"Everybody looks at T20 cricket and they want to play that format as opposed to playing Tests. It is a matter of choice. Why work for five days if you can work for three hours?” © AFP

“Everybody looks at T20 cricket and they want to play that format as opposed to playing Tests. It is a matter of choice. Why work for five days if you can work for three hours?” © AFP

There are very few people in the world who have the option of not looking up to Joel “The Big Bird” Garner. And most of them are hustling ball in the National Basketball Association league in the United States of America. At 6’ 8”, Garner is, to put it mildly, an imposing figure.

At 63, and currently manager of the West Indies team, Garner is the epitome of the gentle giant characterisation, although batsmen who faced him between 1977 and 1987 would disagree vociferously. Generating steep bounce from a good length from an action that some said had the effect of releasing the ball from the clouds and then breaking toes with a yorker that was decades ahead of its time, Garner was more than a handful in an era when fast bowling was at its most fertile.

He only claimed seven five-wicket hauls in 58 Tests, but that was because the wickets were shared so equitably among the fearsome West Indian quartets of the day. His average of 20.97 is testament to how difficult batsmen found it to score off him, and 259 scalps is no reflection of the clear and present danger he posed. If he was excellent in Tests, Garner was unplayable in One-Day Internationals, the shortest format of the game around in his time. Garner picked up 146 wickets at 18.84 apiece and batsmen managed just 3.09 runs per over against him in the long run.

Today, the manager of the West Indies team is also the president of the Barbados Cricket Association and a director of the West Indies Cricket Board. And, while he did not have much to say to batsmen back in the day – and why would you, when a cold stare could send blood pressure soaring – Garner is now outspoken on a number of issues.

The major one plaguing the West Indies at the moment is the proliferation of Twenty20 leagues and cricket at the cost of the longer forms of the game, especially Test cricket. “I think everybody looks at the Twenty20 cricket and they want to play that format of the game as opposed to playing the longer version of the game, and, you know, it is a matter of choice. Why work for five days if you can work for three hours?” asks Garner. “I think that that’s the mentality and it’s something that we’ve got to try and change in terms of how our players look at the cricket and the type of cricket our players want to play.”

“I don’t think that the players take that little bit extra to do things on their own, and I don’t think that everything can be structured or everything can be done in a… I think that what you have to do is that, it is a responsibility that we have to take where it’s a culture that we have to change and a culture that we have to grow from within the team, where training is an integral part of what we do. When you look at our cricket, we are challenging maybe up to Under-19. If you look at every world competition, when you look at them, West Indies is there. Where we have the challenge is when we go away.”

In Barbados, where Garner can actually put in play some changes to stem the rot, it has not been easy. “My challenges are different from the rest of the region. If you look at the budget for Barbados, it’s maybe five-and-a-half million, six million dollars. If you look at all the other territories which play cricket, you can look at their budgets and you can see how much money they are spending on the developmental stages. My challenges are, in that, we have systems and everything in place, but like everything else, I think that is a lot of organised cricket,” explains Garner.

“I don’t think that the players take that little bit extra to do things on their own, and I don’t think that everything can be structured or everything can be done in a… I think that what you have to do is that, it is a responsibility that we have to take where it’s a culture that we have to change and a culture that we have to grow from within the team, where training is an integral part of what we do. When you look at our cricket, we are challenging maybe up to Under-19. If you look at every world competition, when you look at them, West Indies is there. Where we have the challenge is when we go away.”

Garner is not entirely sure what can be done to change the landscape, although he is sure that the time to act is now. “Drastic situations call for drastic measures and I think that while T20 cricket is a money-spinner, and a money-earner, if we really want to be on top of the world, we might have to do things a little differently. We must get used to playing the longer version of the game, get people to become more professional, and I think that if we can get them to become more professional, then performances will improve,” he said. “We are fortunate that we can play 10 games now as opposed to five. Is 10 games enough in a year? When I played, I played 20-something or 40-something games in a year playing County cricket, and that is where the strength of the cricket is – the more you play, the more you get accustomed to it, the harder the cricket is, and the more professional you become.”

It’s fairly unusual for anyone in the West Indies to call for professionalism in any walk of life, leave alone cricket. And when the call comes, the question is, is anyone listening?