Decline of West Indies cricket seems unstoppable – but there is hope

Cricket in the West Indies
Cricket in the West Indies has reached something of a crossroads

England arrive in the Caribbean after a terrible World Cup. Their challenge of how to balance the three formats, and protect players from burnout, has never been so acute: while trying to rebuild their white-ball sides, England play 17 Test matches next year.

England have problems, but the West Indies are in a situation on a different scale altogether. A poor World Cup? Try not qualifying. Too much cricket? Try playing too little (just 11 Tests between now and June 2025).

The notion of West Indies not making a World Cup would once have seemed as absurd as Brazil not qualifying for a Football World Cup, or a Rugby World Cup without New Zealand. “Not being a part of this World Cup is the greatest crisis that West Indies cricket has faced,” observes Daren Ganga, the former West Indies Test captain.

What touring teams could long expect in the Caribbean was encapsulated by the title of Frank Keating’s account of England’s 1981 tour: Another Bloody Day in Paradise. West Indies won the first two men’s ODI World Cups, in 1975 and 1979, and then did not lose a Test series during a magnificent 15-year run from 1980-95. No one - not even the Australia sides led by Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting – has since come close to emulating this sequence.

No previous Test side in history had based their strategy so much upon pace. During their years of dominance, it was an article of faith that West Indies fielded a pace quartet. The names themselves scarcely mattered. Any four of Andy Roberts, Malcolm Marshall, Joel Garner, Michael Holding, Colin Croft, Patrick Patterson, Courtney Walsh, Curtly Ambrose, and Ian Bishop – who shared 2389 Test wickets at an average of 23 – were far too much for most batting line-ups. Particularly England’s – during the 1980s, West Indies won 17 Tests against England and lost none. West Indies’ batsmen, led by the swaggering and scintillating Viv Richards, were almost as brilliant.

West Indies pace quartet pictured (L to R) Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Colin Croft and Joel Garner of the West Indies during the First Test match against England on February 12, 1981 at Queen's Park Oval in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad
Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Colin Croft and Joel Garner pictured in Tinidad ahead of the first Test against England in 1981 - Getty Images/Adrian Murrell

No sporting dynasty can defy time forever. But the remarkable aspect of West Indies’ tale is the steepness of their decline and how much worse their modern results have been even than those of predecessors before the superteam. Between 1945 and the English summer of 1976 – when the feats of Holding and Richards signalled the onset of the glorious era – West Indies won 48 Tests and lost 42. Since their two-wicket defeat in the Lord’s Test in 2000, West Indies have won 44 Tests and lost 116. Against the leading seven Test nations – Australia, England, India, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Africa and Sri Lanka – their record is 23 wins and 112 defeats. Yet, as in the 1980s, West Indies tend to reserve their best for England: they have won three, and drawn one, of the last four Test series between the sides in the Caribbean.

While West Indies players were performing magnificently during the 1980s, “nothing was ever done to nurture the talent that we had coming up,” Ambrose writes in his 2015 autobiography.

Compared to when he made his Test debut in 1998, there has been “a plateau or at best a slow incline” in the quality of pitches and facilities, Ganga says. All the while, rival countries have transformed their infrastructure.

Consider how Jason Holder, West Indies’s star all-rounder, prepared for the T20 series against England: by training with Rajasthan Royals at their high performance camp in India. “It’s brilliant,” Holder said. “Unfortunately, in the Caribbean, we don’t have facilities that are equivalent to this.”

‘There’s no accountability’

The roots of these problems lie in chaotic administration. “The issue of the governance and structure of West Indies cricket – this is the fundamental issue,” Grenada’s then prime minister Dr Keith Mitchell said in 2015, speaking as chair of the Caribbean Community’s Cricket Governance Sub Committee. Caricom advocated the immediate dissolution of the “antiquated” and “anachronistic” board. The report, like a series of others, was ignored.

