West Indies' long dark days nearing end ICC Champions Trophy
By Tony Cozier
Stabroek News
November 5, 2006

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There is a recognizable ring to the roars around Barbados and, no doubt, the entire Caribbean that have accompanied every West Indies' victory on the way to today's ICC Champions Trophy final in Mumbai.

The euphoria was similar as the West Indies advanced in the previous tournament in England two years ago, defeating Bangladesh, Pakistan, South Africa and, finally, England in the tense, unforgettable final to secure their first trophy in an international tournament since the 1979 World Cup.

This time, their progress has not been that flawless. They have gone down to Sri Lanka and England on the way. Yet the victories over Australia, the current top dogs, India at home and South Africa, the second-ranked ODI team, have prompted anticipation that the long, dark days are nearing an end, regardless of today's outcome against the powerful Aussies.

So what has made the difference? How come the West Indies are back where they were two years ago after the sharp decline that followed that uplifting victory?

The players are virtually unchanged - eight of those in Mumbai today were in the triumphant eleven at the Oval on that dank September day - and the feeling was equally strong that it marked the first straightening of the longest corner in West Indies cricket history.

The change that began with the ODI defeats of Zimbabwe (5-0) and India (4-1) in the 2006 home season has come about largely, if not exclusively, through the gradual return to stability following a succession of damaging internal conflicts.

The aftermath of the 2004 Champions Trophy success is instructive.

After entrusting the coaching post to seven outstanding West Indies players from the era of excellence without the desired results, the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) followed international

trends and turned to an entire Australian team under

Bennett King.

As the last West Indian coach, Gus Logie, had just seen his team to the top of the world only to be dismissed in favour of a foreigner, the opposition to King was inevitably strong.

Although he hadn't played first-class, let alone Test, cricket, King came with an impressive record with Queensland and the National Academy in Australia, the country that had taken over from the West Indies

as the game's powerhouse.

To support him in his new environment, the WICB made Sir Garry Sobers, no less, technical advisor.

It was an opportune time to move forward. Instead, West Indies cricket took one giant leap backwards.

Just as everyone was savouring the feeling of success once more and no sooner had King arrived in the Caribbean than a succession of unprecedented upheavals followed to further devastate an already struggling game.

The effects - on players, on the coaching staff, on the administration, on cricket at all levels - of the rancorous open feud between Digicel and Cable & Wireless over sponsorship, the equally bitter, seemingly never-ending conflicts between the WICB and he West Indies Players Association (WIPA) and the divisions within the WICB cannot be overestimated.

The first international engagement after the 2004 Champions Trophy, the VB Series of ODIs in Australia, only went ahead at the last minute under the threat of a withdrawal of the leading players in a dispute over contracts. The West Indies were duly knocked out in

the first round.

On return home for the back-to-back series against South Africa and Pakistan, the issue became so fractious that some established players were omitted from the Test team and Brian Lara quit as captain in


It left Shivnarine Chanderpaul, a reluctant and clearly unsuited captain, in the post with the foreseeable consequences.

The West Indies lost all eight ODIs at home for the first time and the crisis deepened when the WIPA pulled the main players out of the following tour of Sri Lanka, leaving Chanderpaul and King in charge of

an embarrassingly outclassed second-string team.

The very future of West Indies cricket was in thebalance until a tenuous arrangement was reached between the WICB and the WIPA. Nominally, all the players were back on deck for the subsequent tours of Australia and New Zealand but barely concealed discord remained.

It was no surprise that all three Tests were lost in Australia and that New Zealand produced only one last-over victory in three Tests and five ODIs.

Chanderpaul resigned as captain, citing the obvious reason that the responsibility was affecting his batting. More to the point, it was affecting the team.

Desperate times called for desperate measures. Ken Gordon, the fourth WICB president in six years and a business executive accustomed to having his own way, took it upon himself to recall Brian Lara to the

captaincy, stating that he was "the only logical choice".

Gordon further indicated that Lara would remain through to next year's World Cup in the Caribbean.

With Lara's meager record in his two earlier stints at the helm and given that he is now 37, it was not a view shared by everyone, not even some on his board and certainly not by this column. In hindsight, it

does not seem such a bad idea after all.

Combined with an overdue agreement with the WIPA on several issues, including the offer of retainer contracts to ten players, and the reshaping of the cricket committee to include several high profile

names of the recent past, a general sense of steadiness began to prevail.

At last, coach King and his men didn't have to worry about whether the captain would change overnight or whether the team would be disrupted by a strike called over some petty squabble between their association and the board. They could focus on the cricket and the

cricket alone.

The refreshing new attitude has been clear, even through our television screens from half-way across the world.

Nothing signifies it more than the fielding, less that a year ago an embarrassment, now comparable with the Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans who have set the benchmark.

All of which is not to say that the West Indies will retain the Champions Trophy today, dispatch Pakistan in the imminent Tests and ODIs in Pakistan, hold the World Cup aloft at Kensington Oval next April 28 and suddenly push Australia off their pedestal at the top

of world cricket.

The longer game will provide the greater challenge.

But, as Lara has noted, the players have begun to believe in themselves and their public to believe in them again. It's a start.