England have embarked on a most bizarre venture. At the whim of their employers and a Texan multibillionaire, they are gathering in Antigua this weekend to play a cricket match next Saturday for a winner-takes-all purse of $20m (some £12.9m and seemingly fluctuating upwards by the hour). It is the richest prize competed for in team sport, although the original intention that the winners would keep the entire pot has been diluted.
Instead, the triumphant XI will receive $1m a man with the rest of the loot dispersed in several directions. For the losers nothing, not a sou or a brass farthing, except, presumably, heartfelt thanks for coming from the opposition and the eternal ingratitude of team-mates for anybody making a horrendous cock-up.
The format of the game is the new sensation, Twenty20, and it will all be over in three hours. It is between (and this is the most bizarre, unsettling aspect of it) England and the Stanford Superstars XI. That is the official England XI, the best players to be mustered from these shores picked by the official selectors, against a team raised privately from around the Caribbean, some international players, some patently not, and nominated by a panel invited by Sir Allen Stanford, the sponsor of the entire proceedings.
There is a series of warm-up matches starting today – including one involving the England domestic champions, Middlesex, against the West Indies Twenty20 winners, Trinidad & Tobago, in which $400,000 is up for grabs – but essentially the week is all about the big one at the privately owned Coolidge ground. "Twenny twenny for twenny" as Sir Allen has memorably labelled it in his booming, enthusiastic Texan drawl. The match is authorised but only quasi-official. It is not an international, it is a one-off, or at least the first in a series of five such games in the next five years.
The money is the story, the only story. Despite the attempts by the England and Wales Cricket Board to invest the affair with some nobility by suggesting that they are playing it to benefit Caribbean cricket at large, since the cash-strapped West Indies Cricket Board will receive $3.5m as their cut, but nobody truly believes that.
It is possible to have some sympathy with the players and the ECB, if sympathy can be at all in order with such riches at hand. The former are pretty uncomfortable about the match and know that in cricketing terms it is meaningless. The latter found the money impossible to reject and felt it was their duty to the game to seal the deal. Sir Allen had shopped round the idea of an exhibition match for a couple of years and had approached South Africa, India and Sri Lanka. But then the cash was $5m. He probably knew, as all rich men do, that everyone has a price and it was a case of upping the ante until he hit on it.
There is nothing inherently new in this. Rich men have always raised cricket teams. Or poor men have raised them in the hope of becoming rich. The history of the game is liberally sprinkled with examples. Sir Julien Cahn, a Nottinghamshire furniture maker, regularly fielded an XI in the 1920s and 1930s because it suited him. He was passionate about the game but inept at it. In 1929 he took (and paid for) a team to the West Indies which included eight Test cricketers and Sir Julien himself batting at 11. So far, Sir Allen has expressed no desire actually to play the game.
Nor is the idea of an England XI being for hire completely novel. In 1846, William Clarke, a Nottingham publican who was a master of underarm spin bowling, saw an entrepreneurial opportunity. Unhappy with MCC's season ending early while its leading lights went off to shoot grouse, he formed an All England touring side for hard-pressed professionals. It took the game to unusual places – for cash – and it was a huge hit among the public and for its one-eyed founder.
The last incarnation of an extremely rich man getting involved on such a big-money scale was when the Australian television mogul Kerry Packer, miffed at being denied broadcasting rights to official cricket, formed his own competition, buying the world's top performers. Officially World Series Cricket, it became known disparagingly as Kerry Packer's Circus. Boy, did he show the establishment and famously said: "We're all harlots, what's your price?"
Sir Allen Stanford came to cricket's notice for the first time three years ago. He had long been part of the fabric of Antigua, instrumental in much of the business and property dealing there. Recognising that cricket was still the glue that held the Caribbean together as an entity, he thought it was time to be a part of the action.
But his involvement would not have happened had it not been for the advent of Twenty20. It was a whiz-bang form of the game that the American could relate to. He built his own ground next door to Antigua's airport and in 2006 started his own competition for Caribbean teams. And he also developed his own Stanford brand, personified by the use of black bats. It was a tremendous success – if not exactly replete with cricket of an exceptional standard – and Sir Allen was hooked. It was fast moving and slick, sport and showbiz.
Soon after, he decided he wanted to expand his franchise and went hunting for international rivals. This was to culminate in his landing in a helicopter on the Nursery Ground at Lord's last June. After being feted by ECB dignitaries as if he was a Messiah (and perhaps they thought he was) he announced the match which will take place next Saturday and then unveiled a perspex chest which contained $20m in cash in case anybody there did not know what it looked like.
