Cricket West Indies newly elected President Ricky Skerritt has revealed to Cricbuzz that a new selection policy in the Caribbean will see the Caribbean side going into the World Cup with their strongest-possible team, which will be armed with a potential return of some big names and a new regional head coach. Skerritt, who won the election two weeks ago to end the contentious reign of Dave Cameron, has also insisted that “administrative issues, politics or petty emotional situations” will no longer prohibit or prevent players from being considered for selection, and also that the team will go back to being referred to as the West Indies, and not the Windies, from the World Cup onwards.
In a freewheeling and exclusive interview to Cricbuzz,the former team manager also talks about mending fences with the likes of Darren Sammy, appreciating the rights of players to earn incomes in T20 leagues, winning the trust of former greats like Viv Richards, the CPL’s need to contribute more to West Indies cricket and winning back the regional fans.
Considering the kind of reactions around the Caribbean post you winning the election, was your decision to run for presidency almost based on the Edmund Burke quote about, “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”?
To give you a short answer, yes. But I certainly didn’t see myself as some Messiah of goodness coming to the table. I was just frustrated that the resources weren’t going into cricket and the talk from the president (Dave Cameron) at the time was all about money and raising money. At the same time, there were these massive battles taking place off the field and I had this feeling that Cricket West Indies, with all the name changes and all the branding, just wasn’t focused in the right places. It got to a point where I said look it’s now or never. If I don’t fight this battle, who will? And I couldn’t just see anybody else around who wanted or was maybe equipped to.
Was there one point in the last few years where you said, enough is enough?
Enough is enough summarises how I felt at the time late last year when I began to seriously look at getting involved more aggressively. I finally made my decision just after New Year’s Eve, almost as my resolution. I thought now is the time to move on it. I had been one of the four independent directors in the board, but I felt like I was being seen only as an opponent or obstruction to the president. I felt like I was a waste on this board and have had no influence of significance.
You were manager of the team during a difficult period of a different kind at the turn of the millennium. Is it a different Ricky Skerritt that’s returned now or does it feel the same?
When I was a manager out on the road, there was a smaller access to resources than what the teams and management have today. There was just one or if you were lucky two coaches and a strength and conditioning coach. You had to be buying medical services and look for a doctor wherever you went and keep improvising with little support. CWI has grown tremendously since, but the results have declined. The difference today is that you have professionals who are paid by CWI to lead and take decisions but who for various reasons have been stifled. They haven’t been allowed to be empowered. There’s greater potential today in my opinion. Twenty years ago, we were behind the rest of the world in various areas by a long way. Today, we aren’t behind the world in awareness but are behind in implementation.
The results have of course declined but what’s graver has been how the relationship between the players and the board soured during Cameron’s reign as can be seen by the sighs of relief now from so many recently retired players.
I have to admit that I am shocked to find that the relationships were that poor with that many cricketers. As an independent director, I was only aware of the more litigious matters. Then when Phil Simmons was fired, I fought against it. I felt it was a mistake and that it was for the wrong reasons. I felt it could be solved internally without it becoming so acrimonious. You see where that has gone. I didn’t realize that for each one who actually took legal action, there were 20 others who were extremely discontented with the board. Most of our alumni were leaving cricket angry unless they’d been hired by the board like Jimmy Adams, who’s our director of cricket, the selectors and some younger technical coaches. Those guys are employees so therefore have to play the role. There as well, there was a lot of discontent. Though well paid, they weren’t being allowed to do their jobs in a fearless and fair manner. Our biggest challenge is how do you mend all these fences and get these people to trust that there is a new dispensation that welcomes their input and encourages their leadership.
For Sammy to have hit out against the board at the post-match presentation after winning the World T20 final said how bad things had become.
I prefer not to speak too much about the past and a president who was totally confused about his role. But I want to talk about how critical Darren Sammy has been to West Indian cricket, and how he’s carried the trust and hope of Caribbean people everywhere in his heart and on his sleeve and has been a successful captain. For Darren Sammy to end up in a virtual war with the administration, is a piece of our history which we could never feel proud about and we should always make sure never happens in West Indies cricket. We have to engage Darren Sammy and several others who have either ended their careers or are getting to the end of their careers. They must know that West Indies cricket needs them in one form or the other.
So is there a possibility that some high-profile names, who aren’t part of the team for non-cricketing reasons could be back?
