October 2015

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Three years ago, when franchise cricket was introduced to the Caribbean, it provoked a considerable amount of disquiet at many levels. It disturbed ideas of loyalty and patriotism. It questioned inequitable distributions of strengths. It resurrected unresolved issues within the region about the dominance of big over small islands, and for the millionth time, people vacillated between nationalism and regionalism. It was a bumpy start.

How would you level this playing field?

Although on the surface it seemed like a wide range of issues, it all seemed to come down to questions surrounding identity. Am I West Indian? What does it mean to be West Indian? Who am I?

In June, Professor Gerard Hutchinson raised the spectre of the end of the West Indies as he discussed the dilemmas of identity in this “age of branding.”

“Cricket and the UWI have been touted as the last remaining symbols of regional unity but the title West Indies may now be anachronistic, given the current preferred generic referencing of the region as the Caribbean,” he noted.

For a West Indian identity struggling to keep its head afloat even in its own Caribbean waters, the idea of forming franchise teams bearing national names but composed of players scattered across the globe was unpalatable to many.

“It just felt downright weird,” said one woman as she reflected on how her feelings had changed since 2012 when the Caribbean Premier League T20 tournament was launched (the first edition was held in 2013). But in 2015 she looked forward to it, and the things she had found unnatural then, seem like the best aspect now.

The six inaugural teams reflected the global nature of franchise cricket. They bore national names, but their composition was primarily West Indian with international players in the mix. It was indeed weird. For the 2015 edition, while the T&T Red Steel’s 15-member squad featured seven Trinis and three Bajans, of the Barbados Trident’s 16, six were Trinis and six Bajans. How did one pitch support? Nationalistic grounds didn’t seem to hold water.

Things have changed since that first year when Kieron Pollard, a pillar of the Trinidad and Tobago team, was named captain of the Barbados Tridents. It was like the old flying fish bacchanal. It was unfair to Trinis to have their T20 star poached and it was an affront to Bajans to have a Trini foisted on them. There were protests against Pollard’s selection, a former minister of social transformation, saying, "I have a great difficulty with a Trinidadian captaining the Barbados franchise in the upcoming CPL. They have retained the name Barbados, so I believe a Barbadian like [Dwayne] Smith or [Fidel] Edwards should be captain. I feel it is fundamentally and psychologically wrong. It affects the psyche of some Barbadians."

Samuel Badree, a player from Trinidad and Tobago, thought it went against the spirit of the tournament. “I think the names should not be that of the countries. They need to come up with something creative. To have (Kieron) Pollard (of Trinidad) playing for Barbados and calling the team Barbados does not make sense and won’t reflect what they are trying to achieve with the CPL.”

Bringing the knowledge and experience of years of international cricket to the table, Sir Gary Sobers stepped up, saying he believed the franchise system would help strengthen West Indian bonds.

"If Pollard is playing for Barbados and he is the captain, I don't see anything wrong with it," he was quoted as saying in the Bajan press. "If it was like the inter-territorial games [in the past] and he was playing for Barbados, well then he became a Barbadian because he was playing for Barbados and that is a similar thing that is happening right now. I don't see the big argument about it and all the fuss that is being made."

It didn’t end then. In the second year, the T&T Minister of Sport was so incensed at the export of players he considered key to T&T’s success (like Sunil Narine), he refused to permit the Red Steel team to be branded as a national one, saying it was an issue of sovereignty. Captain Dwayne Bravo was already out on the field for the toss against the Barbados Tridents in Grenada when he was told he no longer represented a T&T team.

“I was shocked and I thought it was a joke but I was told so officially,” he said.

The T&T brand was returned to the Red Steel team after other ministerial interventions, but questions of identity and loyalty remained close to the surface even as they seemed to have gone under the skin.

As the games played out, a number of elements combined to assuage fears and misgivings. Interest, then support began to grow.

What was it that people discerned that made them shift in their seats?

It wasn’t one thing. It was about twenty.

First, as if to underscore the dead zone in which the West Indies Cricket Board operates, the tournament was launched with a thoughtful and robust marketing strategy that was well communicated. That kind of promotional hype had only previously been matched in the region by Allen Stanford. It has never even been imagined by the WICB.

Even so, the opening matches did not draw crowds; and for a time, it seemed this too would go the WICB way. Then momentum came riding in like a drama queen.

The tournament’s structure, drawing on the experience of former West Indies players as mentors and coaches, added an indefinable touch of class. It showed respect and appreciation for them; and it was an important element because at every match, no matter how deep the party mood, their presence was a visible reminder of the magnificent heritage of West Indies cricket.

