January 29, 2008

Appetite for escalation

The Stanford 20/20 is back, in its second edition, and Allen Stanford has pulled out the stops, as the opening ceremony proved

You ain't seen nothin' yet: the organisation of the second edition of the Stanford 20/20 has been impeccable, with a sharp eye for details, and sparing no expense hi-octanecretive.com

The opening ceremony had to deliver. Nothing run of the mill, of course. That just wouldn't do. The hype had set a high bar. The tournament in 2006, with its fabulous prize monies and sleek organisation, had created an association between the name Stanford and grandeur. The aura surrounding Allen Stanford and his projects has exuded money: ostentatious yes, but not quite vulgar, though it invites gawking at the expense.

So with the grounds looking like a dream the day before, things fresh and new and thoughtfully placed, there was every reason to expect something spectacular.

It began routinely enough: a prayer, a song, a dance, a welcome address from Stanford, who couldn't resist a little dig at the ICC's World Cup policies as he invited spectators to "bring your chicken, bring your rum" into the mainly uncovered stands at the Stanford Cricket Ground, which offered plenty of soft grass seats.

It was the pyrotechnics show to bring down the curtain that pitched the thing right up to gawk level. It was stunningly beautiful, and outrageously extravagant. "Obscene," said a colleague as we tried to figure out if we had ever beheld any display of this magnitude that was not of the nature of a national celebration.

But this, to be realistic, is the nature of Stanford's Antiguan presence. After more than 20 years in the country the man has not just acquired a knighthood, he has become something of a republic himself. Just outside the VC Bird Airport, he has constructed an empire of financial institutions so closely positioned that neither his clients nor his investors need even drive outside of the airport complex to conduct their affairs. His bank - and not the State's - is called the Bank of Antigua, an indicator that the Stanford empire holds national stature in Antigua and Barbuda.

The millionaire businessman has stamped himself indelibly on the landscape, a cause of concern in some quarters, especially as his modus operandi is seen as dictatorial on many fronts. But in a Caribbean where the standard for service is lamentably low, and shoddy workmanship mars almost every edifice, Stanford's capacity to elicit high productivity and painstaking attention to detail, offers an insight into the make-up of a man who stands perfectly poised to engineer a revolution in West Indies cricket.

He is a perfectionist, willing to pay for high quality, but intolerant of shortcomings. He inspects everything pertaining to his tournament, and insists that no cost be spared to satisfy his fastidious nature. Electrical wires, normally covered by boundary advertising boards - here exclusively devoted to Stanford's companies - had to be specially covered over so that, should they be removed for even a moment, no unsightly cable would catch the human eye.

The meticulousness is apparent also in the well-appointed public ladies' rooms at the ground, where maintenance staff vigilantly shepherd users in to ensure no overcrowding, and regularly repeat sanitising procedures so that there is none of the seediness that traditionally stains these facilities by the time the first over is bowled. As someone who has used countless bathrooms at cricket grounds, where tissue is rare and a mirror a luxury, I could vouch that it was another first.

Perhaps Rhonda Kelly and Laurie Ann Holding, the organisers, brought the woman's touch that Wes Hall credited as being the reason the tournament is being so efficiently handled. But even so, word is that Stanford is a hard micro-manager, of the ilk of another Caribbean business success, Butch Stewart, the Sandals hotelier, and is just as likely to fire someone on the spot.

Dominica v the British Virgin Islands, the second game of this year's tournament in progress Stanford 20/20

Rumours that Stanford is no lover of trade unions feed speculation that despite the presence of the WICB president, Julian Hunte, and CEO, Donald Peters, at the opening ceremony, there is a simmering rift between the board and Stanford over the recruitment of players. No one is saying anything in any official voice, but talk is that he is inclined to cut individual deals with players, which will surely rile the West Indies Players' Association and its feisty president, Dinanath Ramnarine.

Still, Stanford has managed to move past the obstacles mounted by the board over the last tournament. Last September they agreed to a five-year franchise for the Stanford 20/20 tournament (though there are still some issues over exclusivity), and the tournament has been factored into the cricket calendar. Stanford has now redirected some funds to the board's coffers, which should go far to smoothing future relations.

Participants in the tournament had each received US$ 100,000 in capital investment funding plus US$ 180,000 for development of players and coaches and maintenance of facilities and equipment. Auditing systems have revealed such a high proportion of "non-compliance" with the terms of this arrangement by the territorial boards that Stanford is now reassigning that money directly to the WICB. Knowing the nature of the six territorial boards that fundamentally comprise the WICB, nobody was surprised that the funds were not put to the use intended. The problem is that, whether the regional boards are acting in concert, as the WICB, or on their own as participants, it is still the same group that has the money in their hands. Difficult to see it making a big difference; but as one source said, it is an "experiment".

At the opening ceremony Stanford commented that the last 18 months had been busy, but had "all been to the benefit of West Indies cricket as we try to revive cricket in this part of the world". Many feel that this tournament is only a stepping stone on a path leading to a takeover of cricket in the region. With 14 legends of West Indies cricket on board, it might be a good move for the game, but that is for future speculation.

In any case, the tournament is on: a month of night cricket, three or four hours of entertainment at this pure spectator sport. Oh, and St Lucia won the toss and the opening match, putting on 134 in their 20 overs to beat the Cayman Islands, who only got to 88 for 8.

Vaneisa Baksh is a freelance journalist based in Trinidad