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September 22, 2011
Andy Roberts and Curtly Ambrose, the two greatest fast bowlers to emerge from Antigua, believe that the demise of Allen Stanford's cricket empire in the Caribbean has left an irreplaceable void in their own home country, the island which served as a base for his operations for 18 years.
Almost three years have elapsed since the Stanford ground in Antigua played host to one of the most extraordinary nights in the history of Caribbean cricket, when a team led by Chris Gayle beat Kevin Pietersen's England in a contest that was worth US$1 million for every member of the victorious West Indies XI.
Even as Gayle took receipt of the winners' cheque, however, the cracks in Stanford's enterprise were appearing. When England were next in the country, during their Test series in the spring of 2009, his bank was found to be at the centre of what US financial regulators described as a "fraud of shocking magnitude", with queues around the block as investors scrambled desperately to retrieve what was left of their funds.
The financial situation in Antigua has been bleak ever since, because Stanford had been a direct employer of some 430 of the country's 85,000 citizens. But in a wider cultural sense, the loss to West Indies cricket has been every bit as damaging, given how many hopes he had built up through his lucrative inter-island Twenty20 tournament (the first event to capitalise on the extraordinary marketability of the short-form game) and how much glamour his involvement had reintroduced to a sport whose lustre of the 1970s and 80s had been fading.
"His end of his involvement has been a loss to West Indies cricket in terms of the facilities, and the rewards he brought to some of the players," Roberts told ESPNcricinfo. "Stanford is partly responsible for what is happening in world cricket today in terms of where Twenty20 is concerned. If he hadn't put that amount into it, the Indian board wouldn't have put so much money into IPL."
Both Ambrose and Roberts were paid as ambassadors of the Stanford brand - the so-called Stanford "Legends", a group which included their fellow Antiguan greats Sir Viv Richards and Richie Richardson. But even allowing for the personal benefits they enjoyed through their association with Stanford, and regardless of the methods by which it is alleged he made his money, both men were able to recognise the extent to which his largesse had benefited the sport.
"He left a big hole, to be honest," said Ambrose. "The excitement was coming back, the fans were coming out, it was a stepping stone, and you were starting to see a resurgence in West Indies cricket. That was through Stanford. He had the money, he had a plan and it was working. But we all know what happened next."
This week, Stanford's legacy will be on display as a pair of unpopular Twenty20 matches at The Oval, drawn up to fulfil the ECB and WICB's contractual obligations to Sky, and set to be contested by two teams lacking many of their big names through injury, rest, and the competing demands of the Champions League in India. The ever-worsening relationship between the board and WIPA, the players' association, has also been exacerbated by the void created after his funding tap had been turned off.
"Since he left the scene, West Indies cricket has gone back to the way it was, and nothing is happening at the moment," said Ambrose. "It is really, really sad to see what has happened, and the cricket gets worse every day, with the board's impasse with WIPA. If we love cricket the way we say we do, and it was one of the reasons why we got involved [as ambassadors], we'll find a way to bring West Indies cricket back to a certain level."
However, the current situation leaves Roberts despairing of cricket in his region. "[This week's] games are meaningless," he said. "To be honest, I do not think we are getting what we deserve as far as a competitive West Indies team is concerned. Only half of the players are worthy of representing West Indies, and I am speaking my mind as far as that is concerned. I don't know if a lot of West Indians are feeling proud to represent West Indies at the moment. A lot of them are only there for the money, and there are lots of reasons why our cricket is suffering.
"I was a part of the Stanford set-up for a number of years, and the money he put into West Indies cricket, it's a great loss," Roberts added. "I never knew what he did, and as far as I'm concerned it didn't bother me, because what he did had no [apparent] effect on Antiguans and Antigua. But now he's gone, the country has been suffering for two years, because of the amount of people he employed as a single employer."
For many years after his international retirement, Roberts was the groundsman at the Antigua Recreation Ground in the capital St John's. But, by his own admission, it was Stanford's personal ground, equidistant from his bank and the airport in the east of the island that rose to become the country's stand-out venue. With state-of-the-art floodlights, an immaculate outfield, and a renowned on-site restaurant, Sticky Wicket, it was a venue to rival the Getty Ground at Wormsley in terms of high-class private facilities.
These days, the grass is over-grown, the stands are crumbling and it exists as a living testament to the facade that Stanford's empire turned out to be. "It's a shame to look at the ground," said Roberts. "It was one of the best kept grounds in the entire Caribbean. It was small and the facilities were out of this world. But we allowed it to deteriorate to such an extent that it's going to take a lot of money to bring it back to half of what it was before."
In the meantime, the key priority for West Indies is to repay the debts left by Stanford's departure, which includes the prospect of replicating these fixtures every season until the Sky deal runs out. "I hope the ECB can find a way to get these games off a little earlier," said Roberts. "It's meaningless at this time of year."
Andy Roberts and Curtly Ambrose were speaking on behalf of cricket's No. 1 charity, the Lord's Taverners
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