Following West Indies’ moment of shame in India last October, their subsequent failure on tours of South Africa and at this year’s ICC World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, they gave regional fans reason to smile during the recently concluded three-match Test series against England.
It is a sign of the times that there has been much celebration over a drawn series. But such a response is understandable when it is considered that defeat has become commonplace for the regional side both at home and abroad. Caribbean lovers of cricket have suffered over the past 20 years and are more than willing to catch at straws, especially if accompanied by positive signs.
However, we must be careful not to read too much into the West Indies’ performance against England. The proverbial and premature pronouncement of “turning the corner” should not be too readily embraced until consistent, prolonged performances give real cause for great expectations.
Several knowledgeable commentators have pointed to the infusion of youth in the team such as Jason Holder and Jermaine Blackwood as critical to the future fortunes of the West Indies. Both performed well against England and drew appreciation from the likes of Sir Vivian Richards, Michael Atherton and Geoffrey Boycott. There are other cricketers in the Caribbean who also provide hope of better days ahead and who must be given extended opportunities for exposure at the highest level where their cricket can only improve.
But inasmuch as calypsonian and social commentator Adonijah once sang about “two Barbadoses”, one gets the impression that there could be two West Indies teams developing. The West Indies Cricket Board has correctly stated that West Indies cricket must come first and it must stick slavishly to that policy. Of course, some balance must be found, and some leeway given for regional players to ply their trade on the global Twenty20 circuit if they so desire. But at the end of the day, the WICB’s focus must be on developing players to compete on behalf of the Caribbean on the international circuit. Choices, of necessity, have to be made.
A situation has developed where the second West Indies team of players dedicated to Twenty20 franchise cricket cherry-pick their tour commitments and then are accepted back into the fold often to the detriment of their replacements. This certainly defeats the purpose of developing cricketers to play for the West Indies first and foremost. We have had situations where the likes of Chris Gayle and Sunil Narine have declined to sign retainer contracts with the board but are still chosen to represent the region. The West Indies Cricket Board must stand its ground on this issue.
No player should be donning West Indies colours having refused to sign a retainer contract committing him or her to international representation. We understand that Mr. Gayle has insisted that he is still available to play all three formats for the West Indies, but we question his intentions and commitment if he is not prepared to commit on the dotted line. We would find it rather peculiar and not in keeping with contractual commonsense if Mr. Gayle is presently playing for the Royal Challengers Bangalore in the Indian Premier League without a signed commitment to that franchise.
Perhaps it is time that regional selectors move past the Gayles and Narines of the region. If it is possible for these players to have their cake and eat it too, without the consumption being to the detriment of the development of the West Indies team, then so be it. But it is counter-productive to introduce new players to international cricket while others simultaneously seek their fortunes elsewhere, only to reintegrate them into the side when their twenty20 campaigns are completed, and at the omission of young talent.
It is interesting to note that Indian international players, and indeed domestic players, make themselves available for India and Indian cricket first. It is unheard of for any current Indian international to be playing any form of cricket anywhere on the globe while the national team is engaged in international cricket.
The WICB must appreciate that to maintain the excitement and viability of global Twenty20 cricket, franchises from India to Australia, South Africa to England, will not be averse to being predatory in luring international cricketers to their shores. Thus, as the likes of Blackwood continue to grow on the international scene, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that an attempt will not be made to lure him to the lucrative shortened form of the game. And then the circus starts all over again. The WICB develops; the franchises scalp.
In a past era where West Indians played professionally on the English county cricket circuit, player availability was never a concern because the contractual arrangements at the county level accommodated player release. Most importantly, players on the county circuit saw their performances in England as a means of playing for the regional side. Today, in this era of decline, playing for Kolkata Knight Riders or some other exotic-sounding destination carries more import than donning the West Indies maroon.
Concerns remain over the state of our pitches and the availability of accredited coaches throughout the region at the primary school and secondary school levels, even at club level. These are situations that can be solved with training of officials and improving the knowledge base of pitch curators across the Caribbean. Of course, the bottom line is that financial investments must be made by territorial boards as well as the umbrella WICB.
It is under such circumstances that the WICB cannot afford to be the nursery, to water and nurture its seedlings, watch its plants grow into maturity, and then allow a rabid harvest to occur under its very nose and to its own detriment. If not already in place, perhaps the WICB’s contractual arrangements with players should be in place from at the regional Under-19 level and be shaped at the senior level as circumstances dictate. The message simply has to go out – West Indies cricket must always be first.