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WICB’s inflexibility conjures up deja vu

By By Tony Cozier

THERE are striking similarities in the West Indies Cricket Board’s suspension of Sunil Narine for the forthcoming home Tests against New Zealand and that of Desmond Haynes 19 years ago, prior to the 1995 series against Australia.

Both involve the players’ failure to meet a deadline for returning to the Caribbean, in Narine’s case for the squad’s preparatory training camp, in Haynes’ for all matches in the domestic first-class tournament (then the Red Stripe Cup).

Narine has chosen to remain with the Kolkata Knight Riders for today’s final of the Indian Premier League (IPL); Haynes, at the time professional with Western Province in South Africa’s Castle Cup, missed only one match, Barbados’ first. Each pleaded his case for dispensation; each was turned down by an inflexible board which pointed out that its relevant regulation was in place for good reason and was known by both.

The WICB’s director of cricket, Richard Pybus, asserted on Friday that Narine’s ineligibility for the three New Zealand Tests was in keeping with the ‘West Indies First’ policy approved by its directors in March.

“The onus of the WICB is to protect the integrity of international cricket at all times,” he said. “International cricket, and specifically Test cricket, is priority and requires dedicated preparation which is integral to team success. The WICB policy requires players to commit to sufficient preparation leading into a series as part of a culture of excellence.”

The reasons for Haynes’ issue were similar, if a little broader. The words of Stephen Camacho, the board’s CEO at the time, almost exactly echo Pybus’. He pointed out that the regulation that led to Haynes’ suspension had been in place since 1983 and was “guided by its commitment to its sponsor and, more particularly, its responsibility for the long term development of West Indies cricket”. Now, more than ever, it is essential that the best players participate in our domestic programme where possible so as to enhance and protect the quality of our game,” he added.

The Haynes’ issue immediately set off furious debate. He had, after all, played 116 Tests, more than any other West Indian at the time. He was an outstanding opening batsman, one half of the renowned partnership with Gordon Greenidge in the golden era of West Indies cricket. The contemporary West Indies captain Richie Richardson asked that “special consideration be given”. 

The Barbados Cricket Association successfully pressed for a review but the original decision was upheld by a committee of three. Radio talk shows and newspaper columns were filled with comment, mostly critical of the board which held its ground. 

Haynes never played another Test. He subsequently took legal action against the board that dragged on for seven years before it was settled out of court; by then, the all-matches requirement had been dropped. It is unlikely the present situation will end Narine’s fledgling career of six Tests; it will, almost certainly, generate reaction comparable to the furore on Haynes’.

Narine may not, as yet, measure up to Haynes’ formidable statistical record but he is a highly regarded spinner with a mysterious mixture of deliveries that have bamboozled the finest batsmen in the game’s shortened versions to the extent that he is ranked by the ICC No. 2 bowler in Twenty20 Internationals and No. 3 in One-Day Internationals. 

His overall record in his six Tests is far less impressive (23 wickets at 40.82) but, in his only three Tests against the same New Zealanders who he would otherwise have engaged in the series that starts in Kingston next Sunday, he has taken 18 wickets at 24.33. 

Like Haynes, who was active with Western Province prior to his belated return, it is not that Narine has been twiddling his thumbs in the past six weeks. What he has been twiddling are his fingers that impart the confusing each-way turn that have made him the leading wicket-taker and most economical bowler in the IPL and helped propel Knight Riders to the final.  

As for his fitness, Twenty20 is a very distant relation to Test cricket but the IPL provides intense competition and franchises look after their players with top international coaches, trainers and physiotherapists. So why would the WICB stick so inflexibly to its position?

This is the first test of the ‘West Indies first’ policy and it is obviously not inclined to give in on it at first time of asking. Other considerations would have influenced its intransigence. When it gave Chris Gayle, captain at the time, permission to extend his stay for one more IPL match in 2009, he arrived in London two days before the first Test at Lord’s. 

Such an arrangement brought the WICB heavy criticism; its contrary decision on Narine is also likely to be condemned, a case of damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t. Another underlying factor was likely to have featured.

It was the recent  assertion by Ernest Hilaire, who resigned as the WICB’s chief executive two years ago, that “the bold initiatives required to fix regional cricket were often thwarted by pressure from territorial boards” during his term. He charged that “insularity and narrow nationalism” continued to permeate West Indies cricket.

“There comes a time when some people believe the consequences of re-organising and restructuring is too much for them and therefore they want to go back to the old order and that’s what we keep doing in West Indies cricket,” he said in a television interview.

Such attitudes led to the rejection of the main points in the 2007 report on restructuring of the WICB by a committee headed by former Jamaica prime minister PJ Patterson. Another more recent paper, commissioned by then president Sir Julian Hunte and prepared by Queen’s Counsel, Charles Wilkin, got the same treatment.

It is certainly not out of the question that Narine’s home administration, the Trinidad and Tobago Cricket Board (TTCB), would want to hear more about the reasons behind the WICB’s decision. It might even ask for it to be reviewed, as the Barbados Cricket Association (BCA) did in Haynes’ case. 

A new dispensation under president Dave Cameron has been in office for just over a year. As vice-president for six years, Cameron would have experienced the frustrations mentioned by Hilaire. It will be instructive whether he now finds, as Hilaire did, that “the bold initiatives required to fix regional cricket (are) thwarted by pressure from territorial boards” and that, because of “insularity and narrow nationalism”,  Pybus’ ‘West Indies First’ initiative goes the way of others from Patterson and Wilkin. 

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