And so the West Indies Cricket Board continues to be structured as it has been since 1927. The board comprises representatives from the WICB’s six members – the territorial boards of Trinidad & Tobago, Barbados, Jamaica, Guyana, Leeward Islands and Windward Islands – who have two votes each.

“There’s no accountability within Cricket West Indies because the head of the territories are the board themselves,” says a former national captain, speaking anonymously. “There needs to be a truly independent executive body to run the game. Power has to shift from the two directors from each territory.”

Ganga bemoans the lack of alignment in the region’s cricket. “Are regional boards following best practice when it comes to the administration of the game? I don’t think so. There must be checks and balances that will bring about more accountability and transparency in how the game is administered.”

Daren Ganga
Former captain Daren Ganga believes there's needs to be more accountability for cricket's administrators in the West Indies - Reuters/Nigel Roddis

There is an obvious contrast with New Zealand – historically far less successful than West Indies, but World Test champions in 2021 and semi-finalists in the last five ODI World Cups. In 1995, New Zealand Cricket reformed itself to replace provincial representatives with a streamlined board of independent directors selected on merit.

Too often, parochialism still reigns in West Indies. Consider the latest selection controversy: the omission of Darren Bravo, fresh from averaging 83.2 as he led Trinidad & Tobago to the Super50 Cup, from the squad against England. Selector Desmond Haynes said Bravo was too old – but fellow top order batsman Kjorn Ottley, who was also born in 1989 and averages 22.39 in first-class cricket, was picked instead. Darren’s exasperated brother Dwayne asked: “When will the BS [sic] stop?!”

“What people would like to see is meritocracy,” Ganga reflects. Too often, he believes, territories focus on winning rather than developing the next generation. Trinidad & Tobago’s average age in the Super50 Cup final was 32, with just one player under 28.

Such short-termism helps explain a striking characteristic of West Indies cricket: the late ages of batsmen making their international debuts, who often have underwhelming domestic records. Where developing bowlers depends more on raw talent, producing high-class batsmen depends on a system: coaching, pitches, training facilities and simply enough practice time. “The cricket infrastructure in the region is all so inconsistent,” Ganga observes.

Ramnaresh Sarwan, who debuted in 2000, is the last West Indies Test batsman to score 1,000 runs while averaging over 40. The last such player from Barbados, historically the region’s powerhouse, was Desmond Haynes, who debuted in 1978.

‘We need more money’

Yet West Indies’ struggles cannot be understood in isolation. Instead, they are inextricably linked to wider forces in the game.

In 1962, the NFL’s club owners met to discuss their network television revenue. The New York Giants received five times more than the Green Bay Packers, but argued that “the NFL was only as strong as its weakest link, that Green Bay should receive as much money as any of the other teams,” as the NFL commissioner at the time later said.

As the amount of money surged in cricket, the sport shunned such egalitarian thinking. Since 2001, teams stopped earning fees for touring. Instead, tours are arranged on a reciprocal basis, damaging sides from smaller markets: West Indies make £20 million a year in broadcasting contracts to England’s £220 million.

Rather than ameliorate these discrepancies, the International Cricket Council exacerbates them. The countries that earn the most from their domestic broadcasting deals are also the ones who receive the most from the ICC. From 2024-27, India will receive around $230 million-a-year from the ICC – 38.5 per cent of the total distribution. England receive the next most –$41m a year, 7 per cent. West Indies receive $27.5m, 4.5 per cent.

“We have such a high cost base – we would like and need more money,” says Johnny Grave, the chief executive of Cricket West Indies. West Indies have long advocated more equal revenue-sharing between Full Members, a Test fund to help cover the costs of matches around the world and a strategic women’s fund.

Holding’s stint on the ICC cricket committee, from 2007-08, convinced him that global administrators cared little for the region, whatever they claimed. He raised the topic of touring teams receiving funds - pointing out how Australia earned many times more when West Indies toured than vice versa.

