Blame it on the Caribbean system

The beginning of the World Cup promised much. A win over Pakistan in Kingston had the West Indies in raptures. Sabina Park was filled to capacity, and the West Indies fed off the energy. However, in less than four weeks, the host had all but crashed out. Where did it go wrong? Over to S. Ram Mahesh.

Ten minutes by taxi from the Kensington Oval is the Cave Hill campus of the University of West Indies. Instruct the Bajan driver to take the road along the coast, the right at the Frank Worrell roundabout. Request him between natter to drive up the incline, and you're there. Ask for Sir Frank Worrell's grave. It overlooks the 3Ws Oval.

A set of stumps, 15 feet high, watches over Worrell's resting place. Trimmed bougainvillea hems his tomb. Across to the left is ClydeWalcott's grave. The earth around the curved concrete is fresh; the seedlings are starting to flower yellow and violet. Walcott died late last year. The groundsman at the 3Ws Oval says the plot to the Walcott's right is "reserved" for Everton Weekes, when "he passes on". A touch macabre perhaps — symbolism and spirituality extrapolated to such a level that the choice of where one shall be interred is both conscious and inescapable.

Between Walcott and `Weekes' runs a passageway of chipped shale and terracotta steps: the Walk of Fame. In bronzed metal on the marble wall are names. Names of those who've made centuries for the West Indies — Headley, Worrell, Weekes, Walcott, Sobers, Fredricks, Lloyd, Kallicharran, Richards, Richardson, Lara. Names of those who have taken five wickets for the West Indies — Ramadhin, Valentine, Hall, Sobers, Croft, Roberts, Holding, Marshall, Bishop, Walsh, Ambrose, Rose. The lists aren't exhaustive, merely glimpses in falling light.

A brick platform lies at the feet of the stairway. Mounted on the platform is a plaque. It contains what the West Indies seeks desperately. These are times of turmoil — has there been any other kind in recent Caribbean cricket history? — and the West Indies needs calming words. Of hope, of wisdom, of prescience, of assurance. The words are Sir Frank's, and they roll off the tongue with a resonance that is at once peaceful and removed from what has gone on in the World Cup.

"I have satisfied my greatest ambition... My aim was always to see West Indies moulded from brilliant individualists into a real team. And I have done it."

"Now there is nothing wrong in wanting to win. There is nothing wrong with winning. But there is a lot wrong in getting so carried away by success that you can no longer play the game in proper spirit. The public should be entertained to some worthwhile cricket and not just a struggle for victory... "

Editorials have slammed Brian Lara. Commentators, both smooth of cheek and unshaven of chin, have questioned his credibility to lead. Observers have bewailed a lack of intensity in training sessions. Players have been spotted at pubs, seemingly oblivious to defeat.

It's all depressingly familiar. Why must the West Indies — 15 individuals "purporting" to be a team, as Tony Cozier wrote — fail at this tournament of all tournaments?

"Where is the pride for representing the Caribbean?" asked the legendary Lance Gibbs, former West Indies off-spinner. "They must know about pride as, apart from cricket, we are separate nations. Cricket is a cohesive force and these players have a responsibility to unite the Caribbean, which they are failing to do."

Conducting the World Cup was of significance. It was the opportunity to demonstrate again to the world that through discipline and method, the West Indies could achieve the impossible. The evidence of its world-beating teams of the past was indisputable.

That 13 countries — disunited and often wrangling, poor and deprived, a nation whose nebulous identity was shaped on cricket and wrung through colonialism — had sent out dominant teams was remarkable. But, collective memory was dimming.

A successful World Cup could do much for the region, went the rationale. If the islands could stage a show to surpass all shows, the knock-on in terms of revenue, and the game's future could be immense. Underpinning it all would be the best West Indies performance in a decade.

