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Cricket: ICC leaves players feeling blue

THE SPECTRE of suspension from an unspecified number of World Cup matches hung over three England players, including the captain Alec Stewart yesterday.

The trio are sponsored by Slazenger and, in an attempt to bring a bit more colour to the one-day game, the sports equipment manufacturers launched their blue bat campaign. Slazenger have painted their charges' bats blue - Stewart's bats were not available in time for yesterday's World Cup opener against Sri Lanka but the others' were - and the plan was for them to take on the Sri Lankans at headquarters with the new colour scheme.

But according to sources close to the epicentre of the row, the International Cricket Council, the world game's governing body, went puce with indignation at the idea of introducing the blues to the tournament and warned that if any of the players attempted to use a coloured bat they would be liable to immediate suspension. Graeme Hick clearly did not want to take any risks and emerged with a standard bat.

But while no one from Slazenger was available for comment yesterday, it is understood that there is no legal reason for the players not to paint their bats. All three are apparently happy with the idea of using the blue bats, particularly since the paint would not have any effect at all on their performances and, according to experts, the paint would even make it easier for the umpires to spot edges to slip and wicketkeeper. Last night the situation had not been resolved.

Another situation which has not been resolved is the ticklish one involving the egg-and-ketchup-tie brigade, aka the members of Marylebone Cricket Club. Yesterday there were not very many of them at Lord's to see England get the competition under way.

The empty seats in the Pavilion and members' and friends' stands prompted Chris Rea, MCC's head of marketing, to say: "It is embarrassing, there is no other word for it. Members bought all but 400 of the allocation of 8,000 for this match."

Rea indicated the banks of empty seats, none of which would have been available to the public even if they had remained unsold because they were for members only, was a poor advertisement for the tournament. "It doesn't look good, there is no masking that."

An inconclusive and heated annual meeting just over a week ago had left the membership miffed over the fact that they were expected to pay - albeit at a 25 per cent discount -- for the privilege of watching all the World Cup matches at Lord's.

Traditionally MCC membership entitles them to watch every match at Lord's free of charge, but for yesterday's game they had to pay the top price of pounds 60 for a ticket, less their discount. That price applies to all matches up to the final on 20 June at which point the tickets' face value will rise to a well-rounded pounds 100, or a net pounds 75 to the members.