richie Richardson and the sacking of Andy Roberts during the 1996 World Cup.

In this case, the sky was clear. Lara had finally been appointed captain and had immediately led the West Indies to triumph over England in the Caribbean, a timely reversal of the demeaning 3-0 thrashing in Pakistan a few months earlier. A new spirit was emerging and South Africa, strong, competitive opponents on their home grounds, could be approached with confidence.

Suddenly on Monday came the disclosure, from the West Indies Cricket Board that Lara and his vice-captain Carl Hooper had defied instructions and, instead of flying out of Dhaka for Johannesburg, had headed in the opposite direction, voicing "concern over the fees for the tour". Here we go again, we said, recalling that both Lara and Hooper had been involved in similar action before. No one realised that the two were not acting on their own and that all the players, under a more cohesive association than they had ever had, were involved in a common cause.

Once set off, the thunder rolled and the lightning flashed furiously. There was the usual one-upmanship of industrial disputes. Each side ignored the other and the Board proceeded to impose their unprecedented disciplinary penalties.

It was a futile gesture that simply emphasised the WICB's earlier molly- coddling in dealing with the several transgressions of their disciplinary code by Lara and Hooper and strengthened the players' resolve. But the Board felt unanimously obliged to take it. Lara had abandoned the England tour of 1995 midway through before he was coaxed back by the then Board president Peter Short, and later that year pulled out of the team to Australia two days before departure. Four times, he had been fined and reprimanded. Hooper's conflicts with authority have not been so spectacularly publicised, but he had also been summoned before the WICB's disciplinary committee more than once and been fined for opting out early from the 1995 England tour.

But both are heroes to the people, if not throughout the West Indies certainly in their own territories. Lara's record-breaking feats of 1994 earned him Trinidad and Tobago's highest honour, Hooper has been Guyana's favourite cricketer since he announced himself with a debut first-class century at the age of 18.

No doubt conscious of their status, and their importance to a team lacking competent reserves, the Board had previously been reluctant to act decisively. But all the while their patience was being tested and, inevitably, had to break. They now have to deal with the consequences of their weakness, however explicable it was.

They also have to deal with a Players' Association which, after years as a loose, disorganised body, established a permanent secretariat in Barbados last April under the direction of the former Test all-rounder, team manager and chief selector, David Holford. And, with a public predictably unwilling to put up with a sub-standard team, not to mention presidents and prime ministers beseeching Lara and his colleagues to play on, the Board members are soon likely to find their positions untenable.

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