An imagined West Indian nation

Sun, Jul 19, '09

 

WICB Under Scrutiny by KEVIN O'BRIEN CHANG

National anthems were played before each match at the recent Cricket 20/20 World Cup. Englishmen sang along to ‘God Save the Queen’ and Australians to ‘Advance Australia Fair’. For the West Indies, it was ‘Rally Round the West Indies’.

So there was the intriguing spectacle of players standing at attention to the ‘national anthem’ of an imagined country that exists only in the minds of cricket fans - ‘Rally, rally round the West Indies/now and forever’.
Intellectuals interact through UWI, and Caricom brings politicians in contact. But the common Jamaican’s only real exposure to the wider Caribbean is cricket. Few can name the Prime Minister of Trinidad, Barbados, Antigua or Guyana. But almost everyone knows about Brian Lara, Garfield Sobers, Viv Richards and Shiv Chanderpaul. The West Indies Captain is still the region’s most iconic figure. Chris Gayle is far better known in Trinidad or Barbados than Bruce Golding.

Cricket lovers may exaggerate the importance of this ‘West Indian’ identity. We’re only talking about 5 million people here. But anything that peacefully binds together otherwise far flung nations, must be a force for good.

It’s a curious thing, ‘Westindianness’. When the Trinidad and Jamaica football teams face off, fans taunt each other and abuse opposing players. Put those same spectators together to watch the West Indies, and they hug each other with joy at each West Indian triumph, no matter if it was Yardies or Trinis or Bajans responsible.

Will this feeling soon be a thing of the past? Well cricket’s popularity has undoubtedly plummeted. Cable television and the internet now provide lots of entertainment alternatives, and the West Indies’ dismal record since 1995 has depressed many into indifference. Once when West Indies played every radio was tuned to the game. Now they are only intermittently broadcast.

Even the idea of ‘Westindianness’ - always weaker in isolated Jamaica compared to the other geographically clustered territories - seems under threat. Does a vague idea of some ancestral and linguistic bond, which really manifests itself only in a ball game, have any modern relevance?

Personally, being West Indian makes me feel like part of a larger family, where Jamaicans are my sisters and brothers, while the Bajans, Trinis, Guyanese, and Leewards and Windward islanders are my cousins. In a sense West Indies cricket expands my emotional boundaries, which to me goes beyond money or economics.

Watching Darren Powell and Fidel Edwards in February holding on for that last wicket draw against England in Antigua, I could see in my mind’s eye folks like me in Bridgetown and Port of Spain and Georgetown also willing them on. But maybe I’m an aging romantic living in a faded dream. Have our golden Olympians and Reggae Boyz made West Indies cricket an out of date redundancy?

The West Indies Cricket Board is certainly doing its best to alienate fans and players who once loved the game with their very souls. A complete list of its buffoonery would fill a book. But the piece de resistance was the February debacle at the Sir Viv Richards Stadium in Antigua. Every independent observer could see that the uneven ground was not properly prepared. The physiotherapists of both teams warned the WICB about the risk of serious injury to players. Nonetheless the board trumpeted to the world that the venue was ready for test cricket. So the match went on, and lasted for 10 balls, before both sides refused to continue.

Incredibly WICB head Julian Hunte did not resign, and is still in charge. Journalists like Tony Cozier who called for his resignation in February, are now defending his actions in the current ‘player versus board’ standoff. Journalistic integrity is apparently a fluid concept in our cricket press, one reason why we are where we are.

But surely Australian Tim May, CEO of the Federation of Cricket Associations (FICA), is right - ‘West Indies players have every right to not agree to play without WICB finalising and offering definitive player contracts. No player, nor individual, in any walk of life, would agree to work without knowing what terms and conditions they are to operate under - to think that any employer thinks that such conduct is satisfactory in today's world is alarming to say the least.’

In Cricinfo’s executive editor Martin Williamson words - ‘the board still treats the players with the contempt of a Victorian factory owner. The rest of the world has moved on. The WICB has not.’

Dr. Christine Cummings says the WICB can not legally demand that players give up their Intellectual Property and Image Rights without proper compensation. Those who condemn the striking players forget that Frank Worrell in 1948 and George Headley in 1953 did basically the same thing. Sometimes men simply have to stand up for their rights.

Disputes between the West Indies Player Association and the WICB have been referred to independent arbitration seven times, with WIPA winning every time. This means objective, informed opinion has come down unanimously on the players’ side. And after the Sir Viv Stadium disgrace, could any sensible person believe anything a Julian Hunte led WICB says? Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

The real issue is this - what are the total revenues and total expenses of West Indies cricket? The WICB posts audited financials on its website, but these are very general and shed little light. A recent WIPA statement, so far not contradicted, listed mistakes that caused the WICB losses of US $19.5 million, none of which appear in its financials.

When pressed for fully detailed statements of revenue and expenses, the WICB claims to be a private company not obligated to make such information public. But if you have nothing to hide, why be unwilling to open your books to full public scrutiny? A refusal to do so only makes outsiders suspicious. In fact the highly respected Jimmy Adams, also FICA president and WIPA secretary, recently said on KLAS radio that he will not accept the WICB’s word on what it earned from the recent England tour unless the information comes sealed with an England Cricket Board stamp. He must have good reasons for saying so.

But then this is exactly why players in every major American sport – NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB – have gone on strike over the past two decades. Not until revenue dried up, would team owners tell player unions just how much they took in. Once the facts became known, players rightly demanded the lion’s share of the gross profits, since they are the ones who take the physical risks and draw the fans. If our players show the same solidarity as their US counterparts, the final outcome will likely be the same in West Indies cricket.

As to our cricketers being overpaid, well sports careers are also short, lasting at most 20 years and on average only five. A sportsman who retires at 35 with little education, generally depends on his savings to carry him through the rest of life.

A few years back former West Indies pacer Uton Dowe expressed regret in a newspaper interview at ever playing cricket. Now broke and without an education or skill, he felt he would have been better off as a tailor. More pay for cricketers would not eliminate such sad stories, but would reduce them. Old time sportsmen often seem jealous of their better paid successors. But ‘we had to suffer and so should you’ is a  foolish argument.

Can West Indies cricket survive? Well it’s up to us fans. How much do we care that the players who bring us joy are fairly compensated? How much do we care that the game we claim to love is run transparently by honest and efficient men? How much do we care about feeling West Indian?

After all, our players and administrators can only be as good as us.