Saturday, February 17, 2018

Cricket, cash and country

The Caribbean world is in dire need of precise strategic responses to its social predicaments in order to assure its economic competitiveness and political sustainability as a viable civilisation. The cricket discourse has provided us with the latest ground for testing our collective rationality and indigenous intelligence.

These are bold statements, I know, but then again we have been boldest in the cricket arena. Sadly, Caribbean citizens are now poised, again, to outsource their last remaining global brand: West Indies cricket. And we are preparing to do so in much the same way that we have sold to the highest bidder our best brands, from our beers to our banks, just to discover a decade later that we were duped by our ignorance of the enormous future value of what we had produced.

The buyers of our brands always see what it is that we cannot. Financial value is drained away from the region in the long term. We remain impoverished as a community even if a few persons are enriched by the exchange. This is now the case with our cricket capital.

Political and public pressure is levied against the WICB. It is urged to become a playing partner in what would clearly be the destruction of this pristine West Indian brand. The IPL franchise and other global buyers of West Indian talent have no interest in the West Indies cricket team as a regional construct. They have an interest in West Indian players as singular freelance entrepreneurs and are happy to support their detachment from the WICB. They shake the West Indian tree and our finest fruits fall to the ground. This they know and expect because they see that our stems are not stern and out branches brittle.

The perception internationally that West Indian society is riddled with irrationality as evidenced in our political fragmentation and social contestation has exposed our cricketers to the "sign today and play away'' culture. This commercialism has exposes our social indiscipline at levels where it matters most; representing the nation. The WICB, in this paradigm, is expected to become a money making machine for foreign franchises by producing young talent and mature masters who are released at random with no regard for the goose that lays the golden egg.

What is the true nature of the relationship between these franchises and WI cricket? It is best described as what the Chinese call a bacon and egg sandwich. One party to the deal brings the egg and the other party brings the bacon. But the pig that brings the bacon has to kill itself, while the chicken can bring the egg and persist. West Indies cricket is the bacon in the IPL sandwich and the WICB is the pig.

I salute the WICB for not going along with this arrangement and for standing its ground in defence of West Indies cricket.

West Indian Test cricketers are among the top world cricketers in terms of pay and remuneration. They are not underpaid. They are easily in the elite of Caribbean skilled workers, earning millions of dollars after, let's say, a five-year period of regional representation. Their refusal to represent the region in its international encounter should be placed in this context. It's not a choice between poverty and riches but between riches and more riches; and between standing up for the region and walking away from it.

The tragic part of this choice is that some of our leaders have failed to see the implication for the future of the region. The enormity of this crisis is not appreciated because it is understood as confined to sport and is simply about the further enrichment of a few citizens. Their unwillingness to elevate this tragedy to the level of political governance speaks to the choice also made in the political arena between short term populism and developmentalism.

West Indian cricket stars are invited to become globetrotting entertainers. We fear that they will become minstrels to more and more money; entertainers without interest in the nation that produces them; cash chasers who are cavalier with the legacy of excellence they have inherited from earlier stars. While Test heroes from other countries hit the road after serving their nations, our leaders hit the road when we need them most. Yet, their expectation is that we must welcome them home as heroes when the pickings become slim and when they have lost the edge that did not serve us. Herein lies the rub.

While WICB could have done much more for past stars, and for this failure is deserving of firm criticism, the same cannot be said of it today. We have to move on. The WICB of today is not the same creature of yesterday. The players who now reject the team were created and nurtured by this WICB and enriched by it. Those who seek to subvert this institution in its present form need to draw lines of distinction between the past, present and future.

A sickening fear from the cricket tale is that as West Indians we are confronted with having to externalise our development vision and drive as an acceptable choice. "Let us all pack up our bags and leave our indigenous institutions to falter and hit rock bottom'' seems to be an acceptable attitude and approach for some. To stand in the path of this perspective invites hostility and hubris. It's all the difference between one person's cash today and our community capital tomorrow.

Finally, what are our development expectations in this region going forward? What are the institutions of excellence we wish to preserve and sustain? What brands should we seek to keep and how do we maintain their present values for future development? What lessons are we learning from the cricket space about the quality of our Caribbean thinking.

Chinese sandwiches and Bollywood versions of Pirates of the Caribbean might be entertaining concepts indeed but surely we deserve a better representation. Here is where I stand as an academic and cricket pundit.

No West Indian star called to the regional team should be allowed to walk away and play elsewhere without sponsoring a public political conversation that speaks to the subversive nature of such an action within the context of regional development. This is the straight ball the politicians missed, or edged, when their strategic engagement was rightly sought.

Sir Hilary Beckles is principal of UWI's Cavehill campus.