Azharuddin slip fuels conspiracy

All bets are off as exhibition match brings several players accused of match-fixing together on the same pitch

It took as long as the fourth over for the wags to embark on a quite gleeful day's work at The Oval yesterday. Three balls in, the former Zimbabwe batsman Neil Johnson somewhat statuesquely edged the Indian seamer, Javagal Srinath, in the direction of the small slip cordon.

It took as long as the fourth over for the wags to embark on a quite gleeful day's work at The Oval yesterday. Three balls in, the former Zimbabwe batsman Neil Johnson somewhat statuesquely edged the Indian seamer, Javagal Srinath, in the direction of the small slip cordon.

At second slip, Mohammad Azharuddin swooped low but the ball spilled from his palms. This was Azhar, delectable batsman, brilliant fielder, former captain of India, whose whole career and every sublime achievement are in danger of being irrevocably tarnished by allegations of match-fixing.

The conclusion for any conspiracy-theorist wag worth his salt was impossible to ignore. Slip catch, not regulation, not massively difficult, put down early in the day, dropper suspected of previous shady dealings. What was going on? Nothing, of course.

There would have been no sharp practice in the match between Asia and the Rest of the World. There was no need. It was already an exhibition match, organised by the former Prime Minister, John Major, to raise funds for the future development of The Oval. A noble and some would say aesthetically urgent project, which could have no possible interest to bookies anywhere, let alone in New Delhi. Could it?

This was to be a feast of lively, festival cricket before a full house, a match, said Mr Major, "where the emphasis is on seeing the world's top cricketers in action". The possible lack of a competitive edge and the crowd of 18,500, many of them sporting India and Pakistan cricket shirts, bore him out. Maybe he saw this as a way of cricket getting back to basics.

The Rest of the World made 219 for 8 under a blue sky on a blameless pitch. They lost two wickets early, recovered slightly but nobody made the big innings they needed. Nathan Astle, the belligerent, improvising New Zealander, was their top scorer, but was out the next ball after reaching 50. He was helped in a third-wicket stand by the England captain, Nasser Hussain, who has surpassed his score of 45 only three times in his 18 innings this season. But he is not yet fluent, he needed more runs and time here, and England needed them too.

Asia set off at a gallop. Aravinda De Silva was especially rampant. The first wicket fell at 50 and Azhar came into bat. How they cheered. So, the fallen idol whose many houses in India have been searched by tax inspectors searching for evidence of illicitly-gained riches and who faces rigorous questioning when he arrives back, was off the hook here. That did nothing to erode the bizarre aura surrounding the match.

The Asian side had seven Indians, three Pakistanis and one Sri Lankan as well as most of the players fingered in the match-rigging accusations of the past few months. One of the latter bunch was the team's captain. Wasim Akram was asked to take over the duty at the last moment from Sachin Tendulkar, who has chicken pox and withdrew.

A few weeks ago, it might be remembered, Wasim came badly out of the report written by Justice Malik Mohammad Qayyum after his investigation into match-fixing involving Pakistanis. It failed to garner conclusive proof of Wasim's involvement but was still damning and said he should never again captain Pakistan. Presumably, it is perfectly all right to lead Asia. And how he did so. He bowled 10 overs for a mere 33 runs.

Wasim had under his command not only Azhar but also Ajay Jadeja and Nikhi Chopra, all of them named in connection with alleged match-fixing in India. Asia's manager to boot was Kapil Dev, who is also under suspicion.

The World side contained nothing so exotic. That is partly because they were not truly representative - no Aussies, no South Africans - and partly because there were five Englishmen, one of whom was Ben Hollioake, who has not of late covered himself in the sort of glory necessary to be recognised by the World XI selectors minus any region.

Yet their XI, too, were not without a contentious element. Both Hussain and Alec Stewart are centrally contracted and were given permission to play by the England and Wales Cricket Board. Graham Thorpe, too, is in the squad for the Third Test at Old Trafford starting on Thursday. A broken finger or pulled hamstring here would not have gone down well.

To complete the slightly surreal ambience, one of the umpires was Dickie Bird, who retired two years ago and has since become a best-selling author. If anybody was laying bets they should have acquired the spread either on Dickie's first rejection of an lbw appeal (second over from Srinath) or when he burst into tears with the emotion of it all (not recorded).

Almost none of this seemed to matter to a boisterous crowd, who blew trumpets and banged drums all day. Exhibition or World Cup final, they minded not. Good cricket played with a smile was what they required.

It might, just, have persuaded you that the game is in grand fettle after all. But the sinister undercurrent was all-pervasive. There was a flotilla of Indian reporters covering the match and they were not there for the quality of the strokeplay.

Azhar is now openly derided in India and, more importantly, cricket has collapsed in the public regard. Back there now they watch only Tendulkar and, when he is out, turn off the set. The TV companies are aware that support for the game has fallen through the floor.

Cabbies in Bombay and New Delhi are no different than cabbies in London and New York. An Indian reporter said: "Tell them you're going to the game and they'll ask you why you're bothering, because it's fixed." The cricket world needs a strong India, perhaps above all.

You would not have known it at The Oval yesterday but it is a grim business. There was a permanent reminder, however. Adjacent to the ground, moored to an office block, is a hot-air balloon. It advertises Eurobet. Cricket and betting: the link may be inextricable.