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COZIER ON CRICKET: Best of times, and the worst

Tony Cozier

COZIER ON CRICKET: Best of times, and the worst

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Outside of politics, nothing excites Trinidadians more than Carnival and cricket (well, these days, the newest format). They duly turned out in their thousands for yesterday’s T20 at the Queen’s Park Oval – even knowing they would be short-changed.
They saw the West Indies sparkle in the field, fight hard but predictably lose to opponents fine-tuned by their experience in the Indian Premier League (IPL), the fourth edition of which ended just a week ago. The flags waved, the horns blew and the Carib and Digicel Girls gyrated to 17 sixes and 22 fours. But it wasn’t the real thing.
Nine of the Indians from their victorious World Cup squad just over a month ago were absent. In other circumstances, most would have been at the Oval but some were injured (a couple during the IPL) and three – the charismatic captain M.S.Dhoni, the batting god Sachin Tendulkar and their king of swing, Zaheer Khan – were “resting”.
Nor were the West Indies the genuine article.
Their three most prominent T20 players, Chris Gayle (wearing, significantly perhaps, a sea skipper’s cap), Dwayne Bravo and Kieron Pollard, watched from the stands, Bravo and Pollard waiting to turn out for Trinidad and Tobago in the later match against the up-and-comers from the High Performance Centre.
All three were just back from the IPL but the reason for their absence came well before that.
They were ineligible because they were engaged in the Big Bash T20 in Australia in January that coincided with the regional T20 tournament, the WICB’s basis for selection.
So the stars were missing. It was as if some ill-advised promoter put on an international Soca Extravanza at the Oval without Marcel Montano, Destra, Iwer George and Fay-ann Lyons.
At least, and hopefully, it provided the International Cricket Council (ICC), the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) with further evidence of the need to dovetail the mushrooming T20 leagues (Sri Lanka initiates theirs in August) into the international schedule.
The results of a sample survey by the Federation of International Cricketers Association (FICA) of players in the recent World Cup would also have been further confirmation of the dilemma.
Thirty-two per cent of those questioned answered that they would retire prematurely from international cricket to play only in the IPL and similar T20 tournaments.
Given the size of IPL salaries, 40 per cent could see a day where they would rank their obligations to IPL and other T20 events ahead of those to their home boards (which, of course, is happening now).
Almost all (94 per cent) believed that IPL pay would motivate younger players to concentrate their skills on T20.
Such conflicts were obvious from the time the IPL was formed. As was to be seen at the Oval yesterday, the Indian influence extends beyond that.
Start time for the match was 10 a.m. It meant all was over by early afternoon with the better part of Saturday free to take in the later fill-in match or, as most of the spectators did, head for a humdrum time at home.
Everywhere else in the world, T20s and One-Day Internationals are night-time entertainment, staged under lights. Yet West Indians have never had so much as one, in spite of the expensive availability of lights at all the venues.
The reason involves convenient television scheduling for those cricket markets to the east, India prime among them but Britain and Africa as well. A 10 a.m. start equates to 6:30 p.m. prime time in India, 3 p.m. on Sky in England.
When Indian television, therefore, suggests a 10 a.m. start, the WICB puts together the numbers and puts aside the comfort and timeliness of night time matches for their spectators.
A cursory glance around the Oval yesterday revealed more signs of the sway of India, with its burgeoning economy, passionate fans and huge population.
In the preceding series against Pakistan, ground perimeter advertising, such as it was, was confined to the West Indies Cricket Board’s major sponsors and suppliers.
For India, it has been utterly and profitably transformed.
It is no longer just the Digicel Series but the Digicel Pearls Series, Pearls being a large Indian real estate development company. The hoardings that now encircle the outfield proclaim a diverse lot of Indian products and services – Servo Indian Oil, Chiani and Baba (both, intriguingly, “mouth fresheners”), Catch foods and beverages, Galgottas University.
West Indians can understand such economic realities. They are less so of Tendulkar’s decision to stay at home. He is a demi-god to his countrymen and is no less highly considered by the passionate cricketing public in this region.
That he should forego the upcoming five ODIs and three Test matches when a single hundred away from the unprecedented and unimaginable 100 in all international matches, and that the captain should take the ODIs off, reveal how the status of West Indies cricket has diminished.
Tendulkar, Dhoni and the others will, of course, be ready for what they see as the far more meaningful assignment that immediately follows in England.
India, more than any other, should appreciate that West Indians feel patronised when they send a weakened squad for a series, even if one still likely to triumph. Until relatively recently, England despatched teams on sub-continental tours while allowing some of their best players the winter off.
Yet the West Indies should realize, as India did, that the only way to regain recognition is to start winning again.