West Indies bets on youth to end its decline in cricket

West Indies players with the trophy after they beat India to win the Under-19 Cricket World Cup earlier this month. Credit Munir Uz Zaman/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

When the West Indies beat India to win the Under-19 Cricket World Cup, it was a jolt of good news for a team in need of it.

West Indies players with the trophy after they beat India to win the Under-19 Cricket World Cup earlier this month. Credit Munir Uz Zaman/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
West Indies players with the trophy after they beat India to win the Under-19 Cricket World Cup earlier this month (Photo credit: Munir Uz Zaman/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

The victory provided a brief throwback to when Caribbean cricket was dominant. Between 1980 and 1995, the West Indies went unbeaten in 29 straight test series, and their success was given greater meaning, too, for the region. Clive Lloyd, the captain during the start of that dominance, called cricket “the instrument of Caribbean cohesion.”

One of Lloyd’s successors, Viv Richards, emphasized the team’s role in black empowerment, calling the West Indies “the only sporting team of African descent that has been able to win repeatedly against all international opposition.”

Then came the decline for the West Indies, a team that covers 16 nations and territories in the Caribbean with a combined population of less than 6 million. Despite producing the occasional star like Chris Gayle, the West Indies’ recent record is dire: They have won only one test away from home against a team in the top eight since 2000, and this year it missed out on qualification for the 2017 Champions Trophy, a one-day international tournament for the eight best teams in the world. It is ranked No.8 in tests, No.9 in one day internationals and No.2 in Twenty20.

The Under-19 victory (Feb. 14) brought hope, though, that a new generation of Caribbean cricketers might be emerging.

“You have seen young kids mature and show a great deal of awareness,” Ian Bishop, a former West Indies player and now a television commentator, said after the West Indies’ victory. “It makes me optimistic about the future of West Indies cricket.”

Two strapping fast bowlers, Alzarri Joseph and Chemar Holder, bowled with speed and bounce, in keeping with West Indies’ traditions. In the final, the two took a combined 4-59 from their 20 overs as the West Indies bowled India out for only 145, setting up a five-wicket victory. The big-hitting opener Gidron Pope also caused a splash.

Some on the U-19 team might be challenging for a spot on the senior team in a few years; Bishop has already declared Joseph, from Antigua, as “ready” for top-level international cricket.

“It is wonderful for the region. It also shows the possibilities for West Indies cricket to really excel again,” says Richard Pybus, director of cricket for the West Indies Cricket Board. He described the triumph as rooted in “the background work of the staff and the fantastic performance of the team, working together for a common vision.”

Such a common vision has not always been apparent in West Indies cricket. Recent years have been marred by a series of player strikes and board disputes. Last November Caricom, a group that promotes economic integration and cooperation in the West Indies, issued a report characterizing the cricket board as “obsolete” and called for its immediate dissolution, and last week it reiterated its dissatisfaction and said governments would act “to save West Indies cricket.”

The cricket board reacted to the November report largely as it did to other independent reports over the last decade: by ignoring it. At the end of last year Dave Cameron, the president of the board, said that the report “was not supported by the facts.”

Since then, there have been further signs of strife in Caribbean cricket.

With the World Twenty20 tournament starting March 8 in India, West Indies captain Darren Sammy told reporters the team is facing an 80 percent pay cut compared to previous World Twenty20 events. While fears of a player strike have not materialized, the relationship between the West Indies board and its players remains troubled. In October 2014, the team withdrew from a tour of India after a dispute, and the cricket board in India then claimed that West Indies owed it $42 million.

The weak financial position of the West Indies is a particular challenge in an age when domestic Twenty20 competitions are thriving in other countries. The West Indies has always been vulnerable to losing its players to better-paying jobs elsewhere, but Twenty20 leagues abroad are posing the most sustained threat yet.

During a recent tour of Australia, six top Caribbean players were playing for Australian teams in a domestic Twenty20 competition instead of for the West Indies selection.

Yet there are reasons for optimism. The International Cricket Council this month announced a review of changes it made in 2014. According to ESPNCricinfo, India, the powerhouse in the sport, is considering returning a portion of the funds it receives to other test-playing teams like the West Indies to reduce the gap between the poorer and richer test countries. The I.C.C is also conducting a review of cricket’s structure, hoping it can make changes to keep top international players, including those from the West Indies, from being caught in a club vs. country conflict.

Although the W.I.C.B has rejected calls for changes, the Caribbean domestic game has been modernized. More players outside the national teams are now under contract, and the first-class season was extended from a minimum of six games per team to 10. Some also believe that the development of the Caribbean Premier League, a Twenty20 league started in 2013, could benefit the test team.

“It is an integral part of the C.P.L’s overarching vision to boost West Indies cricket from the grass roots up,” said the C.P.L chief executive, Damien O’Donohoe. Every team has to have at least one U-19 player in its squad, and regular visits are made to local schools.

Meanwhile, the West Indies Cricket Board has a simple hope: that the success of the U-19 team will encourage sponsors of the senior team to be more generous in their funding. “It would be great to think that this will give confidence to sponsors to commit to the work the board is doing to create a strong foundation for development programs and professional cricket in the region,” Pybus said.

Should the senior team continue its decline in one-day internationals and tests, it faces a future in which elite countries will not want to play it. “A series like this for us unfortunately does create question marks about the viability of the West Indies as an entertainment proposition,” James Sutherland, the chief executive of Cricket Australia, told ESPNcricinfo.



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