Stanford: Has English cricket been caught out?

Lured by a $20m cash jackpot, the men who control English cricket may be inadvertently selling more than their sporting skills, writes Stephen Brenkley
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The Independent Online

From the moment the branded helicopter landed on the Nursery End at Lord's that warm June day the project was doomed to be a fiasco. Out stepped the Texan real estate multibillionaire Sir Allen Stanford, and up strolled officials of the England and Wales Cricket Board, all but prostrating themselves before him.

The two parties were there to announce an extremely oddball cricket match between England and the so-called Stanford Super Stars – effectively the West Indians. Prize money for the game would be $20m (£12m), of which each winning team member would receive $1m. It was unheard of. They brought along the sum in cash to emphasise what was at stake. This was the home of cricket, a place that represents all that is decent and noble about the game of cricket, and here was an exhibition of naked commercialism. The fit was starkly uncomfortable.

It has led to tears and recriminations. The proceedings this week have been enveloped in tawdriness, and the Big Match, the Twenty20 for $20m, as it has become known, has yet to take place. It should still be played on Saturday night but wherever the money goes it will be beset by controversy.

Calls have been made for the resignations of the England Cricket Board chairman Giles Clarke and chief executive David Collier – so far steadfastly ignored. Put plainly, the feeling is that they have been responsible for getting England into this mess – which has reflected well on nobody involved.

Sean Morris, the chief executive of the Professional Cricketers' Association, stopped short of that yesterday, but he made it clear the players feel utterly let down. "They're pretty uncomfortable with a number of things," he said. "There is a feeling that it's turning out to be a bit of a garden party, which shouldn't really be the case with England cricket.

"The players are very concerned about how they will be perceived. The reality is that they're here working because their employers have decided that is where they will come to work. You have to behave a certain way as an England cricketer, upholding the heritage and tradition of Team England, and as far as the players are concerned they feel that people who should be protecting them have left them exposed to potential criticism and ridicule."

This was strong stuff and the players, while publicly diplomatic, feel used. Only the prospect of the money keeps them here. England simply want to leave Antigua as quickly as possible, albeit preferably with the loot. "Just let's get the hell out of here," is how it is being put. They fly straight to India, and never have the sub-continental destinations of Guwahati and Kanpur been more alluring. Whatever happens on Saturday cannot erase the enduring shoddiness of what has already gone before. The series of warm-up matches on the eponymous Stanford Cricket Ground have caused grave concern. The cricket has been of poor quality and quite unlike what Twenty20 was meant to be: high scoring and breezy. The pitch has not been of international standard and the lights are so low as to make catching a lottery.

Above all, however, there has been the presence of the man bankrolling the event. Sir Allen has, it is fair to say, loomed large. The Stanford Super Series has been just that – about the man himself.

According to Forbes Magazine, he is worth $2.2bn, making him the world's 239th richest man. The 6ft 4in Texan began his career in Houston in the early 1980s, making a fortune in real estate before expanding the company his grandfather had founded into the Stanford Financial Group, a global wealth management firm worth $50bn. Clients include Oprah Winfrey.

The 58-year-old divorcee and father of six took Antiguan citizenship and was knighted for services to the island's economy – he is the island's biggest private employer, owning its principal newspaper, national bank, its airline and several hotels. He also bankrolled the hospital. His companies have, however, attracted the attention of the US Securities and Exchange Commission over deposits in Antigua.

He gives away millions of dollars to charity and is also a major sponsor in polo, sailing and golf. He built the Stanford Cricket Ground for his staff after watching them play on waste ground. He is also said to have once hired two historians to research a 180-page dossier proving he is distantly related to Leland Stanford, founder of Stanford University.

So it was always known that he would be an effervescent figure, but on Sunday night, during England's opening match against Middlesex – who are here as the domestic T20 champions – he was seen flirting with wives and girlfriends of England's players. He sat one – the pregnant wife of wicketkeeper Matthew Prior – on his knee, bouncing her around, and put his arms round others.

This uncomfortable image was shown on the big screens overlooking the ground. England's players were seething but this was the man who could make them millionaires, as their partners (who according to one, did not know where to put themselves), realised only too well. Sir Allen was informed of the concerns and apologised to Kevin Pietersen, England's captain, and Prior.

Then came England's next match, against Trinidad & Tobago, and more of Sir Allen. It was a nerve-shredder which England won by one run, when T&T scored only a single rather than the three they needed from the final ball. To their general astonishment, Sir Allen then wandered into the dressing room, which his pass says he is perfectly entitled to do. But in English sport dressing rooms are sacrosanct places. It might seem a nonsense, but it is historic nonsense. Sir Allen said yesterday that he would not repeat the mistake.

By now, he could have told the ECB precisely where they can go but for some reason – ego, financial, or because he genuinely wants to be involved – he has remained silent.

The ECB have signed a five-year deal with Stanford. This embraces five of the Twenty20 for $20m matches, as well as a series at Lord's each summer which would include England, the Stanford Super Stars and two other national sides. The Marylebone Cricket Club, owners of Lord's, are known to be anxious about the events in Antigua. There is a strong likelihood that they will withdraw from the agreement.

It may be that the issue will settle down and there should, for once, be slight sympathy for the ECB. They played their hand ineptly but it was probably a hand they had to play. When Sir Allen came calling they worked out that if England did not take the money, someone else would. Sir Allen might have said jolly nice things about the ECB, but so long as he could lure an international side he was probably not worried who they were. The details were hammered out quickly – and much made of the need to help West Indies cricket.

But there have been no clinics for children this week, no coaching, no help, merely a circus. The players may or may not become rich, but cricket is much the poorer.