England anger at Stanford 'garden party'

Players hit out at ECB over concerns at how they will be perceived at home
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The Independent Online

England's players agreed yesterday to continue the quest to win the millions of dollars on offer from Sir Allen Stanford. But they made it clear that they are desperate to get out of Antigua, which has become a kind of hell in paradise for them this week.

Sean Morris, the chief executive of the Professional Cricketers' Association, put their concerns plainly. "There is a feeling that it's turning out to be a bit of a garden party which shouldn't be the case with international cricket," he said.

The man at the centre of events came out slugging, as might be expected of someone who is putting more than $100m (£60m) of his money into this project in the next five years. Sir Allen said: "We are on track and where we want to be. After Saturday, people will have a different idea of what we are trying to achieve here."

Saturday, of course, is when the main event of the so-called Stanford Super Series takes place, the $20m winner-takes-all match between the Stanford Super Stars and England. Stanford pledged to improve the pitch and the lights, both of which have been inadequate, in time for the showdown.

Afterwards, the England and Wales Cricket Board must still decide whether to proceed with the five-year deal they have signed with Stanford. Withdrawal is highly improbable – and the contract they have signed may make it legally difficult – but they have been astonished by the level of criticism even before the main match has taken place and cannot have been comforted by the intervention of a former ECB chairman, Lord MacLaurin, who termed the event a pantomime.

The future of David Collier and Giles Clarke, respectively the ECB's chief executive and chairman, is uncertain. They have not responded to calls from some quarters for them to resign and have no intention of heeding them. If the week gets any worse their positions might become untenable, although Clarke said last night that he has received many messages of support from within the game. Nothing about the week so far has been especially dignified and the suspicion that it is all about the money, and only the money, has not come close to being dispelled.

Morris held a long meeting with the players and while there was never any intention of not playing the match against the Superstars, with $1m of the prize money going to each of the winning side, they are clearly confused and angry with their employers. Indeed, the suspicion is that they are more upset with the ECB than with Stanford, who first flirted with some of their wives and girlfriends, and then compounded that error by walking into England's dressing room.

In an interview with the BBC, Stanford said he did not realise he was sitting with players' partners and had got involved because the cameraman suggested it would be a good shot. Although apologetic, he said his generally outgoing behaviour would not change. "I can't change who I am."

He may not have allayed all the concerns of the players, as Morris intimated. "We are very concerned about how they will be perceived," he said. "The reality is that they're here working because their employers have decided that is where they will come to work. You have to behave a certain way as an English cricketer, you are protecting the heritage and tradition of Team England. Players are concerned that they are open to potential criticism and ridicule. It has made people uncomfortable. Things that should have been taken care of by the ECB haven't been covered and that's genuinely a surprise."

Morris met David Collier, the chief executive of the ECB here yesterday, to try to ensure that the rest of the week goes without trouble. Events have made it impossible for England to concentrate fully on Saturday's match.

"We want to get the players' view across," said Morris. "There are a number of things, like turning up and playing on a wicket that isn't really suitable for international cricket under lights that aren't good enough. There's a sensation that the game has been devalued in terms of a contest because there's a lot of luck involved. This is tied up with things off the field which has created a feeling that it is not the most professional thing they have attended."

Privately, the players are confused as well as angry. Morris said their main concern was how to react if they win the money. They are anxious about how they will be perceived by fans at home.

The five-year deal between the ECB and Stanford involves the Twenty20 for 20 and a quadrangular series in England each summer. After the events of this week MCC are seriously contemplating withdrawal from the latter competition, not wishing Lord's to be the venue for a cricketing circus.

Meanwhile, back at the cricket the difficulty of England's task on Saturday was made clear as the Stanford Superstars defeated Middlesex by 58 runs in the final warm-up match last night. The centrepiece of their innings of 173 for four was 90 in 66 balls, including three fours and seven sixes, by the Grenadan, Andre Fletcher. There appeared nothing wrong with either pitch or ball.

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