The red herring of unity

THE French may be stereotyped in the world of arts and ideas as aesthetes, but it is doubtful whether their romanticism extended to the realm of organised and structured group activity undertaken with the goal of winning — Napoleon Bonaparte coined the most pragmatic of all military utterances, "An army marches on its stomach." The presence of a unified West Indian team — the Digicel guys, the Cable and Wireless men et al — in Australia to play a full series of Test cricket interspersed with a one-day triangular series after the travesty of the ODI tour to Sri Lanka in August is sweet music to the ears of fans as well as romantics. However, West Indian unity during this Australian summer could well be a red herring.

The most crucial index for an unlikely West Indian cricketing success story against an opponent — who was last defeated in a home series by Richie Richardson's tourists in 1992-93 — is the real nature of the relationship between the two sets of players who privately represent the commercial interests of the two different multinational telecommunication giants vying for supremacy in the Caribbean markets. Columnist and commentator Tony Cozier recently wrote that the issue has led to such bitter animosity between "those who rejected and those who accepted the West Indies Cricket Board's (WICB) contractual terms for the tour of Sri Lanka."

Prominent among the group loyal to the WICB and its commercial partner, the Irish firm Digicel, is captain Shivnarine Chanderpaul, who has a personal endorsement with the group, while prominent among the group loyal to the West Indies Players Association (WIPA) are Brian Lara, Chris Gayle and Ramnaresh Sarwan, all of whom have personal contracts with the British firm Cable and Wireless, which was the sponsor of West Indies cricket team till June 2004 when the WICB entered into a deal with Digicel.

In the absence of a central contract, West Indies players have to sign a contract at the start of each individual series and in November 2004, during a training camp in Barbados before the West Indies tour to Australia for a triangular ODI series, WIPA objected to Clause 5 of the tour contract, which was the off-shoot of Clause 1K of an earlier contract. Clause IK barred players from "endorsing a competitor of a WICB major sponsor unless he has a pre-existing agreement with such a competitor that was approved in writing by the WICB."

The dispute regarding the clause resurfaced in March this year before the home series against South Africa. Brian Lara lost his captaincy — which many believe was more to do with his endorsement of Cable and Wireless than his overall Test record of 23 losses in 40 Tests — to Chanderpaul before the first Test in Guyana, for which the Trinidadian batting great was selected as a player on the grounds that he only renewed his personal contract with Cable and Wireless in April 2004 when the board was negotiating with Digicel as opposed to Gayle, Sarwan and co., who, at the same time as Lara, signed new personal contracts with the British firm. Lara skipped the Test match, and waited till the second Test in Trinidad, for which the others were recalled into the team, to take up his place.

Then came the WIPA directive to all its members to not sign the WICB tour contract for the Sri Lanka tour, which was adhered to by many top players and disobeyed by captain Chanderpaul, Jermaine Lawson, Darren Powell and many fringe players.

Though the optimists and the romantics believe that the merger between the two sets of players would be as smooth as the one in 1979 between the World Series rebels led by Clive Lloyd and the establishment team led by Alvin Kallicharan, the view is a shocking display of political na�vet� and historical ignorance.

The WSC rebels had maintained a very good relationship with the board, nay even represented the country in 1978 even after they had played for Packer, largely because the West Indian board, unlike its Australian and English counterparts, did not see Packer as a threat. In any case, the West Indies players, right from the 1950s, had been professionals plying their trade in the English county circuit and the Australian domestic scene. Secondly, the return of the rebels followed the reconciliation between Kerry Packer and the traditional establishment.

The recent tour comes at a time when the dispute regarding the clause is still unresolved. It has now been passed from the remit of WICB and WIPA to their global representatives, the ICC and the FICA, and it is speculated that even the global administrative and players bodies may find it difficult to thrash out a solution. However, the one recent positive development in West Indies cricket has been the decision of a Texas-based businessman Allen Stanford to pump in some greenback largesse into West Indian cricket. This could well give the board enough money to offer a central contract to Lara, Chanderpaul and co, which could lead to the resolution of the ambush marketing impasse.