I had followed the tournament with great curiosity since its inception, and this year it struck me that only something that has managed to penetrate right to the core could have caused so many changes in such a short time. It has only been three years, and the CPL has become acclaimed internationally as the biggest party in sport; its blend of fabulous locations and exciting cricket combining to provide the perfect tourist package. (Those two elements had been an integral part of West Indies cricket once upon a time.) And while for the purists that may not be the ideal branding, the point is that it is very high on the radar of people in and out of the region.

At the end of the 2015 tournament, Bajans were ready to make Pollard a citizen, and though he descended to silly behaviour on the field too often; it was because they thought that his captaincy was excellent. (It was an interesting element of the rivalry that the final showdown was between teams headed by Trinidadian friends.)

As the tournament grows, not only has its following, but the nature of the support has shifted. People have learned to move past nationalities and are more prepared to focus on good cricket – technique, athleticism, strategies and talent. And there was a lot of that on display – in shocking contrast to the standard we are exposed to when the West Indies senior team performs. Indeed, one of the elements of the CPL that makes people seethe is seeing players deliver outstanding performances when their normal modus is unremarkable.

I think the root of this could be traced to what players of a former time have often identified as a key factor to developing their cricket: playing county cricket in England. So many of our better players have said that it took their game several notches higher because they were able to learn a variety of techniques, and significantly, the exposure to different cultures broadened their minds. They could observe lifestyles that were alien, approaches to fitness and training that were disciplined and rigorous, and being around players as team mates, meant knowledge was being shared.

It was clear that there were many benefits from having teams with a mixture of players and cultures. (The Jamaica Tallawahs was the only team with an almost entirely national membership with ten in the 15-member squad.) From the very first edition, the quality of fielding had been remarkable. I cannot forget the South African Martin Guptill for some of his fieldwork in the second and third editions.

You could see young West Indian (and I don’t mean the team) players approaching the fielding with slides and stops they would not ordinarily use. The competitive spirit was also many realms above the norm, and I daresay that the nature of T20 cricket extracts a very high adrenaline flow that contributes to the intensity of the performances.

At another level, the widespread coverage and the opportunity to share close spaces with international cricket stars would have helped build the confidence of the younger, inexperienced players in the mix. I include here the former West Indian players, icons of another era –whose value is not often appreciated by our homegrown youth – being treated with the respect they deserve. Can you imagine the impact of being in close proximity to the knights: Viv, Curtly, Andy, and Courtney, Gordon and Desmond?

For the youngsters it was an opportunity of a lifetime for them to play cricket on an international stage. This year’s CPL featured 69 players from the region, giving them that fateful chance to make an impression, and giving us a chance to see who has been waiting in the wings.

The more I think about the CPL, the more I think it is something good for the region.

Marissa, a young woman with a passion for life, said she attended the match between the Tridents and the Red Steel (not the final) and “it was one of the top five events of my life.” At the games, the screaming fans, the flags that proudly flew, the cap that supported one team with its bearer clad in a tee-shirt supporting another, or the painted face ready to turn the other cheek to show support for both teams – they told a story of people feeling the threads of an identity woven out of mixtures – a West Indian story.

But as with all things West Indian, size is an issue.

After the tournament’s third season, Tony Becca, a cricket writer for decades, wondered whether the region was too small to contain the CPL.

His comments came after the CPL’s CEO Damien O’Donohoe said that the region was economically constrained both by its size and the global climate and for the next season they would be exploring the possibilities of the USA, particularly Florida.

My understanding is that regional governments had been asked to contribute US$ 1 million to host matches with a return of over twenty times that amount. It is curious that with figures like that being assured, continued investment seems tentative at best. Perhaps after the ICC World Cup hosted by the West Indies in 2007 at great cost, there is greater skepticism about financial returns, and in the shrunken economies of today, the risk appears too high. But there are benefits that are broader: apart from strengthening the region’s tourism profile, it can rebuild a sense of regional pride and identity. With Hero Motocorp of India taking over from Limacol as the overall sponsor, it’s possible that the ground can really open up and swallow the greatest party in sport.

I think there is a mental boundary that is hard for many people to breach. We think that because we are islands we are too small to contain anything big. I disagree. This region has produced so many phenomenal people, things and events that I am sure it has a higher per capita output than anywhere else in the world. But we still find it difficult to imagine the potential within.

It comes back to that question of identity so hauntingly raised by Professor Hutchinson. How do we see ourselves? In a world that has changed realities more than once in your lifetime, we have to be mindful of change and be prepared for it. Test cricket is not the same as T20; they were designed for worlds apart. And no matter how T20 evolves, Test cricket is already slipping into the arms of history.

In just three short years, the CPL went from being an alarming outsider to a beloved part of the family.

It has breathed new life into cricket in the Caribbean, or if you prefer, West Indies cricket.