Cricket: Sponsor presses for Lara reprieve

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THE CRISIS surrounding the West Indies' proposed Test series in South Africa took a new twist last night when it emerged that a sponsor had been found for the tourists. A deal has been struck by the former South African wicketkeeper, David Richardson, who was approached by the West Indies' Cricket Board.

Richardson, a lawyer, now runs the only sports marketing company, ESPM, based in Johannesburg. He told South African cricket's leading official, Ali Bacher, that the deal had been struck on Friday.

Speaking at the Heathrow Hotel, where negotiations between the WICB and the striking players were still continuing yesterday, Bacher said: "I told Chris Dehring, the West Indies marketing manager, about the deal when he arrived here. The players don't know about it yet but I expect they will be told during negotiations."

Speaking in South Africa, Richardson said that his firm had been appointed by the West Indies Board to help raise sponsorship long before the current dispute arose. Richardson stressed that the deal had nothing to do with the United Cricket Board of South Africa. "This has nothing to do with them. The sponsors will be a West Indian Board sponsor," he said.

"The fact that it is a South African company and the money is coming out of South Africa is not really the point."

However, Richardson strongly hinted that the sacked team captain Brian Lara and vice-captain Carl Hooper would be vital to the deal and would have to be reinstated. Meanwhile, the head of SABC television sports department, Edward Griffiths, said the presence of the two batsman was vital for full coverage of the tour.

The national broadcaster holds the right to screen world tour matches. Griffiths said: "We won't put up with anything less than a full strength side. "

Bacher added: "It's good money. But we want to announce the full details when the team arrives in South Africa."

He was still confident that the tour would start on time tomorrow. "There are four flights out of Heathrow tonight and we have made a provisional booking for the West Indies' players," he said.

"We're expecting 300,000 people to come to the five Tests. I think that black support will be especially strong in Port Elizabeth and in Cape Town I expect 30 per cent of the crowd will be coloured with a strong Indian presence in Durban."

Earlier yesterday the West Indian Board president, Pat Rousseau, opened talks with Courtney Walsh, Brian Lara and Carl Hooper, trying to settle the pay dispute. Rousseau, who travelled overnight from the Caribbean, fired Lara and Hooper on Wednesday over demands for better pay, setting off the boycott.

"The president coming is good news," Walsh said. "It's not just about money, it's general conditions and everything."

Asked as he entered the talks if Lara and Hooper would be reinstated, Rousseau replied: "I can't answer that right now."

Bacher said he was hopeful a resolution was at hand. "I remain optimistic that we will get a solution today once the two parties sit down and talk to each other," he said. "I am scheduled to leave on the 9.15 plane tonight. The first prize would be to get the players out tonight, the second prize would have them travelling tomorrow."

West Indian management and striking players are camped in neighbouring hotels near Heathrow airport. The tour is scheduled to start with a one- day match in Johannesburg tomorrow.