Cricket and our Caribbean people

105362The current attendance numbers at the Cricket matches in the Caribbean Premier League, leaves many wondering about the stark contrast that this reality is to what obtained when the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) hosted the regional T20 competition in the recent past, to say nothing of the attendance at the four-day and one-day regional competitions respectively.
Over the past several years, Caribbean countries have seen significant declines in attendance at regional Cricket competitions. Hardly anyone finds time to attend the four-day regional competition, which is important to the selection of players to the West Indies team in the longest version of the game, test Cricket.
Initially, the One-Day format of the game at the regional level attracted patrons wherever it was played. Then patrons seemed interested in only the semi finals and finals of this particular competition. Today, not even the finals seem to attract patrons in the Caribbean.
When the Caribbean T20 competition was introduced the WICB may well have had visions of this being as appealing as it has been in other Cricketing nations across the world. No such luck!
The Caribbean T20 lacked the appeal of its counterparts elsewhere in the world and fell prey to the other forms of the game played at home – a lack of people watching at the arena and even at home. This remained the case even though several Caribbean players found themselves playing in the prestigious Indian Premier league and similar competitions elsewhere and even though the regional team conducted itself well at the international level in this form of the game.
Looking back
Time and again we have written about the significance of the sport of Cricket to the peoples of the Caribbean in which we live. This remains an interesting study.
Before television became accessible to virtually every home Caribbean people grew up listening to Cricket commentary on the radio. It did not matter where the West Indies team was engaged. Parents listened and encouraged their children to join them in the experience.
Whenever the West Indies team played Australia and New Zealand down under it posed a challenge for we had to listen through the night. Parents, especially fathers, found themselves in something of a quandary. They wanted their children to stay up with them to share the experience while at the same time being aware of the importance of those same children being alert at their classes the following day.
Some would recall that when the West Indies were playing at home, many took time to get to at least one day of a test match making it a family occasion. They would wake up early, cook, pack bags and coolers and have fun at Cricket.
The One-Day Internationals (ODI), when played in the Caribbean, regardless of which team was involved against the West Indies, attracted massive crowds at the competition venue.
Here in St Vincent and the Grenadines, some would recall that the early ODIs witnessed increased arrivals into the country as many enthusiastic Cricket fans journeyed from neighbouring countries to witness our stars playing at home.
Cricket was a major attraction to our peoples of the Caribbean for such a very long time that everyone considered it an integral part of Caribbean culture.
The approach of the West Indian players to the game was so different from other players from around the world that during the era of Kerry Packer’s innovative competitions it was characterised as Calypso Cricket.
West Indians entered into the enthusiasm of the players on the field.
There was a bonding between our Cricketers and the peoples of the Caribbean that saw huge crowds in front of television screens around the region, even if that meant inhibiting the smooth flow of traffic through the capital city. Kingstown often had flow-over gatherings because the game was interesting and SINGER was the only place in the city that offered free television viewing to the masses as they passed by.
Then something happened.
The crowds grew smaller.
The attachment of the Caribbean people to the sport began to wane and a sense of indifference began to creep into society.
Loss of interest
The West Indies Cricket team began to lose the control over the game of Cricket that they once had following the end of the era of Vivian Richards and the like.
The team had been on the long climb up the ladder to success and the aspirations of our people were at once incorporated inevitably into that movement. Unfortunately, our people were not in any way ready for the sudden rapid-fire decline that followed.
Ritchie Richardson was the unfortunate soul to have been at the helm of the West Indies team when South Africa had returned to the Cricketing fraternity and we were playing them. Caribbean people to this day never understood the seeming insensitivity to the significance of that first encounter between them and us on the Cricket field. Richardson’s comment prior to the start of the encounter, It’s just another game carried far more significance than he perhaps ever intended and reflected a chronic failure to understand what the sport had come to mean to us as a people.
The decades of decline that followed the West Indies Cricket team thereafter took us back to the early days of our entry into the sport, only this time the Caribbean people had undergone important change.
As the team’s fortunes changed for the worse many of the peoples of the Caribbean lost interest in the team as well as in the game.