It was faintly obscene, though perhaps that was a judgement reached only by those who were too deeply rooted in the traditional formats of cricket and were unwilling to move with the times. Nonetheless when Sir Allen made it clear that he had no time whatever for Test cricket (but did not mind people who did) the suspicion grew that in worshipping this particular saviour the compromise might be too great.
English cricket has not been short of cash. The ECB have signed three lucrative television deals in succession, one with Channel 4, the next two with Sky, but every little helps. This jaunt will gross the ECB, like the WICB, $3.5m. Do not be surprised if some of that finds its way to hard-up county clubs by way of appeasing some of them who feel unloved.
So it would seem that this Twenny twenny for twenny match, despite its raison d'etre, is doing English and West Indies a world of good. Not so, actually. England, who like to think of themselves as both influential and powerful in cricket and indeed should be so, have been left behind since the announcement of the Stanford match. They had already been astonished by the success of the Indian Premier League, which featured the world's leading players and became must-see television on the sub-continent. Most of the world's leading players, that is, except the England boys who had to be in this country playing early season matches for their county and country.
Denied deals which would have earned them anywhere between £150,000 and £500,000 for six weeks' work the Stanford deal was seen as a sop. Indeed, if they win, it will make a considerable difference. But in truth, England have become outsiders looking in at the world of Twenty20, a game they first invented to great public acclaim in 2003. The IPL continues to go from strength to strength and its second version next year promises to be more spectacular than the first.
England were then utterly wrong-footed over the Champions League, a competition supposed to be featuring the domestic champions and runners-up from four countries: India, Australia, South Africa and England. But England found themselves irrevocably weakened by the participation by some of their players in the Indian Cricket League, a rival to the IPL which the Board of Control for Cricket in India loathed. None of its players and none of the clubs they represented could take part in the Champions League.
The next thing England knew, the other three countries had become founder members of the competition and invited just one team from England. Still, England had set great store in the formation of their own Twenty20 Premier League, starting in 2010 and featuring world stars. Yesterday that seemed a non-starter when it emerged that Australia, New Zealand and South Africa are deep in talks about their own Twenty20 tri-series, to be city based and probably to be played around October from 2011. What price the English Premier League after that? No price at all.
England will be mightily relieved that they have Sir Allen Stanford for company in the lonely days ahead. They will need him for succour as well as the money. But one question above all raises its head. With all this Twenty20 and the associated money sloshing around, whither Test cricket? The answer may be for another day but it will not make comfortable listening, except maybe to Sir Allen Stanford.
The man behind the millions
Sir Allen Stanford's business is wealth management. He was named as the USA's 239th richest man in the Forbes magazine's annual list last year.
Hailing from Texas, where his grandfather founded their still private company in 1932, he resides largely in the US Virgin Islands. He first arrived in Antigua 26 years ago, where he runs an offshore bank and owns acres of land and property. Some of his dealings have been the target of criticism.
Stanford, 58, was knighted by the Antiguan government in 2006 for his role in the country's development. In the same year he founded the Stanford Twenty20, featuring 20 Caribbean teams, seeing it as a chance to reignite passion for the sport in the region.
It was an immediate success and he has long sought to inject an international element. Via England he has found it, though the match was briefly in some doubt after action by the official sponsors of West Indies cricket, Digicel.
The credit crunch may or may not have affected Stanford's core business of providing investment advice to the very rich, but his key strategy is pragmatic: "Although we may not out-perform the indices during a bull cycle, our investment is one of long-term consistency through bull and bear markets."
The facts of Stanford cricket
*The Stanford Super Series consists of four teams who play each other over the next week – the Stanford Superstars (17 players chosen by a West Indies selection panel), Middlesex (winners of the English Twenty20 Cup), England and Trinidad and Tobago.
*All fixtures will take place at the 5,000-capacity Stanford Cricket Ground in Antigua, with matches starting at 9.30pm British time, except for tonight's Stanford versus Trinidad & Tobago match, which begins at 10.30pm.
*SUPER SERIES FIXTURES
Stanford Superstars v Trinidad & Tobago
England v Middlesex
Trinidad & Tobago v Middlesex
England v Trinidad & Tobago
Stanford Superstars v Middlesex
Saturday 1 Nov
Stanford Superstars v England
All games live on Sky Sports 1
*England have never won a match in Antigua, drawing three and losing three of their six Test matches played on the island as well as losing two ODIs.