Mahela Jayawardene Column: Whither Caribbean cricket?

It’s sad to see such a great cricketing entity struggling so much. Cricket is inter-woven into the fabric of the Caribbean society and its culture, so it is vital that the downfall is addressed. World cricket also desperately needs a strong West Indian team, especially in Test cricket, where their decline has been so alarming.

Fallen on hard times... Caribbean cricket has been at the receiving end, especially in Test cricket, in the last 20 years or so.   -  AP

There was a time not so long ago when a tour by the West Indians would strike fear into all their opponents. Their near-invincible teams under Clive Lloyd and Sir Vivian Richards of the 1970s and 1980s, powered by aggressive batting and predatory fast bowling, were quite brilliant. Fast-forward 20 years and the story is very different. The Frank Worrell Trophy has just started in Australia and, in Hobart, Australia romped to an innings victory, bowling out the West Indies in just 36 overs in their second innings.

It’s sad to see such a great cricketing entity struggling so much. Cricket is inter-woven into the fabric of the Caribbean society and its culture, so it is vital that the downfall is addressed. World cricket also desperately needs a strong West Indian team, especially in Test cricket, where their decline has been so alarming.

Some people have called for two divisions in Test cricket and inevitably proposed the relegation of West Indies, but to me that would be a grave mistake. All teams face these cycles. Not so long along the likes of England were being routinely pummelled 5-0 by West Indies. No one suggested then that England be demoted. West Indies need more quality Test cricket rather than less so they have an opportunity to develop their players.

So what is wrong? Well, the first thing to note is that there is talent in the West Indies. They are producing some really top-class T20 and ODI cricketers, powerful and energetic players perfectly suited to the shorter formats. This should be an encouragement. The challenge for them is trying to make sure these talented cricketers strive to play in the Tests.

When you meet the legends of the West Indian golden era, guys like Viv, with whom I was fortunate enough to share a dressing room at Delhi Daredevils, they often lament about the motivation factor. They worry that playing for your country, pulling on the maroon West Indian Test cap, does not carry the same honour and pride as it used to in the past.

In this sense West Indies is faced with peculiar challenges. Firstly, they are a collection of small island nations. The sense of nationhood is obviously different. Secondly, their potential sportsmen are lured in different directions, especially towards their giant neighbour, the USA, with their basketball and baseball.

This competition means that West Indies have to get their development structures right. I don’t know enough about West Indies’ domestic structures to propose specific changes, but I do know that it is imperative that they have a proper youth and development plan and then a competitive first-class structure. Right now the talented players that do emerge are not quite ready and they are having to learn on the job. That is very tough.

In Sri Lanka we face a not too dissimilar situation, although in our case we do have a very competitive youth structure and the greater issue is the low quality of our first-class cricket. We are focussing our efforts on raising the standard of the 4-day competition, introducing a regional structure above the current club system. This is urgently needed as our current youngsters are 2-3 years behind players in other countries.

The way forward for West Indies requires the work and commitment of both the players and administrators. Like in Sri Lanka, West Indian cricket comes with plenty of politics. This is perhaps not surprising given the different nationalities involved. But somehow they have to create a stable and progressive structure focussed on the development of the game.

They need to be pragmatic and address the reality that their best cricketers are being pulled towards T20 and ODI cricket. Right now the best players are not always on the park and that’s obviously a serious problem. They need to give Test cricket a special status and ensure that the remuneration scales for their Test cricketers are very attractive. Players should not just play for money, but at the same time cricket needs to be an attractive profession for talented sportspeople who want to build a secure lifestyle to support a family and their future.

The ICC needs to play its part because the current FTP system is not helping teams like West Indies or Sri Lanka or Bangladesh develop. The 5-year home-and-away rule allows the wealthier nations the opportunity to focus on playing each other. The rest are left trying to pull together whatever series they can. If you are not playing regularly against the top nations you cannot expect your cricketers to develop.

I have no doubt that the West Indies can rise again and be a dominant force. The natural talent and huge affection for the game provides them with the opportunity as long as players and administrators come together and work as one for a better future.