For reasons that were at once predictable and shocking, the past week has seen developments that it’s not being grandiose to say may lead to the end of the West Indies cricket team. In a dispute over money (isn’t it always?), the members of the West Indies cricket team, on tour of India, informed their board (the West Indies Cricket Board, or WICB), that they were no longer going to play—even though their own players association (or WIPA) had agreed to the terms of the tour and the payment. The Board of Control of Cricket in India (the BCCI) not only immediately canceled the tour (Sri Lanka will take the place of the West Indies) but stated that the Indian team will no longer tour West Indies, and that BCCI will consider options to sue the WICB for tens of millions of dollars.
This is, to put it mildly, a big deal. Because of the size of the television and sponsorship market, the BCCI can afford to throw its weight around. The potential revenue loss of an Indian tour of West Indies is, perhaps, $65 million—aside from any millions of dollars that the BCCI may seek in the courts. Furthermore, other boards—notably the England Cricket Board (ECB), which is due to send a team to the West Indies in April and May—may reconsider doing so, given the volatile relationship between the WIPA and WICB.
The West Indies was always an idea more than a reality. For years, the eleven best cricketers from Antigua, Guyana, Trinidad & Tobago, Jamaica, Barbados, and other islands, would cohere to form the West Indies cricket team. From the mid-1970s to the early 1990s, the team played for regional and racial pride rather than an individual country or money. (The documentary film Fire in Babylon admirably captures what was at stake for the great West Indies teams of that era.) But, like the countries the team represented, West Indies cricket never commanded the money that England, Australia, and now India can. A revenue loss like this may bankrupt the WICB, forcing West Indies cricket to retrench, and making it impossible for the team to remain in the top rank of cricketing nations.
But even more is at stake than this. Cricket is a source of enormous national and supranational pride for West Indians—both at home and in the diaspora. It is a genuine infusion of income, especially when the England cricket team visit the islands, bringing hordes of pink-faced, beer-swilling, but wealthy fans who fill the hotels, restaurants, nightclubs, and grounds of the islands that host the matches. The loss of an England tour would depress the local economies dramatically.
But perhaps the most telling result of this situation may be for the future of cricket as a sport where individuals come together to represent their nation. One reason why the West Indies players went on strike is that their pay was being slashed. Another reason is that many of them—such as Dwayne Bravo, Kieron Pollard, Darren Sammy, Dwayne Smith, Chris Gayle, and Sunil Narine—can make hundreds of thousands of dollars playing in the Indian Premier League (IPL), a six-week tournament of the shortest form of the game of cricket (T20), which brings in huge crowds, large amounts of sponsorship money, and huge exposure and TV ratings. Other T20 competitions around the world offer similarly handsome pay checks. The West Indies’ players flamboyance and match-winning hitting have made them stars, and brings them months of salary in a matter of weeks. They don’t need to play national cricket to make a living.
Made-for-TV games in front of huge markets, such as are in the Indian subcontinent, threaten to render irrelevant eighty percent of all cricket competitions between nations that aren’t in a big TV market, or don’t have the money to pay their cricketers enough to stop them playing in that big TV market. Unless money is spread more evenly across the game to the poorer nations, the collapse of the West Indies–India tour may portend the end of cricket as we know it.