Former West Indies cricketer Michael Holding commentating for Sky Sports before day two of the Second LV= Insurance Test match at at Edgbaston, Birmingham
Michael Holding's time on the ICC cricket committee led him to believe their was little global support for West Indies cricket - PA Wire/Mike Egerton

“I said the West Indies population has been five million for decades - it does not grow because there’s constant migration. We have no international organisations or companies in the Caribbean that will sponsor West Indies cricket because every island has its own thing.

“I explained that in the meeting. You know what the general manager of the ICC [David Richardson] said: ‘Whose fault is that?’ When he said that, I said ‘well, we have no chance. They’re not interested in helping West Indies cricket or helping the poorer nations’.

“You always hear them saying ‘Oh, it’s so sad West Indies are so weak’. You tell me one thing that the ICC has done to try and balance the equation. They have done absolutely nothing - they have talked. That’s it. A lot of them are happy that West Indies are where they are.”

‘There is no lack of pride’

Yet, for all the challenges that West Indies face both from within the region and beyond, there are signs of hope too. Last week’s A team victory in a ‘Test’ in South Africa attested to the talent that remains. This should be helped by concerted attempts to ease the transition from junior into domestic cricket. The West Indies Academy launched last year, with an intake of 15 men’s and women’s players aged 19 or 20; they are based at the old Allen Stanford ground in Antigua, which Cricket West Indies now fully own. The Academy played in the men’s professional 50-over competition this year, and are planned to join next season’s four-day competition, playing seven domestic first-class games as well as tours away.

West Indies will also create a new T20 competition in 2025. A regional T20 tournament will run during the IPL - giving opportunities to younger players, who can find it difficult to break into the Caribbean Premier League, which has four overseas players per side. This step is long overdue: after the pioneering T20 team won World Cups in 2012 and 2016, West Indies’ young generation floundered in the last two T20 World Cups.

Most important of all could be a quiet transformation in coaching. During his stint as director of cricket, Jimmy Adams appointed West Indies’s first ever coach manager, the Australian Chris Brabazon, in 2019; over 1,000 coaches have been trained and accredited since. “Coaching – at all levels – has improved significantly,” Ganga believes. “You only hope that with that development, that information sharing and transfer of knowledge will happen in the landscape at all levels.”

West Indies' Joshua Da Silva celebrates after he scored a century against England during day three of their third Test cricket match at the National Cricket Stadium in St. George, Grenada, Saturday, March 26, 2022
Josh Da Silva's performances during England's Test tour of the West Indies in 2022 proved there is still youthful talent in the region - AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan

Yet just as the absence of such action during the 1980s took a generation to be noticed, so these moves - even if successful - will take years to bear fruit. And West Indies remain stymied by a regional governance structure unfit for purpose and the broader structural inequities in the world game.

Grave hopes that co-hosting the T20 World Cup next year will be the catalyst to reinvigorate Caribbean cricket. With junior programmes developing and the surge in interest in women’s cricket, “the demand on facilities has never really been greater” in the Caribbean. While that is a challenge, it also refutes the notion that the game is no longer popular in the region.

It can be fashionable to lament that players no longer care for the hallowed maroon cap. “There is no lack of pride and inspiration for young people,” Ganga believes. “Every single player wants to play for West Indies. But there are always competing interests.” This, of course, is nothing new: Learie Constantine, West Indies’s first great cricketer, missed Tests in the 1930s because of his Lancashire League commitments.

For all West Indies’ strife, 13 Caribbean cricketers had contracts to play in this year’s Indian Premier League. But because of a combination of their ages, players being rested and some curious selection decisions, only three of these will play in the ODIs against England. Others, like Holder and Nicholas Pooran, should return for the T20s.

Here, then, lies the central paradox of modern West Indies cricket. There has never been a better time to be a Caribbean cricketer. But whether the best of such talent is seen in West Indies’s colours has never been more uncertain.

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