Shocked Stewart reiterates innocence

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The Independent Online

Alec Stewart finally broke his silence yesterday after what he described as the worst two days of his life. The former England cricket captain repeated his categorical denial, until then issued only in a curt statement from his employers, that he had received £5,000 from a bookmaker for match information.

Alec Stewart finally broke his silence yesterday after what he described as the worst two days of his life. The former England cricket captain repeated his categorical denial, until then issued only in a curt statement from his employers, that he had received £5,000 from a bookmaker for match information.

Before a packed press conference here, Stewart, who is on the England team's tour of Pakistan, told how he was in his hotel room late on Monday afternoon when he took the phone call in which the news was broken to him that he was named in the Indian inquiry into match-rigging. It came from the subcontinent's television network, Star Sports.

He said: "A lady came on the phone and said my name had been mentioned in this report and did I have anything to say. It took me surprise to say the least. I said I had no comment to make."

Stewart was one of nine players from outside India named in the report by the country's Central Bureau of Investigation. It told how he was alleged to have been introduced by the Indian all-rounder, Manoj Prabhakar, to the illegal bookmaker, Makesh Gupta, on England's tour of the subcontinent in 1993. Gupta, who claims to have given large cash gifts to several cricketers, told the inquiry he gave Stewart £5,000 for information "on weather, wicket, team composition etc whenever England played."

Stewart's personal reiteration of his non-involvement came shortly after Malcolm Gray, the chairman of the International Cricket Council, conceded that "these sort of revelations have to come out".

A few hours later Stewart revealed the effect such "revelations" can have. "I was totally shocked when Star Sports made the phone call and I've been in a state of shock ever since. Yesterday was one of the hardest days I've encountered in my life and hopefully it will clear itself up sooner rather than later."

He is an unemotional cricketer, the epitome of the hard-nosed professional. But it was clear during the 50-minute press conference that the pressure had told. He tried not to show it, but he was betrayed by the occasional faltering of his voice.

Later, facing a flotilla of cameras, microphones and notebooks, he said he would have to take it in his stride. "It's far from pleasant. The last two days have been the worst I've ever experienced. I'd like to think I've got a strong personality and I'll come through this."

It was announced at lunchtime that Stewart, 37, who has played more than 100 times for both England's Test and one-day sides, would speak. Until then he had steadfastly declined to comment, first while he absorbed the details of the allegations, and then, it is understood, on advice from Lord's. But it was no good.

Stewart is a plain speaker, who has always been available to the press and always spoken with directness. He knew that continued silence might be misinterpreted. Late on Tuesday night he knocked on the door of the England and Wales Cricket Board's media relations manager, Andrew Walpole, and said he wanted to speak. It had been a grim previous few hours.

"It was a shocking day," Stewart said. "You sit in your room. I spent an hour and a half outside. I thought I'm not going to be imprisoned." Later he was interviewed by Lord MacLaurin, the chairman of the ECB, and Tim Lamb, its chief executive. They asked three questions and then told him he could stay with England in Pakistan.

Stewart's experience embodies the boundless difficulty of discovering the guilty in the match-rigging scandal. It is widely recognised that an illegal betting network, where millions of rupees are staked, has been growing in India and that players have been paid either to provide information or to alter the course of matches. But proof is hard to come by.

Some players, like Mohammad Azharuddin, the former Indian captain, have been forced to admit their involvement. Up to a point. Others, as is the case with Stewart, are strenuous in their denial of involvement. Rebuttals came also from Mark Waugh, of Australia, and the West Indies' former captain Brian Lara yesterday, and Arjuna Ranatunga, of Sri Lanka.

Stewart said he had no knowledge of ever having met Gupta. Nor had he ever been approached for match information. Gupta's involvement by his own admission was large. He tended to introduce himself to foreign cricketers as John, the report said.

It is now clear he was the same John who gave money for information to Mark Waugh and Shane Warne on a Sri Lankan tour in the early Nineties. That was the misdemeanour for which the pair were later fined by the Australian Cricket Board, which then covered it up for two years.

Stewart said he had received overwhelming support from his family and team-mates, but he seemed aware that some people might forever associate him with illegal bookies. "People are entitled to their opinion. I've no problem with that but my reputation within the game - and hopefully when I've finished playing - will be a good one, one of someone who played for England more than 100 times in both forms of the game, scored a number of hundreds, kept wicket well, [and I] will be remembered as a very good England cricketer not just in England but round the world."

His England and Surrey colleague Graham Thorpe said on the Cricket 4 website that he was convinced of Stewart's innocence. "If there's one person in the game who can tough this thing out it's Alec Stewart"

Stewart, of course, is staying on the England tour and said he had never contemplated leaving. But he demonstrated his patriotism by saying: "If I'd been asked to go home, in fact if I'd been asked to go anywhere in the world, I would have done."

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