Spectre of Stanford haunts The Oval
Late-season Twenty20 matches remind English game of its ill-advised liaison with alleged fraudster
England's long home season will finally end next week. After seven Tests, 10 one-day internationals and two Twenty20s they are being pressed into service one last time.
On Friday and Sunday at The Oval, they will play West Indies in two Twenty20 matches. These fixtures, unheralded and unwanted, were added late to the schedule. The impression is hard to shake off that they are internationals in name only, an afterthought which all concerned are now desperately trying to make the best of.
If the two matches were to be called the Allen Stanford Memorial Series nobody should be surprised. The trophy might as well be a replica of the helicopter in which the man that English cricket would like to forget infamously landed at Lord's three years ago.
It can be dressed up, of course, to make it seem sensible that two internationals should be played when the season has been officially done and dusted. They give supporters one final opportunity, they offer the players more experience in Twenty20 with England defending their world title next year, they are of real value and interest.
But if the England and Wales Cricket Board had not formed their unfortunate alliance with the American multi-billionaire Sir Allen Stanford they would not be taking place. Stanford will not be watching the matches. It may be some time before he sees another cricket match, or any other sporting event.
He is at present in a federal medical centre at a prison in Butner, North Carolina, where he is being treated for a dependence on prescription drugs while awaiting trial on 21 charges that he helped to defraud investors of $7 billion (£4.4bn). Stanford was originally given the medication after being beaten up by a fellow inmate in late 2009.
Three psychiatrists testified that a combination of the lingering head injuries he suffered then and the drugs made him unable to stand trial. The hearing has been postponed several times and has now been set down for January 2012 in Houston, Texas, without any certainty that it will take place.
A gagging order has been imposed on the proceedings by Judge David Hittner because he was concerned that too much of the case was being conducted in public before it was officially heard, making it impossible for any jury to be impartial. After Stanford invited CNN cameras into his cell, he acted.
Ali Fazel, the defence attorney appointed by the court after Stanford sacked a series of legal representatives, said in Houston: "He was incarcerated in a medical facility here in Houston, Texas. He was given a series of drugs. These drugs caused him not to be able to stand trial under American law because he was not competent due to taking the drugs.
"Therefore we had a hearing to determine his competency. At that hearing the court agreed with all experts, both the government experts and our experts, to declare him incompetent to stand trial."
This, then, is the man who was to be one of the saviours of English cricket. How far removed all this is from the summer afternoon in 2008 when Stanford, who owned banks in Antigua and offered financial advice to the super-rich, landed at Lord's in a helicopter to formalise his deal with the ECB. How the ECB must wish it had never happened. Stanford, who had already promoted Twenty20 cricket in the West Indies with some success, had been looking for an inter-national partner for a while. England eventually fell into his arms.
The centrepiece of the unlikely liaison was an annual match to be played between Stanford's Superstars team and England for a winner-takes-all $20m (£12.7m), the so-called Twenty20 for 20. That was to be played in Antigua each winter – and Stanford brought along to Lord's a Perspex box containing the cash so everybody could see what $20m looked like.
But the package also included a Twenty20 tournament involving four teams in England each summer, also including the Stanford team. Crucially,they formed part of the ECB's broadcasting rights deal with BSkyB. But only one of the Twenty20 for 20 matches – a surreal week in Antigua which ended with England being hammered – took place before everything changed irrevocably.
Stanford, it was revealed, was being investigated by the United States' Securities and Exchange Commission for possible fraud and other nefarious activities which included money-laundering and running a Ponzi-style pyramid scheme.
At this point the positions of Giles Clarke and David Collier, respec-tively the chairman and chief executive of the ECB, might have been in jeopardy. They had driven the deal, they had embraced Stanford almost fawningly at Lord's.
But they survived and indeed prospered, insisting that anybody could have been so duped. After all, thousands of others allegedly were. Before Stanford (the knighthood awarded him by the Antiguan government was conveniently dropped) was formally charged, the ECB pulled out of the deal. The intended mid-summer quadrangular tournament, due to start in 2009, when spacehad already been made for it in the fixture list, never took place. Butthere has remained the matter of the outstanding matches.
BSkyB, understandably keen to get what they had paid for, or be reimbursed, had been entreating the ECB for an answer. The ECB were not minded to return cash from the deal, estimated to be worth £220m over its four years. Therefore they had to come up with some matches.
Eventually, they managed to persuade West Indies to pop into London. And they will have to find two more matches next summer, when they do not have World Twenty20 preparation as a handy catch-all.
West Indies, probably reluctant guests except for the cash guarantee they have been offered, have announced what is in essence a development squad. It includes four newcomers and excludes seven players who would have been in a full-strength squad. Most of them are taking part in the Champions League in India. England, too, have seized the opportunity to experiment.
Nobody could deny that it has given a chance that might not have presented itself for new players to be blooded. Indeed, England are able to blood yet another captain in Graeme Swann after both Stuart Broad and his deputy, Eoin Morgan, were ruled out with shoulder injuries
The public seem not to mind. Nearly 18,000 tickets have already been sold for Friday's match, almost 15,000 for Sunday. But the context of the matches still seems strange.
The ghost of Allen Stanford will stalk them. His health may be improving, or it may not. Ali Fazel said: "I am sorry, that is private information. That is part of the gag order, I can't reveal that." Some day much more may be revealed.
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