West Indies as separate cricketing countries?

 

West Indies as separate cricketing countries?

Here’s a curly question for you: how many countries are members of the International Cricket Council?

If you’re a true cricket fanatic, you may know how many members there are of the ICC – 104 (12 full members and 92 Associates, though four of them are suspended at the time of writing). Alas, that does not answer the question, as not every member is necessarily a country. In fact, given cricket’s status as the game of the British Empire, many of Britain’s dependencies and territories are counted among the members of the ICC. Bermuda is one, while Britain is represented internationally by England (for England and Wales), Ireland (for Northern Ireland, who form a team with the separate Republic of Ireland), and Scotland (for, thankfully and quite simply, Scotland).

This is not unusual. Whether it’s FIFA, World Rugby or the FIH, it is generally accepted across international sport that if your home is a territory of another country on the other side of the world, that shouldn’t prevent you from having a representative team. This attitude is likely to stem directly from the British influence of the aforementioned sports and their governance, in recognition of the size of the British Empire at its peak, and the thrill of having representative sides from the colonies come and try their luck against the best the motherland had to offer.

Though what is not common in world sport is having multiple countries represented by one team, and when it does happen, it is usually only from the joining of two nations for historical/political reasons, as in the case of Irish cricket. What usually happens instead is that representative teams will align with the political situation of their region. The Indian cricket team included the entire British Raj, until the Raj was no more. The Pakistani team which emerged out of their independence movement included what is now Bangladesh, until the latter had their own independence. As new countries have formed out the old Empire, the status of their representative teams has evolved along with them.

T20 World Cup West Indies 2016
West Indies winning the T20 World Cup of 2016 (ICC Media Zone)

And yet, if you were to say that 104 countries are a part of the ICC, you would be pretty close to the truth. For all the territories that are members, there is a counter-balance, a team which contains within it many countries. The West Indies, one of the greatest teams to play cricket internationally, includes 10 independent countries in its membership.

Technically, the West Indies did exist as a country at one point. The West Indies Federation was a political union in the Caribbean of former British colonies. But the countries that are today represented by the West Indies cricket team do not correlate perfectly with the West Indies Federation: the Caymans, and Turks and Caicos Islands were a part of the Federation, yet are not today represented by the West Indies cricket team, but instead are Associates in their own right. The British and US Virgin Islands, along with Sint Maarten, are all represented by the cricket team, but were not part of the Federation.

Furthermore, Guyana (previously British Guiana) is a part of the West Indies cricket team even though it is in South America, while Belize (formerly British Honduras) is not despite having a similar history. The Bahamas were not represented in the Federation and have their own representative cricket team, despite being an island nation with British history in the Caribbean, as is Bermuda. In any case, the cricket team predates the Federation, but if the latter does not exist today and has not existed for nearly 60 years, then why does the former still trot out in their whites and maroons?

If the previous ICC members of East and Central Africa and West Africa still existed today, then the existence of the West Indies would perhaps be more justifiable. Unions for the sake of competitiveness would then be shown to be a consistent measure by which to establish representative teams across countries. Both were scrapped in 2003, and had ceased to have any serious relevance long before then. Rugby union, the sport with the most similar attitude to cricket on this issue, has had combined teams go on tours around the world for many years – most notably the British and Irish Lions, but also including an East African team – but these are considered to be in addition to, rather than a replacement for, national representative teams. Why can’t cricket do likewise?

The MCC touring party in the West Indies, 1925/1926 (ICC Media Zone)

Today, the West Indies exist as an anachronism, a remnant of an era long since passed. When the West Indies Cricket Board joined the-then Imperial Cricket Conference in 1926, they were representing British colonies in the Caribbean. It was an entirely logical decision at the time, as none of those colonies were independent states, even though each colony had its own distinct history. But with the collapse of the British Empire after the Suez Crisis, and the accompanying rush of decolonisation, the game of Empire was left nursing a team representing a nation that didn’t exist by the mid-1960s. Instead, it was representing a now-disparate group of island nations that were rather good at this game we love.

The nature of cricket tours being what they were, it made little sense to change this. Unlike today, where professional teams try to get into a country, play as many matches they can in the shortest possible time, and then leave, tours back then were long and required many stops in order for the organisers to make their money back. When going to the Caribbean, this meant stopping at every island, and facing up against both the local teams and the representative team chosen from the best of the region, in order to put on a good show.

With East Africa participating in the first Cricket World Cup in 1975 as another regional team, and the West Indies becoming the best team in the world, producing must-see cricket wherever they toured, it was unnecessary and unthinkable to split them up. Commercially and logistically, it would not have made any sense, as they made money both in their international tours and for the English county teams many of their players joined.

But times change. As it stands today, the West Indies are the only pan-regional team left in the ICC, representing a somewhat connected chain of many (but not all) of the islands of the Caribbean. The Caribbean Community (CARICOM) is a far looser political union than the European Union, but we don’t see a pan-European team in the ICC. Why should the West Indies be any different, especially when the economic justification for them as a touring team no longer holds up as their on-field performance has meant they are no longer a drawcard?

