Even whiter than white touched by murky world

Stewart is one of the last players you would associate with sleaze, but has still been dragged into the sport's most sordid episode
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The Independent Online

In the murky world of match-fixing it was only a matter of time before the whiter than white became tarnished. Like Hansie Cronje, six months earlier, the name of Alec Stewart is not one you would normally associate with sleaze: gamesmanship, yes, but nothing as grubby as getting into bed with bookmakers. At least that is what cricket supporters and most who have had dealings with him would like to think.

In the murky world of match-fixing it was only a matter of time before the whiter than white became tarnished. Like Hansie Cronje, six months earlier, the name of Alec Stewart is not one you would normally associate with sleaze: gamesmanship, yes, but nothing as grubby as getting into bed with bookmakers. At least that is what cricket supporters and most who have had dealings with him would like to think.

After Lord MacLaurin's trenchant views into corruption in cricket - he recently called for those under suspicion like Wasim Akram to be suspended from playing - it is what the England and Wales Cricket Board would like to think, too. Last night they were standing by their man after Stewart categorically denied taking any money from bookies.

Like most things in this sordid episode that has blighted the game, nothing is copper-bottomed, merely guilt-edged. Stewart, along with Brian Lara and 11 other non-Indian players, among them New Zealand's Martin Crowe, Sri Lanka's Aravinda de Silva, and four current Pakistan Test players, have been implicated to various degrees by the testimony of the Indian bookmaker Mukesh Gupta.

According to Gupta, their involvement ranges from taking money (allegedly £5,000 in Stewart's case during England's 1993 tour of India) for providing information on weather, pitches and team news to deliberately under-performing, as he claims was the case with Lara, during West Indies' tour of India in late 1994.

If true, both are regrettable, but they are a long way apart on severity scale, with Stewart's level of involvement similar to that admitted by Mark Waugh and Shane Warne two years ago. On that occasion, the public's ire was mainly directed at the Australian Cricket Board for covering up the episode for four years. The two players, despite being fined A$7,000 at the time, were found guilty of little more than naïvety and stupidity.

In some ways the report poses more questions than it answers. As India's Central Bureau of Investigation have made clear, hard evidence, apart from an alleged confession by Mohammad Azharuddin, has been thin on the ground. Indeed, they even admit that much of the information furnished by Gupta is uncorroborated and any further investigation is beyond their jurisdiction. As such, the report, begun last May, concludes little other than the involvement by Azharuddin, at least as far as the non-Indian players are concerned, relying as it does upon the confessions of a discredited man.

For that reason, it now falls to the International Cricket Council's Anti-Corruption unit, headed by Sir Paul Condon, to follow any leads thrown up by the CBI and to put some hard facts on the table, a process that Sir Paul has confirmed will commence immediately.

If cricket was ailing after Cronje-gate, the latest revelations provide another body blow to the game. The problem now, after the the roller-coaster ride of the summer, is that a sceptical public will no longer view the extraordinary, such as a batting collapse, with innocent wonderment.

In short, cricket finds itself in an unholy mess, albeit one largely of the ICC's own making. Inaction during the early 1990s and political squabbles over where the problem lay, allowed corruption to take root and spread from its epicentre in Asia.

Gone, too, at least as far as those named by the CBI report, is the notion that innocence, unless categorically proven, will always be presumed. In the current climate, muck will stick, despite creed, colour or reputation.

The need to punish someone is now a priority, and the leniency shown to Waugh and Warne is unlikely to be repeated. After their emergency meeting last May, the ICC introduced punishment tariffs, which can apparently be backdated to July 1993, two years after they introduced the code of conduct.

According to the latest directives, Stewart's alleged wrongdoing would bring a five-year ban, though presumably that could only be enforced providing he had failed to mention it on the declaration form scheduled to be signed by all international players by the end of this month. As a starting point to win back public confidence, these forms are now a matter of urgency.

Such a long ban would be harsh and almost certainly unenforceable by law. If Stewart is guilty of accepting money for such banal information, the penalty should not be clouded by hindsight of recent events, however unpleasant the view.

Back in 1993, players would not have thought twice about giving out such information. Indeed, a friend of mine from Ladbrokes regularly phoned me when I was in the England team to ask just such questions. He never offered to pay me for the information and I certainly never had the slightest suspicion that I was doing anything untoward.

Crowe, who captained New Zealand during the 1990s, more or less confirmed that view yesterday, when he admitted having taken money from Gupta. But if his admission gives the impression that he did not see his actions as wrong, it also gives Gupta's claims, rubbished by Stewart, some real credibility.

After yesterday's blacklist, which included some of the greatest names in the game, it is difficult to know what cricket must do to win back public confidence. In the early 19th century, when corruption within the game was also rife, the banning of several key players appeared to serve as a deterrent before the moral code of muscular Christianity descended to give cricket its reputation as the "Gentleman's game".

In time, Sir Paul and his unit may get to the bottom of the matter, but real change will have to come from the players themselves. Now that there is decent money to be earned in international cricket, the need and temptation to err are receding to the point where only the avaricious, or the stupid, will risk both livelihood and reputations in search of an illicit bung.

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