Tony Cozier: Stanford’s sudden largesse came with a price

Click to follow
The Independent Online

A chorus of “I told you so” has reverberated across the Caribbean since Sir Allen Stanford was fingered by United States investigators for “massive fraud”.

There was widespread scepticism from the start that the Texan billionaire’s fanfared entry into West Indies cricket three years ago with his own Twenty20 tournaments was too good – or too bad – to be true.

His global financial empire might have turned over squillions but, even before it was suspected that he might have been illegally using other people’s money, there appeared no business sense to his sudden heavy investment in a game restricted to small territories with small economies and small populations.

No one quite bought his assertion that he had suddenly fallen in love with a complex sport viewed as something of an oddity where he came from. His connection to the shifty realm of island politics and his close association with the previous Antiguan government counterbalanced his role as the biggest investor and employer.

When the administration changed through general elections five years ago, the new prime minister, Baldwin Spencer, called him “haughty, arrogant and obnoxious”.

For all that, there was no doubt that Stanford’s Twenty20 matches, involving 19 territories scattered across the Caribbean, from smallest to biggest, played under the lights at his own Stanford Cricket Ground (the SCG, of course) in front of sizeable crowds and televised live throughout the region, injected a new excitement into Caribbean cricket.

It counteracted the constant bungling of the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) and the depressing international results.

Even Julian Hunte, the WICB president who last April signed the contract sanctioning Stanford’s costliest project, the $20m (£14m) matches between his West Indies Superstars and England, was yesterday moved to “to thank him for what he has done for West Indies cricket”. He went so far as hoping that Stanford would be cleared of the charges “so that we will be able to work together again”.

Hunte was quick to assert that his board was not dependent on the American’s “largesse” for its financial survival. But individual boards did initially receive $100,000 handouts and grants of $15,000 a month to improve facilities, until some squandered the money and Stanford scrapped the scheme.

Such funds will obviously be missed but the Twenty20 tournaments themselves will be missed more, by players and fans.

Quite apart from the huge prize money earned by the winning teams – Trinidad and Tobago pocketed $1.5m in two years, Guyana $1m, Jamaica $500,000 – they gave the anonymous weekend club cricketers from previously ignored smaller islands their moment in the spotlight while their impoverished associations gained finances never forthcoming from the regional board.

Unknowns like Dane Weston from United States Virgin Islands became a star for his hip-wiggling wicket celebrations. Lionel Ritchie, the batsman from St Maarten with the showbiz name, and construction worker Maxford Pipe from the Tortola were other favourites as much as the far more established Chris Gayle, Ramnaresh Sarwan and Shivnarine Chanderpaul.

Stanford’s series brought youngsters like Lionel Baker and Andre Fletcher to wider public attention, both moving into the West Indies team, Baker as the first Test player from tiny, volcano-ravaged Montserrat.

Gayle’s endorsement was typical of the feeling of many of the other players – perhaps even those who, it is said, invested with Stanford some of the $1m each they won in the match against England. “No doubt about it, whichever way you look at it, Stanford has done a lot for the Caribbean,” Gayle said.

“He actually brought out a lot of supporters with his tournament and other things so we’re not going to say he hasn’t done anything for us.”

Adamant that his Superstars had to defeat England in the $20m match, Stanford ordered them into a preparatory camp for six weeks and appointed a large support of coaches, trainers and physiotherapists to look after them.

It was the kind of regime with which West Indian cricketers were unfamiliar. Its advantages were evident in the side’s slick |performance in beating England. “It let you know that this was your job, that this is what you had to do to be as good as possible,” said Sulieman Benn, the left-arm |spinner.

The WICB could at least take a leaf from that chapter of Stanford’s book.