Lessons learnt from the ‘Siege of the Excelsior’

It is salutary to be reminded of the media’s influence, particularly when it is negative, ill-informed, or both.

This influence is a crucial factor of our business life, brought blindingly into focus when my company became involved in this month’s not-so-sporting confrontation between the West Indies cricketers and their board.

It all began when West Indies captain Brian Lara and vice-captain Carl Hooper flew to London – instead of to South Africa for a test series – to join up with seven other players, also supposed to be en route to the test venue. They requested that representatives of the West Indies Cricket Board fly to London to discuss a catalogue of grievances, such as increasing their pay and sponsorship opportunities, as well as strengthening the structure of West Indian cricket.

The Board demanded Lara and Hooper return home “to face disciplinary action”, sacked them, and fined the rest of the players. It proved to be a major mistake. The players who were in South Africa flew to London to join their team mates and the “Siege of the Heathrow Excelsior”, named after the hotel where the players were staying, began.

Dr Ali Bacher, managing director of the United Cricket Board of South Africa, arrived from South Africa offering an olive branch, Chamberlain-style, from President Mandela. For a black team to go to South Africa would have been epoch making. Something had to be done. A players’ protest was becoming an international incident.

On November 6, CSS received a call from Brian Lara’s lawyer in Antigua, asking if I could meet the players and bring “a good mediator and a good lawyer”. CSS represents the commercial interests of Lara, who was getting a lot of personal abuse from the press throughout this crisis.

The grievances of the entrapped squad poured out. The unity of purpose was impressive, as was their sincerity in their belief that radical changes had to be made in West Indian cricket.

We published their view in an official statement to the press. The fax machines were fully occupied that night. Some of the press began to swing behind the players. Then Pat Rousseau, president of the West Indies Board, arrived with a delegation and the peace negotiations began.

It took a further 25 hours to hammer out a 14-point agreement, the main thrust of which allows the formation of a players’ pool to attract sponsorship and advertising deals, revenues from which will be split between the board and the players.

Late on Monday evening, the players agreed to travel to South Africa, but suspicions remain. Promises will have to be kept and reforms enacted if there are to be no future disputes.

Hopefully, two lessons have been learnt. Sporting authorities should work with their players and recognise both their professionalism and their right to reasonable rewards. And the press should not be too hasty in making easy judgments.

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