Major attraction ignores scandal

Sell-out Oval crowd came to praise not condemn heroes troubled by match fixing

John Major wore that self-satisfied grin once so familiar when he was having a particularly good day at Prime Minister's Question Time. He is now chairman of Surrey, the county to which he has always been as much attached as to the House of Commons, and, on Saturday, he presided over a sunlit Oval packed to its 18,500 capacity with a joyous, cosmopolitan crowd for the first time since last year's World Cup.

John Major wore that self-satisfied grin once so familiar when he was having a particularly good day at Prime Minister's Question Time. He is now chairman of Surrey, the county to which he has always been as much attached as to the House of Commons, and, on Saturday, he presided over a sunlit Oval packed to its 18,500 capacity with a joyous, cosmopolitan crowd for the first time since last year's World Cup.

They were there for a match involving some of cricket's most famous players, in teams representing Asia and the Rest of the World, with the sole purpose of raising money for what the former Prime Minister termed "an exciting new development" at the old ground - a "magnificent building" to house a museum and an academy at the Vauxhall end. The occasion was expected to net a third of the necessary £18m through sponsorship, gate receipts and television rights.

Only the day before, Major had become a grandfather for the first time with the arrival of a son for James and Emma. What more could a man ask for? Well, even for someone for so long emersed in the world of political intrigue, he could have done without the fact that, since he and his committee had influenced the players into coming, several had suddenly become somewhat lessfamous and considerably moreinfamous than they were.

Mohammad Azharuddin, Ajay Jadeja and Nikhil Chopra should have been more wary of the possible presence of anonymous Indian tax inspectors than Courtney Walsh's leg-cutters. This was the first time they had appeared on a cricket ground since - following the startling confirmation by the former South African captain Hansie Cronje of the involvement of Bombay bookmakers in the game - their houses and those of their relatives were raided and their bank accounts investigated for evidence by Indian police. The legendary Kapil Dev, who assembled the Asian side and was given the post as manager before being subjected to the same grilling,remained mainly in the sanctuary of the dressing-room.

Wasim Akram, the great Pakistani all-rounder, had also been implicated in the detailed report on match-fixing by Judge Mohammed Qayyum, who recommended that he was not fit ever again to lead his country, as he had done until as recently as January. Yet he has since continued to play for Pakistan and when Sachin Tendulkar, the most celebrated of all Indian players and one above suspicion, came down with chicken pox, Wasim was named as captain in his place. Presumably, whoever made the decision had not read Qayyum's conclusions - or else did not care.

Certainly, the thousands who turned out on one of the finest days of the summer for what what was simply an exhibition did not seem to care either. The quick consensus among the throng clogging the Oval tube station at the end was that the Indian police might be well assembling incriminating evidence but Azharuddin, Jadeja, Chopra and Kapil Dev have not been proven guilty and that Qayyum was a High Court judge under a Prime Minister now serving time for, among other things, corruption.

More to the point was that they had not seen their heroes - and, whatever else, that is what they still are to Asians in this country - since the World Cup and did not know when they would again.

There were the inevitable jibes. "Is this match fixed?" asked one sign. Another, more imaginatively, proclaimed: "This match is sponsored by Salim Malik". The irony was not lost on those who faced the Vauxhall End beyond which a hot-air balloon would intermittently rise during the day, its sponsors' name prominent. It was eurobet.com.

If, as reported, some Surrey officials and members were embarrassed, they did not include their chairman, their former chairman, Mickey Stewart, who presented the man of the match award, or the England and Wales Cricket Board, which released Nasser Hussain to play for the World (although, born in Madras, he would have qualified for Asia) as did Graham Thorpe and Allan Mullally. Ben Hollioake was the fourth Englishman, included as a late replacement for Shane Warne (injured knee).

If any of its officials did attend, what the ECB might have gleaned from the exercise was that a day's cricket can be fun without all the razzmatazz the board has designed of late. There was no live rock band in the interval, no precision parachutists, no roller-ball competitions, no lights, no trouble. There were flags and horns and thousands of fans there to enjoy the play. The majority even celebrated when their team lost, by seven runs.

But then again, the majority were not English.

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