In the last two weeks, one of the most critical points that have been embedded as a selection policy is that “If a player can still get selected for the team, they must be considered”. There must be no reason for non-consideration other than cricket or medical or physical health. No administrative issues, politics or petty emotional situations must prohibit or prevent players from being considered for selection.
Will this selection policy ensure that the West Indies will go into the World Cup with their strongest squad possible?
Absolutely and that’s a policy decision which was made even before we got into office. But it became effective immediately on us getting into office as we wanted it to be cemented before the World Cup. The last 10-11 days since the election, we’ve been bringing in changes in terms of personnel and policies to make sure that we can reach out to everybody who wants to play for West Indies. The people responsible for selecting, managing and leading the squad to the World Cup have been reaching out to players who may be interested, to let them know that the policy has changed and to be clear whether they are available or not, so that when the group gets together next week to make their final decision on the squad, they have as wide a slate to choose from as possible. The problem in the recent past we discovered was that it was more an informal policy that hovered over the selectors’ heads. And I suspect they erred on the side of political caution and at times made decisions that hurt the team from being strengthened. That led to the policy makers pointing fingers at the selectors for only picking young people. But we know a successful cricket team needs a mix of seniority and young players.
Will the team also have a new full-time coach for the World Cup?
We are putting in place a very clear policy on that. It’s no disrespect to foreign coaches. We will have international participants in areas where there’s nothing of equal quality available regionally. But regional expertise is a priority for us and was a key area in our 10-point plan. We are very serious about that. That policy too will commence before the World Cup.
This is almost like a request on behalf of world cricket. Can West Indies please go back to being called West Indies and not Windies?
It’s already happening. I didn’t understand the extent to which the Windies brand was being developed. It has been a subject of discussion in the past but strictly from a commercial point of view. When we really got alarmed is what we saw during the qualifiers in Zimbabwe last year with Windies on the players’ shirts. That really upset a lot of people. I can tell you in the World Cup this year, the team will be called West Indies and you’ll see West Indies on the shirt, and you will not see West Indies omitted from the brand name in the near future.
You also come in during an era where a number of T20 stars from West Indies almost prefer playing in the many T20 leagues, and there’ve understandably been issues regarding contracts.
There are different elements to that. One of them is the issue of remuneration and the freedom to pursue one’s career priorities. What concerned me was more how we drove some people away by our own insular and limited outlook on their needs. Players’ needs are crucial. But the needs of cricket are equally crucial. If you are not communicating with players or having cordial discussions and understandings on both sides, and if there’s no trust, then the best players will not sacrifice anything for what they consider to be the board. We will not ask players to sacrifice anything for the board. We will be reminding players about their responsibility to give back to cricket. I can tell you with my own conversations with some of these players that they would ideally prefer, given the right opportunity, to also play for the West Indies. In no way, will we be upset or disrespectful towards the rights of players to earn an income wherever they can. What we have to do is give them options that make sense to them and us. We cannot dismiss somebody for making a career decision.
Twelve months on from qualifying for the World Cup, the West Indies couldn’t ask for a better time to welcome back some big names then.
That process of having to qualify just to get into the World Cup is one of the most humiliating periods in our cricket history. It was a very depressing thought. But the reality is we haven’t won that World Cup for 40 years. We really have been struggling in ODI cricket and the qualifying process in the final analysis was a wake-up call that we needed. If we were able to get one or two players back into the mix, who themselves like Chris Gayle were worried about the situation, and decided to come back in. I think that it was a good start to a new era. We have to make sure that it’s taken to the next level and it cannot be business as usual.
In addition to on and off field issues, CWI has also been battling on the financial front, especially after the ill-fated tour of India in 2014. How big a concern is that for you?
Finance is a very serious issue and there are some endemic problems. One of the main problems is we have a very small, local market. So, we don’t have the big-ticket income items like the gate receipts and sponsorship money that other teams do. We don’t have a domestic broadcast market. You can’t sign a big deal with a broadcaster for local cricket or for home series. You have to go with broadcast rights for an international series and even there only an India or England, to a lesser extent Australia, series can bring you sufficient money. One has to simply forecast very well, and make sure that you spend the resources you have efficiently. For me the bigger problem is how do you allocate resources and make sure there’s a focus and strong commitment to the development of grassroots cricket. You’ve heard me talk about the High Performance system, which as little as it was, was quite well put together. But it was completely shut down for a variety of reasons, but now we’re trying to put that back in place.
