Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Decline and Fall of the Caribbean Empire

Throughout recorded human history, there exists a circular nature to the rise and fall of the great or powerful civilisations. This can be thought of as a series of stages, listed below, that describes the path each major power takes in their rise to supremacy and eventual ruin.

From bondage to spiritual faith
From spiritual faith to great courage
From great courage to strength
From strength to liberty
From liberty to abundance
From abundance to leisure
For leisure to selfishness
From selfishness to complacency
From complacency to apathy
From apathy to dependency
From dependency to weakness
From weakness to bondage

For the Roman Empire, the cycle took somewhere - if you use the same death rattle as Gibbon - a little over five hundred years. For the West Indies, a complete circle looks likely to be complete in less than fifty.

By 2014, the great entertainers are playing out cycle's final throes. With their tour to India abandoned at potentially diabolical cost to the region's governing body, the conglomerate of islands is facing perhaps the gravest crisis in its sporting history. This event may be the one that signals not only the West Indian nadir, but also their event horizon. It is not too great of a stochastic stretch to suggest this event may precipitate their removal from Test cricket; upsetting cricket's principal power-broker is rarely beneficial. Legal action that has the potential to bankrupt the WICB has already been mooted.

But the good - no, great - times were almost unparalleled. This is in part because of the struggles that preceded them. 

During the game's formative years, the West Indies, India, Pakistan and New Zealand received few favours from the axis of International Cricket Administration. Tests in the subcontinent were usually throwaway events, played when it suited the traditional powerhouses (who shall remain nameless, and largely white). Cricketing and geopolitical economics equating black West Indians with serfdom resulted in meagre remuneration for even the best Caribbean cricketers; pioneers like Sir Learie Constantine, Sir Clyde Walcott and Sir Frank Worrell were all forced to choose between English league monies or representing their region. 

No-one should begrudge an athlete - let alone one from the developing world - who maximises their earning potential. For players from the Third World, that means leaving behind the clubs that provided them with opportunities for exposure - often for years at a time.

Until the arrival of Wes Hall, Caribbean tourists expected nonthreatening and low-cost entertainers. Usually, they got what they expected - with some notable exceptions. All of the West Indian doyens valued their ability to please crowds; in many respects, early West Indian cricketers weren't paid anywhere near the professional wage required to craft exuberance into a Ricoesque "kill them all" mentality. Joyful fervor rarely propels teams to greatness.

As Richard Lord of the Wall Street Journal surmises, the WICB have rarely been able to afford their own players. There is no coincidence that the West Indies' three generations of dominance came in the immediate aftermath of cricket's industrial revolution, where the macroeconomics of the game removed the fiscal burden of a player representing his country. In the West Indies, hardly a wealthy country to begin with, this trickle-down represented not only freedom from cricketing mercenarism but the opportunity to build a structure fiduciary interests found more difficult to split (rebel tours notwithstanding).

Until the mid-seventies, and specifically World Series Cricket, the West Indies were rarely able to collate their best XI players due to the financial strictures placed by the board upon their players. Then, a generation of especially talented cricketers were able, finally, to (largely) escape financial bondage and develop together into the most irresistible side of all time. Whether they would have done so without Pyjama cricket is one of the sport's great "What If" moments.

As the generations directly touched by those who had experienced cricketing serfdom retired, their legatees knew only relative abundance. The WICB didn't recognise the size of the bone thrown to them by one Australian media tycoon, expecting - rather than catalysing - the same chrysopoesis of the 1970s to occur again. Global and ICC economics have not been kind to the West Indies, but neither has any WICB board of the past twenty-five years used their resources in the most appropriate manner. Leadership both on and off the field has been practically absent and talent has developed more by fluke than management.

Each time the region has collected an interesting array of talent, disparate moentary forces over three continents have conspired - with a palpably incompetent board of control - to rob the West Indies of any chance of forming those fledglings into a cohesive team. With costly legal action looming, it seems the WICB may not be able to pay their players enough in the immediate future to justify their time and skill. Over the next five years, we will probably see more of North America's best playing for T20 franchises than the West Indies.

With the new TV revenue deal already split favouring India, England and Australia, the economic landscape of world cricket looks set to mirror political reality and undermine the middle class. Surrounded by such a very murky economic climate, the WICB now regards a generation or more of indentured but entertaining servitude.

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