The response of many of the peoples of the Caribbean was that the players had disconnected from the aspirations of the region.
Suddenly, the advent of huge contracts transformed the players and the interest seemed more to ensure take home pay than a commitment to the game.
Suddenly, the rapidly changing international media became sufficiently invasive as to allow the gory details of the conduct of our players on and off the field to become public property.
Caribbean people began to chastise the approach of our players to the game of Cricket laying blame at the feet of their newfound financial freedom and acumen.
It has often been said that the peoples of the Caribbean do not like to lose. Continued losses at home and abroad saw significant loss of interest in the West Indies Cricket team and in the sport more generally.
Test Cricket suddenly became too long and boring for many of our people in the Caribbean.
The four-day regional competition generated little interest as the performances left much to be desired and increasingly, the better players were so often not involved that the competition lacked the excitement of old.
The regional ODI competition followed the same path as the other forms of the game in the Caribbean.
Money talks
The Stanford T20 competition generated renewed interest in the game of Cricket around the region. The reason for this was simple. It was about money.
Stanford used his access to financial resources to bring on board, not people who were friends merely for the sake of supporting friends.
Stanford sought people who were professionals in their respective fields and introduced the T20 to the Caribbean with the flair, pomp and appeal that he saw elsewhere.
The Caribbean was not the first to take on the T20. Several Cricketing nations had already introduced the newest form of the game and ensured that what was on offer was an entertainment package aimed at once at the players, the spectators at the competition arena and the television audiences around the world.
While we thought Stanford’s T20 innovative he was merely following the lead already taken by South Africa in particular. Nonetheless the business approach was what was important.
The T20 approach went out of its way to so transform the game as to give the people what they want. There was colour in the uniforms of the participating teams. There was music throughout the encounters on the field. There were entertainment options all around the arena. There were incentives for players and patrons alike as well as for those viewing at home. There was total involvement.
The Indian Premier League (IPL), emergent as it is in the world’s second most populous nation, has become a business model for Cricket that has served to give T20 new impetus everywhere else.
The advertisements are very pointed and extremely attractive and appealing. The crowd involvement strategies are designed to ensure that people want to be part of the excitement.
Many countries have taken the IPL model and have offered cricketers an opportunity to fast track status as millionaires from a sport that seemed to have been caught up in a major catharsis.
Caribbean Premier League
T20 Cricket in the Caribbean lost Allan Stanford to the US legal and penal systems.
The WICB’s civil service approach to management spoiled the lame efforts at establishing a Caribbean T20 competition over the past few years.
The involvement of ESPN did much to lift the competition yet it did not generate the kind of appeal expected.
Suddenly, the entry of business interests in the creation of the Caribbean Premier League (CPL) has taken the same the game to another level.
Moneyed interests have now led to the inclusion of players from around the world, all very familiar to today’s Cricketing enthusiast.
What is on offer is a Caribbean version of the IPL, inclusive of huge expenditures on marketing the players and the competition, creative incentives to players and patrons.
Matches are sold out and critics are left wondering what has happened.
The reality is that the investors are aware that money follows money. Professionals are needed to create, plan and manage the product. The players are to play the roles given to them.
What we are seeing before our eyes is the professionalization of a sport with which we grew up.
We are watching the sport of Cricket being transformed into the professional product that the NBA, Baseball, American Football and Ice Hockey have all become.
Sport has long since become big business. I tis not about who once played the game feeling that they can lead. It is about allowing professionals to take charge. In this way players and coaches have their roles. They too are expected to be professionals in their respective roles. The business of management is left to those whose training equips them for this aspect of sport.
Caribbean peoples are once more thronging to the Cricket arenas but to see a particular form of the game. They love the change that they have seen and the way in which it connects with them and vice versa. The result is a clear indication that Caribbean people love sports and are willing to pay top dollar for good, exciting and appealing sport entertainment.
Even as the franchise holders lick their lips at the income from both television rights and gate receipts from the newly established CPL, there are those who wonder whether they would eventually find ways to transform the other versions of the game to facilitate the regeneration of lost interest.