Stephen Brenkley: Winner takes all, even the game's soul

The Last Word: $20m match has money but nothing else going for it. The players will get rich but cricket will be the poorer

Sunday 26 October 2008 00:00

As sterling goes down, the prize money available to England's cricketers in Antigua next Saturday goes up. But with each notch on the digital displays, it is probable that the spirits of theplayers, perhaps soon to be rich, are heading south with the pound.

Four months ago, $20 million was worth, a buck here or there, £10m. By close of play on Friday, it was equivalent to £12.7m. That means the £500,000 for each member of the winning team in the main match of the Stanford Super Series has now become £638,000, an extra £2,500 a week over the course of a year.

All the soundings from inside the England camp suggest that they are beginning to feel extremely uncomfortable about this winner-take-all match between England – yes, the official England XI – and the Stanford Superstars – yes, an invitation side assembled for the day by one of the world's richest men, the Texan billionaire Sir Allen Stanford. No man in his right mind could turn down the chance of earning the sort of money on offer in the legitimate pursuit of his trade, and those who have asked if England's players might donate the money to charity are posing a question too far.

There is something not quite right about it, however, and the players sense it. Ian Bell, who will open the innings, pointed out on Friday that given the choice between winning the Stanford lucre – how tempting it is to use the traditional prefix of filthy – and winning the Ashes it was no contest. The Ashes every time.

It was also highly instructive to hear England's captain, Kevin Pietersen, on the subject last week. Now in some quarters Pietersen,

venerated as he has become, is still a cricketing mercenary, having left his homeland South Africa to make his fame, but much more obviously his fortune, in England.

Playing against the Stanford Superstars, it was possible to infer, was not what Pietersen had in mind. Asked if the match against the Superstars should not be taking place, he said: "Yes, there is obviously scope for that. We're employed by our employers, we're fortunate to go over there and play this fixture. A lot of people think too much and too deeply about stuff, I don't do that with things I have no control over."

But would he be happy leading England in this fixture? "I have to be," he said. "It's something I have been picked to do. The thing is that the ECB is a business, and like any business-minded people they treat it like that. As hard as it is to say, that is reality. We play for our country and we do what we're told by our employers."

Hardly a ringing endorsement for the events about to take place at Stanford's own Coolidge ground. Pietersen was effectively saying that they are playing because they have to.

Perhaps the ECB had no choice but to play the match as well. Their explanation that they are doing it for the wellbeing of West Indies cricket, which will receive $3.5m from the prize fund each year for the next five years, has slight substance. But it is not the main reason.

This decision to be partners with Sir Allen was partly to placate the players who felt they missed out on the pots on offer in the Indian Premier League because of its clash with the English season, and partly to collect $3.5m themselves, which they may be able to use as a sop to the county clubs.

There is also the defence that Twenty20 matches of one sort or another are springing up all over the place, and if the appointed boards of control did not do it, some rich chap would bustle in and set up his own tourney. Like, say, Sir Allen Stanford.

Of all the short-form matches currently being organised, the conclusion is easily reached that Stanford Superstars v England is the most offensive. It has no context as a propersporting competition, it is neither country versus country, club versus club or invitation XI versus invitation XI. It is a rococo hybrid. It has money but nothing else going for it.

The burgeoning of Twenty20 is merely following the market. The IPL was a tremendous hit last year, and in its wake other competitions have sprung up. England have rather been muscled out of this. They are not a founder member of the Champions League, and the news on Friday that Australia, New Zealand and South Africa are trying to establish an all-singing southern-hemisphere tri-nations Twenty20 is bad news for England's own plans for a Premier League.

England have apparently told India that England's players can play in the IPL next April if India release 20 players for the EPL from 2010. Since the IPL is scheduled to run until 29 May, by when England's players will have had to return for other duties, India may not bother. England's playersmay come to feel they are missing out not simply on money but on something significant in terms of high-class, meaningful competition.

The future of cricket is on the line, not least how Test cricket can survive when T20 is garnering the audiences and the attention. It will be a rumbustious affair in Antigua this week, demanding to be noticed, but it will not be the answer to anything.

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