Beaten by sheer pace of marketing

N. U. ABILASH

Brian Lara... padding up again for the West Indies.-AP

ONCE again, Brian Charles Lara has been hung, drawn and quartered by some parts of the cricketing world. Nobody is arguing that he should not have lost the West Indies captaincy — his overall record of 23 losses in 40 Tests as captain spread across two spells hardly makes him an inspirational leader. But, Lara deserves better than losing the job because he is caught in the middle of the bitter sponsorship battle between two multinational firms for the control of the Caribbean mobile phone market.

More importantly, when cricket lovers in the future are likely to read about the churning of West Indies cricket as a consequence of the recent ambush marketing imbroglio, Lara deserves a lot more than a dusting off with oft-used adjectives such as "selfish", "individualist" "difficult" and "egocentric". The controversy has come to an end with Lara's recall to the team, captained by Shivnarine Chanderpaul, along with the presence of Ramnaresh Sarwan, Chris Gayle and Dwayne Bravo in the second Test against South Africa, but it has signalled that ambush marketing will be the greatest challenge for cricket administrators all over the world in the future.

The crisis in West Indian cricket, as Caribbean social historians of sport Hilary Beckles and Tim Hector have written, is not because of Lara — the Trinidadian is a mere symptom of the ideological and cultural shifts going on around him. If Lara — who renewed his personal endorsement with Cable and Wireless in April last year as part of its sponsorship package of the 2007 ICC World Cup even as the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) was busy examining Digicel's offer to sponsor West Indies cricket for five years — turned down the offer extended by the Board to be part of the first Test in Guyana, he was only putting across to the WICB that it was the national selectors, and not Digicel, who had the authority of picking a West Indian side. (The six others who had personal endorsements with C & W — Chris Gayle, Ramnaresh Sarwan, Fidel Edwards, Dwayne Bravo, Dwayne Smith and Ravi Rampaul — were not extended the invitation to be part of the first Test squad because they had entered into `new' contracts with C & W in 2004 even as the WICB was making plans to take on Digicel as its official sponsor.)

To accuse Lara of turning his back on the national team for commercial reasons can, of course, be a legitimate reaction to the event but only those who have been part of the golden age of West Indian cricket, when national identity was so much connected to cricket, can be forgiven if they hold such a view.

Yet, it would not be entirely right to say that Lara signals a complete break from the glorious cricketing tradition of the West Indies. On the one occasion that he was part of a winning West Indian team, Lara indicated his awareness of West Indian cricketing history, which, in turn, is linked to political projects of anti-colonialism, anti-racism and socialism, as writer and activist C. L. R. James has pointed out.

In the darkness of an autumnal South London evening, that too from a winner's podium, it is easy for a superrich youngster from a developing nation to be blind to his nation's history, but Lara, after having led the West Indies to victory against England in the ICC Champions Trophy, compared his team's run-chase to another memorable one by a great West Indian team — the 1975 World Cup winning one — at the same venue. "This match brings to my mind the run chase by Deryck Murray and Andy Roberts against Pakistan in the semifinal of the World Cup right here at The Oval in the same darkness," said Lara, in his acceptance speech.

Unlike Imran Khan in 1992, a great leader from another post-colonial society, Lara connected to his nation's people in his moment of triumph. "This trophy is for the people of the Caribbean, for those who have been battered by Hurricane Ivan," said Lara, who along with his teammates, routed their prize money from the tournament, including match fees, to the rehabilitation of people in the islands. Incidentally, the Oval is housed in the South London borough of Lambeth, home to most of London's West Indian immigrants, several of whom had turned up to support their team.

In the winter of 1998, Viv Richards had criticised Lara when he led his West Indian team, caught in a pay dispute with the Board, to an airport hotel near Heathrow and carried out negotiations with the Board instead of flying to South Africa as an ambassador in the team's first visit to the post-apartheid nation. Clive Lloyd, the manager of the side, criticised the players after the tour for the action, which the West Indies lost 0-5.

In 1995, Wes Hall, the manager of the West Indian team to England, submitted a report to the board after the tour, which shook the Caribbean. In his 100-page report, Hall stated that Lara stormed out of a team meeting after clashing with captain Richie Richardson saying that he was going to "retire despite an offer of $3 million from a bat manufacturing company". For Hall, it was inconceivable how a West Indian player could only see his international career in terms of multi-million dollar contracts with sponsors and not in terms of representing his underprivileged people.

But, when Hall first and then Richards and Lloyd represented the West Indies, strong national institutions owned Caribbean cricket. Most of the nation states had strong socialist governments or liberal democracies with a strong national consciousness and were prepared to fund the board because they saw cricket as a national asset. The same was the case with national business houses. The economies had not been sold out to the IMF, which heralded the culture of financial autonomy, individualism and consumerism.

WICB (called the West Indian Cricket Board of Control till 1996) was not immune to the changes. The collapse of national industry affected it the most and it began to desperately woo multinationals, its main source of funds, giving in to each and every demand of the global giants. Exemplifying this shift was the transformation of the Board itself from a self-sufficient national institution grounded in development in the late 1980s to a debt-ridden one founded on marketing in the mid 1990s and yet retaining its unprofessional work culture and naivety to the ways of international capital.

Caught in a materialist world order, and part of a cricket board which has consistently underpaid its cricketers (sometimes not paid them at all), Lara had no choice than questioning the Board's work culture on many occasions and fend for himself monetarily even if it meant renewing personal endorsements with a company which had a conflict of business interest with the Board's new official sponsor. Because his contract with C & W was renewed last year, Lara was not required to give up his alliance with the company, which the other six had to do but he ended up losing the captaincy.

Perhaps, the WICB will realise that both C & W and Digicel were able to manipulate the situation because of its financial mismanagement, the staggering overall deficit in the region of 6 million pounds and its underpayment of players. And, perhaps, the cricketing world would realise that the big man of modern batting, who unlike many modern sporting greats has not been averse to challenging authority during his playing days, was small fry in a corporate war.