Johnny Grave’s inbox, at what used to be Allen Stanford’s ground in Antigua, is pretty full but he is relishing the challenge ahead.
It’s probably appropriate that Johnny Grave, the new WICB chief executive, is making his new base at Coolidge, the old Stanford ground, in Antigua.
It’s a place that had become a symbol of West Indies’ decline. At the start of January, it was overgrown and boarded up. Shrubs had grown on the outfield and the grass was knee high. It provided nothing more than a painful memory of the time West Indies cricket (and English cricket, to be fair) jumped into bed with Allen Stanford.
But it might also become a symbol for Caribbean cricket’s resurgence. It might also reflect Grave’s ability to take something that appears broken and make it into something good. Because, right now, the WICB are, in partnership with the government of Antigua & Barbuda, in the process of buying the ground from Stanford’s receivers.
When the deal is complete, the site will be the new base for West Indies cricket. It will house the high performance centre, the corporate offices and most other departments of an organisation that has a turnover of around USD40m and employs 45 people. The old Sticky Wicket restaurant, where Stanford used to entertain, will be rented out to provide income. The ground, with its pleasing grass banks and capacity of around 8,000, has already hosted some Super-50 games, including this year’s final. It is slowly coming back to life. Maybe West Indies cricket is, too.
Grave admits he has a long ‘to do’ list. But while he is keen to address match start times (international T20 games had been scheduled to start at 9.30am to appeal to the international broadcast market), ticket prices (prices for the ODI series against England are around USD75, which may be okay for England’s travelling supporters, but is steep for the local market) and securing the future of an organisation with no assets and, tied to a 50-year – yes, 50-year – CPL commercial deal, he has one priority that is more pressing than all: he wants to reengage with West Indies cricket supporters who may have lost faith in both the board and their team.
“I thought my biggest challenges would be improving our relationship with the players and attracting more commercial income,” he says. “But I now believe it’s improving our relationships with our supporters and repairing the brand.
To that end he intends to prioritise West Indies’ supporters in future decision making. “I do understand the importance of our overseas broadcasters but what about our home market?” he says. “Who comes to watch T20 at 9.30am? We must find the right balance.
“And yes, we need to invest in grassroots cricket to stop the longer form of the game from dying here. But when you see only 400 people attend the first day of a Test, you do wonder if in some islands it’s dead already.”
Yet optimism abounds. Aged 40, Grave has the energy and positivity of a man who has yet to be disappointed by bureaucracy. He has the ambition to prove himself and the experience, both commercially (he spent seven years with Surrey’s commercial department and, after that, 10 in the Professional Cricketers’ Association) and as a union employee, to build bridges and relationships with sponsors, players, spectators and broadcasters. It’s not hard to see why he was chosen for the job.
“I don’t think people in the Caribbean have fallen out of love with cricket,” Grave says. “But they may have fallen out of love with the WICB. We are going to have to work hard to regain their love. We have to repair that relationship and reignite their love for West Indies cricket.”
There are already practical steps being taken to turn the talk into action. The WICB has appointed a centrally contracted curator (or groundsman, depending on where you live) to travel through the region providing advice and assistance on the surfaces required for international cricket, in particular. The days of West Indies offering painfully slow, attritional wickets are, according to Grave, going to end. Jimmy Adams and Stuart Law, the new director of cricket and coach, want the quick, bouncy surfaces which used to characterise Caribbean cricket. As he puts it: “West Indies cricket is popular around the world for the style and excitement it offers. But you can’t have carnival cricket on the some of the wickets we’ve had in the past. It has to change.”
Meanwhile, an olive branch has been offered to Darren Bravo. And, contrary to reports elsewhere, his NOC was signed “within five minutes of receiving it” according to Grave. “We’re not going to be withholding NOCs,” he says. “There’s no future in that.” Bravo will, therefore, be free to travel to the IPL and welcome to return to the West Indies fold upon his return. Yes, there will have to be a form of public apology – perhaps from both sides – but there is no attempt to humiliate or shame. Just resolve.
