PERHAPS no cricket team in history is as revered as the West Indies side of the 1980s. From 1980 to 1995, the team did not lose a single Test series.
The Caribbean cocktail of ferocious fast bowling and aggressive batting resonated far beyond the field. “I have 5m West Indians depending on me to perform at my best so they can walk the streets and be proud,” Michael Holding (pictured), one of the greatest West Indian fast bowlers, recalled in “Fire in Babylon”, a new book on Caribbean cricket.
On September 30th, West Indies cricket hit a new low. For the first time ever, the side failed to qualify for the Champions Trophy, a one-day international (ODI) tournament played between the top eight ranked sides in the world. Two days earlier coach Phil Simmons had been suspended for expressing his disapproval with the team selected for the current ODI series in Sri Lanka.
Statistics highlight how dramatic the West Indies’ decline has been. Between March 1976 and March 1995, the West Indies won 71 and lost only 20 Test matches against the other eight Test-playing nations (excluding Zimbabwe, which did not gain Test status until 1992). Since June 2000 the side has won 14 and lost 78 Tests against the same opponents. The fall has been almost as marked in ODI cricket, where the West Indies have won 72 games and lost 161 against the traditional top eight sides since June 2000. Only Twenty20 cricket has provided any solace: the West Indies won the World T20 in 2012 and have consistently played vibrant cricket in the format.
The West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) is often blamed. “Administration in the West Indies is byzantine,” says Gideon Haigh, a cricket historian. It was ever thus. The West Indies Cricket Board of Control, the predecessor to the WICB, had just one full-time employee in the 1980s. Unsurprisingly, it failed to put in place a structure to build on success. Since then, a regular turnover of administrators, and infighting between the different Caribbean nations has added to its woes.
Relations between the WICB and the West Indies Players’ Association have often been appalling. Since 2005, when seven team members missed a Test match against South Africa because of a contractual row, there have been numerous altercations between the players and the board. Last November, the West Indies pulled out halfway through a tour to India following another contractual dispute. Usually the row is about money. So some find new employers. As Twenty20 leagues have developed around the world—most notably the Indian Premier League (IPL)—so West Indies players have found that they are able to earn far more playing in them than for the national team. Its biggest stars, including Chris Gayle, a belligerent batsmen, have regularly missed international cricket to play in the IPL. As the West Indies fields under-strength teams, so many in the Caribbean now prefer to watch American sports on TV instead.
There has been no shortage of attempts at rejuvenation. PJ Patterson, the former prime minister of Jamaica, published a comprehensive report on the structure of West Indies cricket in 2007; Deloitte, a big accountancy, reviewed the running of the WICB three years later. The latest big reform came last year, when the first-class domestic tournament was turned into a franchise competition, with teams able to select players from all over the region rather than merely their own island. There will be 95 fully professional domestic cricketers, in addition to the 15 who hold WICB contracts. “That will start producing players in the next year or two,” says Dave Cameron, the president of WICB. “As we get better our commercial reality will improve.”
Still, the root cause of its woes is economic. The amount of money earned by the the big cricketing nations, such as India, England and Australia, has exploded over the past two decades, on the back of lucrative TV contracts and sponsorship. The West Indies have not been able to keep up. It might get worse. After the abandoned tour of India last year, the Board of Control for Cricket in India claimed the WICB owed it $42m. It remains unclear whether India will tour the Caribbean in the future, which could cost West Indies cricket even more in lost television rights. Worse, the way the International Cricket Council (ICC), the game’s governing body, distributes money is about to change. Australia and England will receive over $150m each over the next eight years; India over $500m. The WICB, meanwhile, will receive around $80m. Some calculate that is $43m less than they would have expected under the current system.
Given all that is stacked against, perhaps the wonder is not how far the West Indies has fallen, and more how it was able to ascend such heights in the first place. “It is remarkable that a region so small, disunited and generally disadvantaged should have bossed the cricket world for so long,” says Mr Haigh. There seems little chance of an encore anytime soon.