A Caribbean Catastrophe
It is 9th July 2023. Eight days ago, the West Indies Men’s Cricket Team lost to Scotland. Thirteen days ago, they lost to The Netherlands. And, fifteen days ago they lost to Zimbabwe. After three consecutive losses in the 2023 World Cup Qualifiers, they have officially failed to qualify for the Men’s Cricket World Cup - for the first time ever. It is a sad occasion for cricket in the Caribbean, and cricket in general, as the decline of a major protagonist is reaching its final stages. With the absence of the West Indies on cricket’s biggest stage, it feels like the world’s second most popular sport (and what is considered a truly global sport) is losing some of its comprehensiveness.
Brian Lara, one of West Indies' (and cricket's) finest batsmen, in action against India in May 2002 (Ukexpat, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons).
West Indies Cricket has always been defined by greatness. It started in the mid-1970s when the West Indian Cricket team, led by Clive Lloyd and fueled by racial abuse, transformed itself from ‘fun-and-frolic, happy-go-lucky losers’ to World dominators. Unfortunately, I was not alive to witness their achievements but through my grandfather’s stories of the ‘fearsome foursome’ and Viv Richards’ nonchalant yet invincible batting, I think I got the idea. The Windies won two World Cups (1975 and 1979) and did not lose a test series for 15 years. In the mid-90s, their Test supremacy began to decline but they soon found another format to rule – Twenty20.
With fast bowling not being so much of a weapon anymore, the West Indians became known for their power hitting in the 2010s. Players like Chris Gayle, Keiron Pollard, Andre Russell, and Marlon Samuels made clearing the fences look easy, and helped transform the Windies into a T20 powerhouse. They were the first team to win two T20 World Cups (2010 and 2016) and in 2016, they became the only side to hold three World Cups simultaneously (Men’s T20, Women’s T20 and the under-19 World Cup).
However, the West Indies are no longer competitive even in the shortest format of the game, as they failed to make the super twelve in the 2022 T20 World Cup. Last week’s defeat to Scotland and failure to qualify for the 2023 World Cup shows that WI did not just stumble in 2022, they began their free fall. The question on everyone’s mind, especially those who experienced their glory days, is ‘what happened to West Indies Cricket’? After a lot of digging, here are some of the many reasons contributing to the downfall of Caribbean Cricket.
Following West Indies’ loss against Scotland last Saturday, former West Indian cricketers turned commentators Ian Bishop and Carlos Braithwaite agreed that this was the lowest of lows. After dissecting the performance of the team, Bishop turned to Brathwaite and asked him what the challenges are for West Indies Cricket going forward. In response, Brathwaite laughed a hapless laugh and said, ‘I think there are a lot of issues Bish’ before calling out the management for entering an endless cycle of talent identification, which they then fail to develop. He said the ‘last crop’, from four years ago, included Sherfane Rutherford, Fabian Allen and Oshane Thomas - none of whom featured in the WI squad for these past qualifiers. Now, they are already searching for ‘new crop’. After a mild rant from Brathwaite, that covered numerous other shortcomings of WI cricket, Ian Bishop concluded the post-match conversation saying, ‘it is a systemic problem, and we need a new system’. This discussion summed up the feeling amongst ex-West Indian cricketers and fans who probably find it quite difficult to fathom how deep the ship has sunk.
Last year, after West Indies’ premature exit in the T20 World Cup, Brian Lara (another former WI cricketer and one of the game's greatest batsmen) blamed the ‘lack of example’ in the dressing room, due to which newcomers did not feel a sense of pride in donning the burgundy hat. He said, ‘I believe the example being set now, is of guys heading off to franchise cricket. Everybody wants to make a lot of money out of the game, and West Indies seems to be very much secondary’.
Chris Gayle - the face of WI cricket in the past decade and certainly the most destructive batsman the game has ever seen (It's No Game, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons).
This is true, as established and experienced players like Keiron Pollard, Sunil Narine, and Andre Russell are all still playing franchise cricket, despite having retired from the international scene. Even Shimron Hetmyer, who is only a rising star, has not represented the Windies since he missed a rescheduled flight to the 2022 T20 World Cup. He too is doing well in leagues around the World, from a monetary and performance perspective.
However, before we start pointing fingers, it is important to consider Cricket West Indies’ (CWI) long history of not picking its best players and having poor relations with its stars.
Desmond Haynes, CWI’s lead selector on the men’s side said Hetmyer did make himself available for the 2023 ODI World Cup Qualifiers but was not picked. He said that the team management wanted to stick with a unit similar to the one that did well in the limited-overs series in South Africa earlier this year (In the limited-over series in question, West Indies drew the ODI series 1 –1 and won the T20 series 2 – 1: not the largest sample size). Given West Indies’ dire situation, it is amusing that CWI continues to make enemies with its biggest prospects.