Does it bother you that the financial issues have ensured that CWI is over-dependent on the BCCI and the bigger boards?
I am very new in the ICC arena but I’m a believer in what you can control at the moment, you try and get greater control down the road and work in that direction. It’s about having positive, respectful and trustworthy relationships, and I believe that we can achieve that with all boards across the board. The Indian market is the largest market, and it will continue to be critical for world cricket and for West Indies players to earn a healthy living by being good at what they do. We should be proud of that. We cannot dismiss India because they’re not cooperating the way we want them to. We have to find a way of influencing them. I am convinced that in the time I have as a president that we will have a very good relationship with all boards but especially those on whom we depend on very heavily for revenue.
You recently met up with the likes of Sir Richie Richardson, Sir Viv Richards and Sir Andy Roberts, and that’s a generation who always sound like they’ve given up on West Indies cricket.
These guys are wise and have been around the world. They are not just going to celebrate because I’ve become president. They’ve been burnt so badly and therefore don’t trust CWI. And that’s not going to change overnight. I’m fortunate to know a lot of them personally. Sir Viv is a longstanding friend. I had the pleasure of managing a Leeward Islands team 29 years ago when he was coming to the end of his career. We have played golf together, and he was chairman of selectors when I was manager of the West Indies team. I have great respect for these players and their pasts and the ability to contribute today. They know it. But they want to wait and see. Most of them wanted to see the back of my predecessor. But at the same time, they don’t trust the board to deliver on the changes that are badly needed. I am going to have to prove to them that we will be different by what we do and not by what we say.
The domestic cricket structure has come under flak for years now. But you have sounded impressed by the franchise system.
I am a supporter of the system. It has the potential and I have seen an improvement. But it has not been enough. It’s been sort of left to float too much on its own. Some boards are doing much better than others, and usually they blame finance. The CWI cash-flow issues have resulted in all the boards being owed large sums of money, which limits their abilities to do what they need to. One issue is that during this time of the year with the IPL break, there are some players who are part of the tournament, but we need to ensure that the players left behind are being monitored in terms of their cricket and fitness.
Where do you stand with the CPL? Players love to be there but do you think it has benefited West Indian cricket or is it just benefiting foreign investors?
The CPL is a good thing but the CPL needs to be better for West Indies cricket than it is currently. The commercial side of the league and its competitiveness with other cricket in the region has caused some concern. The extent to which personnel are brought in from outside is not always understood by local boards. The CPL though is a CWI product. We don’t own it completely, but we do have a small share in it. I’ll be meeting with the CPL people soon and there was already some talk to do more for emerging players so that their system helps West Indies cricket go back to the top of the world.
Are West Indians even invested into cricket like they were say even 20 years ago when you were the manager?
It’s a concern. At the CPL games, there are thousands of young fans having a tremendous party, but that’s not enough to bring cricket’s popularity back. We also need to have young people wanting to play cricket, not only to ensure we have a wider cadre of players coming through. But also to ensure cricket regains its prominent place in our culture. We need to have more role models like we did while growing up. When you saw a Richards walk out, we knew he was going to fight a battle on behalf of millions of people in the Caribbean and win it. Young people here have more role models in soccer than cricket today. We need to create an environment where youngsters are playing cricket and therefore aren’t just partying in the stands without having a reasonable idea of what’s taking place on the field.
From being an insider to being on the periphery to now being back at the helm, how have you kept your hopes alive around West Indies cricket?
I was frustrated about internal matters but I wasn’t totally frustrated with the cricket. One of the saving graces here, contrary to what is said by commentators around the world who take only a cursory look, is that there’s no shortage of cricket talent in the Caribbean. There are enough gifted people and the West Indian way of cricket still lives. It needs to be nurtured better. The world has seen some of them come through. There are more there. You kind of keep the hope alive and keep wishing. But prayer and best wishes are supporting acts, but they don’t produce best cricketers. It’s about putting some management principles in place without forgetting the cricket. Sometimes you get so caught up in solving finance and HR issues, and fighting people in court, that you lose sight of the fact that this is about cricket. That’s what we are not going to do. It’s about giving the team the best opportunity of winning so that the better team wins and not just the better-prepared team. We just haven’t prepared ourselves for victory like we need to, and victories have happened by accident. But it’s coming. It’s coming. The only issue is that we as a group have to be in a crisis mode almost on a number of flanks simultaneously.