Less than 100,000 people make up the population of Jersey, who compete by themselves in international cricket (ICC Media Zone)

Even leaving aside the economic question, the biggest problem with the existence of the West Indies as a representative nation is the effect it has on other members of the ICC. One of the more common arguments used to justify the continuing existence of the West Indies is that they wouldn’t be able to survive on their own because they are too small. By having a united team, the argument goes, we are provided a competitive international team to watch. There are a few problems with this argument. The first is that they have been non-competitive more often than not over the last 20 years, with a truly appalling record for a team with such a storied history, but this is not likely to be talent related so much as it is to do with all the myriad problems that have affected the running of the game there for decades. No-one could look at the West Indies, even today, and say that talent is their main difficulty.

The second problem is that the argument probably isn’t true on paper once you look at the make-up of their team. More than half of their XI in any given match, especially in Tests, comes from one country: Barbados. There is some debate as to why, exactly, Barbados has been responsible for so much of the team’s talent over the years, but whatever it is, their all-time XI makes for eye-popping reading, especially when you consider that their population is around 300,000. Even today, they could put together a squad that could comfortably play Test cricket:

Kraigg Brathwaite
Kyle Hope
Shamarh Brooks
Shai Hope
Jonathan Carter
Roston Chase
Shane Dowrich+
Jason Holder*
Jomel Warrican
Miguel Cummins
Kemar Roach

If a nation the size of Barbados can put together a Test-playing team off their own back, how can one possibly argue that they have to be part of a pan-regional team in order to be good enough to play at the highest level?

Kraigg Brathwaite is one of several Barbados talents in the West Indies setup (ICC Media Zone)

But thirdly, as an addition to that question, how is that in any way fair to the representative teams from even smaller places, who don’t get to be part of any pan-regional team on account of their size? Little Jersey, population a little over 100,000, very nearly made it to the upcoming T20 World Cup all on their own. Bermuda, who don’t get to be a part of the West Indies despite being so close, did make it to the 2007 World Cup and produced one of the great cricketing moments while they were there.

It’s not as though other teams wouldn’t have the geographical and historical justification to join up – Vanuatu is closer to Fiji than Jamaica is to Barbados (let alone Guyana), but the former two teams don’t get to be part of a pan-Pacific representative ICC team while the latter three do. Guernsey and Jersey are virtually right next door to each other (not that they’d ever want to join together), and you could easily throw the Isle of Man and Gibraltar in as well, and all four would still be closer – literally and metaphorically – than the most distant parts of the West Indies.

And in terms of population, compare the following:

Member of the West Indies Population Independent member of the ICC Population
Jamaica 2,900,000 Belize 410,000
Trinidad and Tobago 1,370,000 The Bahamas 385,000
Guyana 800,000 Vanuatu 280,000
Barbados 280,000 Samoa 200,000
Saint Lucia 185,000 Jersey 110,000
Grenada 115,000 Seychelles 100,000
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines 110,000 Isle of Man 85,000
United States Virgin Islands 110,000 Bermuda 72,000
Antigua and Barbuda 100,000 Cayman Islands 68,000
Dominica 72,000 Guernsey 65,000
Saint Kitts and Nevis 55,000 Turks and Caicos Islands 56,000
Sint Maarten 43,000 Gibraltar 33,000
British Virgin Islands 30,000 Cook Islands 18,000
Anguilla 15,000 Saint Helena 4,800
Montserrat 4,700 Falkland Islands 3,500


There are at least 8 other members of the ICC who have populations smaller than Jamaica’s, and many of those are also less than T&T’s. How is it fair to these teams to be jostling for position against a super-team, even though many of them are smaller of comparable size to the constituent members of the West Indies? And they aren’t even jostling for position – the West Indies, as one of the chosen Full Member nations, get the rights and privileges that come along with that membership, with flows down to each of those countries (albeit some more than others, given the way Cricket West Indies is run). The independent members get no such privileges and have to fight and scrap for everything they get, which is very little. How can a global sport that at least likes to make a pretense of professionalism allow such a grossly unfair situation to continue?

The old romantics will argue that the game needs the West Indies, but it’s not as though these cricketers will disappear all on their own. It took Saint Lucia 80 years to get a representative in the West Indies team, but that hardly means that no-one on the island was playing cricket beforehand, or that they’ve stopped playing now that Darren Sammy has stopped playing international cricket for ‘their’ team. As shown above, Barbados would probably be able to slot in as a Test playing nation immediately, perhaps as the successor to the West Indies. And who knows? That may be just the tonic for a country like Jamaica to up their game, to try and overcome their Caribbean rivals.

If the international game had a better structure in place, there would be every chance for these countries to appear in international tournaments and on television screens on a regular basis, even playing against each other. If they did not, it would not be because the West Indies had been split up, but because the people overseeing the sport had once again failed to meet the needs of a global, professional, competitive sport, providing a fair opportunity to all representative teams from across the world. If those running the game are to meet those needs, they cannot afford to privilege a select few over others because of historical quirks, but nor can they afford to replace those privileged nations with absolutely nothing, reducing the number of viable cricketing nations even further than they seem to be attempting at the moment.

Perhaps what the ‘powers that be’ need is a way to change their perspective, a reason to provide small nations with more opportunities on the big stage. If that requires creating a structure in which three or four (or more!) teams from the former West Indies can make it to a World Cup, then it may not be a bad thing to split them up – especially if it means more opportunities for everyone else as well.

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