The beginning promised much. A win over Pakistan in Kingston had the West Indies in raptures. Sabina Park was filled to capacity, and the West Indies fed off the energy. Such was the display of camaraderie ring-led by Dwayne Bravo's slanting run that Lara was asked if this was the most united team he'd been a part of. Wisely, he chose to deflect it.

In less than four weeks, the West Indies had all but crashed out. Turnouts had fallen: angered by restrictive rules, the Caribbean fan wasn't bothering to turn up. Along the way, Lara warred with Andy Roberts over selection — a tiff that reflected poorly on both men. He made questionable decisions, the Power Play between overs 45 and 49 against South Africa for instance.

Even factoring for the fact that the West Indies played first up in the Super Eight the four best sides in the tournament, Australia, Sri Lanka, New Zealand and South Africa, the defeats were abject. Lara was forced to publicly apologise.

Lara will likely end his one-day career with the Super Eight match against England. One suspects he will leave before he's edged out, but it's unlikely to be the ride into the sunset he fancied.

Where did it go wrong?

It hasn't been right for a while, say most experts: the Champions Trophy triumph in 2004, the success against India, the defeat of Australia and subsequent run to final in the 2006 Champions Trophy were exceptions in a decline unchecked by an inadequate structure.

"It should have been the turning point," says Courtney Browne, who kept wickets and played an important role in the 2004 win, "but what it really was, it was the turning point of expectations of the people. It was wrong — they thought these fellows were going to win all the international tournaments. What it should have shown the people was that here was a side that could compete with the best, but systems had to be put in place. Nothing changed."

Instead, the WICB plunged into a contract dispute, the fragments of which continue to pierce the flesh of West Indies cricket: the contracts for the World Cup were signed well into the tournament; there was, reportedly, a boycott threat.

Observers correlate the slide to shifts in Caribbean society. The late Tim Hector, politician, cricket administrator, and formidable intellectual, said cricket in the West Indies could not be in crisis, for it was the essence of Caribbean being; it was a period, he said, of structural adjustment along the lines of society.

Writes the respected West Indian author B. C. Pires: "The West Indies cricket team is only a symptom (even if the most glaring) of a Caribbean malaise, and not its cause ... there really is no reason for the team to do well when everything else in the region is failing spectacularly."

The correlation, however intuitive, isn't an easy one. Cozier, in an interview to `CaribbeanCricket.com', drew a parallel to the Trinidad's steel drum movement. "Those who play pan come from the same society backgrounds as cricketers," said Cozier. "I've heard it said that they don't have the guidance that they used to, yet the Trinidad steel band movement has maintained excellence."

Clearly, the system is failing its cricketers. Most of the greats of the 1960s, 70s and the 80s tempered and hardened their games in county cricket in England; current West Indies cricketers have little access to cricket of such standard before being exposed to the international level. Browne revealed that many of the cricketers he played with didn't have the "maturity" required.

Worse, the former greats weren't trained to pass on their skill and knowledge. Hurt by what they considered disrespect, many have isolated themselves from the game. The two best teachers, Frank Worrell and Malcolm Marshall, keen students of pedagogy both, died unbearably young.

Deryck Murray, World Cup-winning 'keeper and head of Trinidad's cricket, says, "In the amateur days, people didn't realise the serious structure, albeit informal, that we went through. Our administrators didn't see it. They thought a Gary Sobers fell out of the tree."

"There's more domestic cricket," says former fast bowler Colin Croft, "but very little excellence. There is no proper method or structure to move from one level to another."

The World Cup may yet provide redemption. The infrastructure is in place — excessive as it may be. But, more importantly, the tracks have improved. The ones in Trinidad and Barbados are faster and bouncier than before. The case for good tracks can't be over-stated. No progress can be achieved without it.

The World Cup may also shame the administrators into shaping up. "Hopefully, the World Cup will open the eyes of the public," says Browne. "It's all ok to build stadiums that are the best in the world, but are you building the cricketers? At the end of the day, our cricketers are short-changed because we aren't making the investment to take them to the next level."