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Page last updated at 12:43 GMT, Monday, 26 January 2009

Windies cricket falls on hard times

By Oliver Brett

To many people, the 2007 World Cup was a huge disappointment.

Xavier Marshall, New Zealand fielders
Xavier Marshall is one of many West Indians to have struggled recently
Apart from a farcical finish to the final and regulations which robbed many matches of a true Caribbean atmosphere, the real cost of the whole fiasco can be seen now.

The tournament was supposed to reverse a sharp decline in West Indian cricket, which had devastated the grass roots of the sport within the region.

And even though the competition itself did not pan out favourably, surely the future would be bright with some marvellous new stadiums in place, coaching structures to help young players and a programme to revive domestic first-class cricket?

Not so. The sad truth is that the passion for the game seems to be continuing its downward spiral.

It did not help that when the West Indies Cricket Board [WICB] received US$50m from the ICC, all the cash was instantly lost on paying off an existing debt, and then writing cheques to the various World Cup local organising committees.

Now, sponsors are pulling out of West Indian cricket at every level, and the team itself is struggling to bed in newcomers who are not well equipped for the demands of international cricket.

Tony Becca, one of the most respected Caribbean cricket writers, first covered a West Indies series in 1974.

He witnessed the likes of Clive Lloyd, Gordon Greenidge, Viv Richards, Michael Holding and Malcolm Marshall leave an indelible mark on the game - and some of their opponents.

Becca, now semi-retired, offers a withering assessment of the current state of Caribbean cricket.

Becca told BBC Sport: "Everything is really pathetic. West Indies cricket seems to have lost a lot of ground in terms of supporters and in terms of financial support.

"The World Cup was a big disappointment. Ticket prices were too high for the Caribbean people and [the organisers] seemed to spend too much money building these gigantic stadiums, which were half full."

I have friends who have surrounded themselves in cricket all their life, and if you ask them 'did you watch the cricket last night', they say 'what cricket?'

Tony Becca, cricket writer
Whether they are cutting their purse-strings due to the global downturn, or believe there is little future in throwing money at cricket in the Caribbean, the lack of interest from sponsors is a massive issue.

There was no financial backer for the regional one-day tournament - and the first-class competition is similarly sponsor-free.

"It's more expensive to run this time. Each team is playing 12 matches in the tournament, rather than six, so it's going to be more expensive," says Becca.

"It's happening at regional level too - in Jamaica we didn't have a sponsor for our local competition last year and up to now we don't know if we'll have any for this year."

With the WICB now having to meet the costs of these tournaments from its own funds, it is little wonder that cricket is essentially an amateur sport at regional level.

Becca explains: "The problem now is that the only cricketers in the West Indies who get a salary are the ones in the West Indies side, so a guy drops out of cricket by the time he's 25 because he can't get a salary.

"But some guys in the West Indies team have only scored one century or something before being picked. You look at some of the batsmen in their early 20s, Xavier Marshall, Shawn Findlay, Kieron Pollard - they have had very limited experience beforehand."

Marshall is certainly a fascinating case. After 24 one-day internationals, he is averaging less than 20, but the feeling is that youngsters have to be selected and then persevered with before they drop out of the sport altogether.

Chris Gayle and co celebrate
A rare high point - winning last November's Stanford Super Series
However, Dr Donald Peters, chief executive of the WICB, is determined to bring salaries back into the first-class game.

He told BBC Sport: "The cricketers should not have to live with that situation but sometimes they are their own worst enemy. The West Indies Players Association [WIPA] has worked against them in terms of expanding the realm of professional cricket.

"I believe they should be paid because we cannot operate with a group of 15 professional cricketers. We want a professional league in 2010 and if we can get our proposal through then we are convinced our level of cricket will move up."

But hang on a minute. Is there not a rich sugar-daddy out there solving all the financial woes of West Indian cricket? Is Sir Allen Stanford not making millionaires out of all the finest players in the Caribbean?

Well, yes and no. While the Stanford Super Series last November did take place, and the home team's players netted US$1m each for thrashing Kevin Pietersen's feeble England team, certain events before and after that week in Antigua have soured the Stanford candy.

About a month beforehand, an almighty row between the WICB and Digicel, who sponsor the West Indies cricket team, flared up over whether Digicel had branding rights to the Stanford match.

The "Stanford Superstars" were, the WICB insisted, a separate entity to the team representing the West Indies in Tests and one-day internationals.

But the High Court in London ruled in favour of Digicel, the WICB had to pay huge legal costs, and Stanford was forced to hurriedly place Digicel hoardings around his ground in Antigua.

According to some reports, the US$3.5m the WICB was entitled from the Stanford jackpot has been withheld by the Texan billionaire as a result of the inconvenience.

Perhaps more importantly, future Stanford events - both the tournament against England and the regional Twenty20 - are in serious doubt.

But Becca believes the Stanford angle is, in any event, slightly irrelevant.

"I don't think Sir Allen is the answer because I don't honestly believe that he is interested in West Indies cricket more than his own interests," he said.

"Sir Allen could have sat down with the board and could have talked about a working relationship that could have actually helped West Indies but he didn't."

For Becca, the future remains bleak.

"Cricket is really losing its appeal. I never believed it when people said soccer was pushing cricket into the background, but when you look at how many people support a big football match in Jamaica it's fantastic compared to the turnout for cricket.

West Indian fans in England, 1984
The way they were - West Indies fans celebrate in England in 1984
"The WICB and the other people who love cricket and are passionate about cricket in the region have to look at themselves and make a pledge to promote and spread the gospel of cricket around the region.

"I have friends who have surrounded themselves in cricket all their life, and if you ask them 'did you watch the cricket last night' they say 'what cricket?'"

So does Becca believe there will ever be another West Indies team to terrorise opponents with their fast bowlers, and produce batsmen like Richards and Brian Lara?

"Sometimes when I see some of these young guys like Jerome Taylor and Denesh Ramdin I have hope that we will get back, but we need to start again and develop our cricketers.

"Maybe then the time will come when we have a team we can be proud of, but right now I'm not proud," he adds.

Peters, however, paints a slightly brighter picture.

He says the relationship with Digicel remains a strong one despite last October's fallout and he is about to hire a commercial manager to seek other big-name sponsors.

Peters also wants to add under-19 cricketers into the pool of contracted players and wants to bring cricket back into schools.

"We know that we have not been doing too well, but with the right administration and plan we will address some of the difficulties," he adds.

The WICB has certainly faced a barrage of criticism in recent months, not just from the likes of Tony Becca, but Peters sounds like he is prepared to acknowledge the problems and do something about them, rather than hide behind denials and smokescreens.

He should be given a chance to do so, and a Test series win against a divided England team would be the perfect springboard for a renaissance in West Indies cricket.

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see also
Vaughan misses out on tour place
29 Dec 08 |  England
Stanford reviews series future
17 Dec 08 |  England
Stanford game is given go-ahead
09 Oct 08 |  Cricket
West Indies legends video archive
14 May 07 |  West Indies
World Cup winners and losers
30 Apr 07 |  Cricket
Speed admits World Cup too long
26 Apr 07 |  Cricket
Legend Lara to end Windies career
19 Apr 07 |  West Indies
Crowd rules relaxed at World Cup
07 Apr 07 |  Cricket
Cup bosses blamed for poor crowds
31 Mar 07 |  West Indies
West Indies lose the plot
31 Mar 07 |  West Indies
England in West Indies 2009
29 Dec 08 |  England

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