When Sunil Narine, who was the World’s best spin bowler just seven years ago, was asked about his international future in August of last year, he said, ‘There's a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff going on, which I don't really want to get into, but I mean, everybody would love to represent their country. Things happen for a reason and hopefully in the future I'll be wearing maroon again’. A possible reason for his absence could be the constant scrutiny of his bowling action by the ICC (International Cricket Council), however Narine has played well over a hundred T20 matches during his ongoing international absence. Furthermore, Haynes said he did not receive any notice from Narine regarding his availability. Russell is another West Indian superstar who is dominating domestic leagues worldwide but is refusing to carry out his exploits in maroon. Pollard went ahead and retired from international cricket two years ago, at the age of 34, and is now playing in multiple domestic leagues around the globe.
While it is easy to criticize these players for choosing domestic franchises over their nation, one has to understand the incentive. According to the Times of India, Russell earns nearly $2 million from two months of IPL (Indian Premier League), which is eight times what he would earn in a year if he played in two formats for the West Indies. Now, if he signed up for a few more such T20 leagues (on top of the IPL) he would earn considerably more, which makes international cricket far less appealing.
CWI has long been paying their cricketers much less than what their international counterparts pay their respective players. Even during the ‘golden era’ in the 70s and 80s, the West Indian team complained that their wages were not sufficient to lead a ‘good life’ after cricket and went to play the World Series Cricket tournament in Australia (an event not recognized by the ICC) for the financial draws. As a result, the West Indies Cricket Board labelled them as ‘rebels’ and excluded them from the national side. They were only re-instated after widespread protests and boycotts led by the Caribbean public.
West Indies’ star-studded team of the 2010 decade also saw similar feuds with their cricket board regarding underwhelming wages, politics, and poor facilities back home. A player strike resulted in WI cancelling their ODI tour of India in October of 2014, which strained CWI’s relationship with the BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket in India) - the world’s most powerful cricket board. In the past decade, the West Indies have only really fielded their strongest team in the twenty20 format, if that, because their best players did not have the financial incentive to play in ODIs and tests.
To this day, the CWI’s relationship with West Indies’ star players has not improved, and neither has their wages. For example, the Times of India reported that Cheteshwar Pujara, who represents India in only one format (tests), gets paid over $500,000 a year including match fees. Meanwhile, the salary of WI cricketers who play all three formats barely scrapes $300,000. While this encourages West Indian cricketers to play franchise cricket abroad, it also motivates players to switch their allegiance to another country, if eligible. For example, Jofra Archer – one of the most promising young fast bowlers in the world – chose to play for England, even though he was born in Barbados (in the West Indies). Chris Jordan is another Barbadian born cricketer who found success with England. It is one thing to lose players to franchise cricket, but it is probably more heart breaking to see your nation’s finest talents playing under another flag.
The original Kensington Oval in Bridgetown, Barbados packed with locals, and a cohort of visiting Aussies, for the third Test of Australia's tour of West Indies in 2003. A festive atmosphere, that was once a staple of this ground, is critically endangered just like WI cricket (Mattinbgn, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons).
While the CWI is responsible for not keeping their players and fans happy, there are many other things, outside their control, that are resulting in the demise of West Indies Cricket. To get a better understanding of CWI’s predicament, we at The Cou approached Gideon Haigh, a world renown cricket journalist, for his opinion. According to Haigh, there is not much the CWI can do to rescue this ship because the problems are at a more ‘fundamental’ level - ‘They (The West Indies) are an isolated, fragmented geographic area with small population, high travel costs (with air travel required between islands) and a time zone inimical to broadcast into India (the country with the largest TV audience)’. All of this hampers WICB’s financial prosperity. Haigh’s thinks private equity might introduce more money, but ‘there's really not much to sell’.
Haigh went on to pinpoint the start of West Indies’ financial decline to the cessation of the guarantee system for the funding of tours in 2000, which left the West Indies bearing their own home costs when teams toured the Caribbean. This made all visits, but that of India, a money-losing proposition. WI’s bad situation was made worse in 2014, when the ICC’s internal organization was shaken up to suit the needs of the cricket boards of India, England and Australia. This ‘shake-up’ led to CWI receiving only 4.9 percent of ICC’s total funds – measly in comparison to BCCI’s 34.6 percent or ECB’s 10.5 percent. Haigh believes CWI’s plight is set to worsen even further once ICC’s new financial model is approved later this month, as it will see ‘BCCI’s rake off hugely increased’.
With all this in mind, the future of cricket in the Caribbean looks very uncertain. Once a lovable giant, West Indies may be on a terminal decline. However, with the ICC finally deciding to expand its international events - T20 World Cup to 20 teams in 2024 and ODI World Cup back to 14 teams in 2027 – the West Indies may not struggle with qualification nearly as much. In fact, next year's T20 World Cup will be co-hosted by the West Indies, which will certainly get more eyes on that part of the cricketing world. The question is whether CWI can fix the flaws in the system (that Bishop and Braithwaite called for) and coax the services of their best players, in time for them to compete with the heavy weights once again.