Round the World August 16, 2005

Too many questions for comfort

For too many reasons to mention, the whole thing just doesn't feel right, says Neil Manthorp on the Afro-Asian Cup

There's not much Graeme Smith can take from the Afro-Asian Cup 2005 © Getty Images

The official line for the introduction of the Afro-Asia Cup is that it will "benefit the development of the game on both continents." By creating an artificial, intercontinental rivalry where none existed before, it is said by the organisers, cash can be generated for the advancement of cricket in budding nations like Namibia, Botswana and Uganda, to name but a few in Africa.

In Asia, like all aspects of the Afro-Asia Cup, the situation is less clear. Nepal, perhaps? Afghanistan? What is clear on both continents is that no development plan actually exists for the money, at least not publicly.

To add much needed respectability to the series, organisers announced two weeks ago that they would be making a donation to a worthy and appropriate charity. But over a week after the charity was supposed to be named, it still hadn't been. So, seventy percent of the inaugural series profits will go to the African delegation and 20 to the Asian side for unspecified development programmes while 10 percent of the cake will go to an unnamed charity.

But how big is the cake? Ten percent of something 'big' could still, afterall, make a significant difference to people in need - whoever they may be.

"I can't answer that question," said Cassiem Sulliman, the chief of the African side of the operation. "You'll have to ask Jagmohan Dalmiya, he's the president."

Which brings us to the breeder of the concept and the architect of the series. Few men, if any, have perfected the art of making money from cricket as well as Dalmiya. Television rights are his game and therein lies the motive.

South Africa's Supersport have agreed to play the role of host broadcaster this week at Centurion (Wednesday) and Durban (Saturday and Sunday) but that in no way means their money has made the series possible.

"We certainly haven't bankrolled the series, far from it," said Supersport's main man, Imtiaz Patel. "They came to us with the concept and we took a view on it as we would with all sports events. But it's just part of our overall package to our viewers because there will be some interest."

The Afro-Asian Cup deal has initially been signed for three years, so where is the rest of the money coming from? The television rights for next year's series in India (presumably) have, apparently, been sold to Nimbus which has further sold them to Zee TV, Dalmiya's long-time arch rival. A case of stealing the bread from under the baker's nose? No - not if the baker doesn't care where his money comes from.

With no worthwhile cricketing context to speak of, the matches - conferred with official one-day international status by the ICC - would have been ripe for bribery and manipulation in the bad old days of match-fixing but, fortunately, those days are long gone. Aren't they? Speculation that cash from bookmakers or betting syndicates has bankrolled the series is mounting. We can only hope and pray that that view is crushed with more hard facts than we have been supplied with so far. Many more.

The ICC's decision to legitimise these matches flies directly in the face of recommendations made by its Anti-Corruption Unit headed by Sir Paul Condon three years ago when it suggested that meaningless or dead matches be eradicated or, at least, kept to a bare minimum.

While that trend was first reversed with the Tsunami relief matches, there was a common cause shared by all who played in those contests and nobody could deny the argument - whether they agreed or not - that such a noble cause deserved to be regarded as 'legitimate'. The Afro-Asia Cup does not compare.

The South African Cricketers Association (SACA) has, thankfully, done everything in its power to ensure that no member of its 17-man squad is likely to be more vulnerable to the bribes of fixers than any other.

They have employed the principal that all the players in the African squad be paid equally for their efforts and commitment irrespective of whether they come from SA, Zimbabwe or Kenya. That effectively eradicates a situation where the three Kenyans would have been paid approximately nine times less than their South African colleagues (if they were paid at all) while Tatenda Taibu and Heath Streak would otherwise have been paid around ten times less; no - eleven. no twelve. Sorry, it's hard to keep up with the inflation and exchange rates. Or down with them.

"It is a principal of the players association that players are properly contracted for these games," says Tony Irish, CEO of SACA. "This involves ensuring that all ICC regulations and requirements are met by the players and it also includes a payment to the squad for granting their commercial rights to be used by sponsors and broadcasters," Irish said.

So, hopefully, they will be united - all (17) for one, and one for all. No weak or soft targets sitting on the outside and happy to supply information or a wicket in exchange for a few thousand dollars.

There has been no transparency from the Asian team. Hopefully, they too will have taken every obvious security precaution.

Sri Lanka's Kumar Sangakkara spoke about the joy of playing in composite teams on arrival in Johannesburg on Monday having experience the occasion of the Tsunami match in Melbourne. But for the South Africans it was much, much harder to raise enthusiasm. The best that Shaun Pollock, Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis could do was to say how good it would be to work with their new coach, Mickey Arthur, for the first time. Arthur spoke unashamedly about how useful the series would be for Smith to finish his ICC ban for slow over rates before the summer's serious action began against New Zealand in November.

Finally, on a different note, South Africa's rugby Springboks are in the middle of the Tri-Nations series and, like it or not (and like New Zealand), South Africa is a rugby-playing and rugby-supporting country first and foremost. And it's the middle of winter here. It's not just the players who are lacking enthusiasm for the venture.

For too many reasons to mention, the whole thing just doesn't feel right. Even if the hard questions are answered, it still isn't right.

Neil Manthorp is a South African broadcaster and journalist, and head of the MWP Sport agency