Perhaps most importantly, Grave is open to looking into a new system of central contracts subject to financial and board approval. Instead of three different bands, he suggests three separate contracts for each of Test, ODI and T20I cricket may be more suitable. He is realistic about the competing demands of overseas T20 leagues and has no intention of going head-to-head with the IPL – “it may well be our season has to stop before the IPL starts,” he says – but feels that, with just a bit of compromise, this can be “a win-win” situation for the players, the board and, most importantly, the spectators.
He also favours cricket’s return to the Olympics, a Test Championship and a World T20 every two years. “[The Olympics] is the only way we’ll crack the American and even Chinese markets,” he says. “I know there will be practical problems, but we can find a resolution, I’m sure. It’s essential if we really want to be a global game.”
Having attended his first ICC meeting, where Test cricket was high on the agenda, he says “there was a remarkable level of consensus about the need for context”. The 50-over World Cup will, he believes, continue well beyond 2019 but West Indies may already have played their last Champions Trophy match. Meanwhile the start time of T20 games against Pakistan will be put back to 12.30pm, the latest the current broadcast deal will allow, and in future ticket prices will be aimed at the local market.
While Richard Pybus’ reputation divides opinion – his hard line stance towards selection has caused some division and looks certain to be reviewed – Grave is quick to praise his contribution as director of cricket in other areas. Certainly Pybus’ work in establishing professional leagues for the game in the Caribbean should be his real legacy. It’s less glamorous than the work around the international teams, but it provides the foundations upon which future West Indies teams can be built and has meant, for the first time, that regional players are employed on a professional basis earning between USD15,000 – 30,000 a year. His successor, Jimmy Adams, may well come to be grateful for that aspect of Pybus’ efforts.
There are going to be no threats or ultimatums against those playing in T20 leagues or taking the Kolpak option, either. Instead Grave hopes to persuade the majority of Caribbean players that their future can be more rewarding within the fold.
“I see the Kolpak situation as advantageous to West Indies cricket,” he says. “If you are a young player looking at a career in the game, the possibility of spending the last few years of your career as a Kolpak makes the proposition of a life as a professional cricketer more realistic. Yes, we may lose some players towards the twilight of their careers – the likes of Ravi Rampaul, who has served West Indies cricket well but has an opportunity to make some decent money in the last few years of his career – but we may also keep a few who otherwise might have thought the risk of playing cricket too big to justify.”
But what of the prospect of losing younger players to Kolpak or T20 leagues?
“I don’t know how many of them, if any, would be better off doing that,” he says. “By the time you’ve paid your agents fees and taxes, you don’t make as much money as you think. And to rule yourself out of international cricket and the shop window that represents… I’d have thought any young player going that route had been poorly advised.
“Can we really compete on the global stage without our best players? I’d think the answer to that is no.
“But we’re not going to be held to ransom. People have to be reasonable in their expectations. But if we can communicate what we’re trying to do with everyone involved, I hope we can take them with us in the direction we need to go. We all want the same thing. If we work together, we have a much better chance of achieving it.”
“And while I had heard quite a lot about the tensions between the board and players, my impression so far has been very positive. Jason Holder brought the whole team into the office last Friday and introduced them to all the staff. It was their day-off but he felt it was important and they spent several hours here. It was very impressive and very encouraging.”
It all sounds great, doesn’t it? But we’ve heard encouraging talk before. Grave certainly isn’t the first well-intentioned cricket administrator. Might he find his ideas thwarted and frustrated by board and committees and grievances of which he knows nothing and which go back years?
“I don’t get that impression at all,” he says. “The President [Dave Cameron] and I share the same vision and so far he’s entrusted me to get on with the job. He’s been very supportive. I think the board want to empower the executive to make decisions and that’s the message I’m passing on to everyone who works here. There is a lot to do, but we can do it. I’m very excited by the possibilities.
“Look, I don’t yet know much about the differing characteristic of each of the territories or the tensions that might exist between them. I’ve no baggage and I don’t want any of us to be weighed down by that stuff. We need positive relationships with all of our stakeholders and we all have to look forward.”
Just about every Caribbean dawn is spectacular. But this feels different. It feels like a new start. These are early days and there will, no doubt, be snags along the way. But for the first time in many years, it feels as if there is cause for optimism in Caribbean cricket.