Battle far from over

Tony Cozier,

Added 09 September 2012

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HOW Ernest Hilaire saw his task when he took over as West Indies Cricket Board chief executive in October 2009 reminded me of the celebrated bodybuilder Charles Atlas’ ads in the comic books of my schooldays (yes, it was that long ago). “Let me prove I can make you a new man,” was Atlas’ catchline over sketches involving a bony nerd, at the beach with his girl, having sand kicked in his face by a muscle-bound strongman. Predictably, the next panel showed the weakling transformed into “a new man” after a quick course from Atlas’ famous instruction manual and now, as “The Hero of the Beach”, getting his own back on his tormentor. In his farewell radio interview last week, as he prepared for his move to London as St Lucia’s High Commissioner, Hilaire recalled how, like Atlas, he entered after a feeble WICB had sand repeatedly kicked in its face by the powerful West Indies Players’ Association (WIPA), more precisely by its aggressive president and chief executive Dinanath Ramnarine, and remained passive. The WIPA had called two strikes by senior players, in 2005 and 2009, and by the four teams prior to the 2003 Carib Beer Cup semi-finals. It had threatened others. In 2004, players refused to sign tour contracts for a triangular ODI series in Australia. In 2009, they covered up the sponsors’ logo for an ODI in Guyana and boycotted the ticket launch for the World Twenty20 in the Caribbean. All the while, the West Indies remained entrenched on the bottom rungs of the International Cricket Council (ICC) rankings yet, almost every time the board chose to send some issue to arbitration, it lost, costing it hundreds of thousands of dollars. Five captains and three coaches were appointed in the five years before Hilaire moved in. Drained by Ramnarine’s triumphs, three CEOs had departed before his arrival. “There was turmoil, total chaos all around me,” Hilaire said. As he saw it, the board summoned him to act as a cricketing Charles Atlas. “I was brought in to lead the change and make some difficult decisions,” he asserted. He told WICB president Julian Hunte it would be “painful” and “brutal”, adding that “somebody has to be able to take those decisions and transform the board”.  He was to be that “somebody”. Flexing his muscles, and with Ramnarine equally up for the fight, the turmoil and the chaos simply intensified. Hardly a week went by without some open confrontation or the other, one reportedly almost ending in blows. It seemed nothing less than a battle for control of West Indies cricket. Hilaire initially targeted senior players he regarded as responsible for the decline through a lack of discipline. He accused Ramnaresh Sarwan of an “extremely indifferent attitude and sporadic approach towards fitness, particularly in recent years”, an assertion challenged by Sarwan and sent to arbitration. There, the WICB was ordered to pay its former captain TT$1 million (US$155 900) for “publicly denigrating and humiliating” him. Sarwan has since chosen to abandon West Indies under its present regime in favour of English county Leicestershire. Following the omission of Sarwan, Chris Gayle and Shivnarine Chanderpaul right after the 2011 World Cup and coach Ottis Gibson’s censure of the “senior players”, Hilaire declared there was “no discipline, no application” and said a new system had to be set up. Chanderpaul immediately and indignantly challenged the accusation, stating that it had brought his “reputation as an international cricketer and a loyal servant of West Indies cricket into question and disrepute”. He demanded a retraction. The matter was ultimately resolved after a two-hour meeting. The case against Gayle for his criticism of Gibson, Hilaire and the WICB dragged on for much, much longer. It was heard, not by the disciplinary committee, but by selected board executives and Hilaire himself. It took the intervention of a couple of Caricom prime ministers to end it and reinstate Gayle. When Jamaica’s Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller commented on the issue, Hilaire countered that the WICB “believes that the Prime Minister did not have the benefit of the full information pertaining to the matters on which she spoke.” As it turned out, it was not the embarrassed WICB at all but Hilaire acting on his own. Such tactics further alienated the public and politicians, one as important as the other, and harmed the reputation of the WICB, never highly valued at the best of times. For all that, Hilaire will no doubt take satisfaction from the gradual improvement in the senior team, reflected in its recent resounding results in the home series against New Zealand and the ‘A’ team’s victory over India ‘A’. He and the WICB might have breathed a sigh of relief when Ramnarine resigned his WIPA leadership earlier this year but his spectre remains in two protracted court cases to be decided in the coming months. One is over a renewed Central Bargaining Agreement (CBA)/ Memoradum of Understanding (MoU), the other for US$20 million in damages claimed by the WIPA for restraint of trade over the WICB’s refusal to grant Gayle, an uncontracted player, an unconditional No Objection Certificate (NOC). Hilaire described the styles of Ramnarine’s successors as “dramatically different” and hoped for “a more reasoned and structured approach” to the relationship between the two organizations charged with the development of West Indies cricket. The signs so far are encouraging. There hasn’t been a verbal battle between the two for months. The outgoing CEO identified two of the highlights of his tenure as his part in the launch of the Sagicor High Performance Centre (SHPC) within six months of his arrival (and almost a decade after the demise of the original Shell Academy), and the WICB’s investment in development, the biggest being US$1 million annually in the Digicel Grassroots Programme . On the debit side (and his several critics will produce a lengthy list), he leaves with the WICB’s regional tournaments depressingly sub-standard, still unsponsored, a drain on finances and basically utterly ignored. They not only lack for promotion of any kind but fans are actually locked out of main stands at some grounds.    It is all well and good spending good money on the HPC and the Grassroots Programme but it will go to waste once their graduates find themselves elevated to matches played on inferior pitches with one man and his salmon-tot retriever watching. The new CEO will have to deal with new challenges, principally the multiplication of lucrative T20 tournaments and a restructuring of the board that Hilaire identifies as “the big hurdle we now need to cross”. The rebuttal of the Patterson Report’s similar proposals should have made it clear to Hilaire that even he could not clear that barrier. His successor is likely to need some Charles Atlas strength to do so. • Tony Cozier is the most experienced cricket writer and broadcaster in the Caribbean.

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