June 11, 2008

A bloodless coup

There is more than just a hint of cowboy about the way in which the ECB has leapt into bed with Allen Stanford, the first and highest bidder


Show me the money: Allen Stanford poses with US$20 million © Getty Images
 

If there were any doubts remaining as to whether Allen Stanford planned to back up his lofty words with deeds, consider them blown away once and for all. The breezy whirring of his jet-black helicopter's rotor-blades did for that, as he and his cast of all-stars swooped in as if from Antigua itself, to perform a bloodless coup at the very home of English cricket.

Lord's has never before seen anything quite like this. Less than 24 hours earlier, the ground had played host to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, invited by the MCC to deliver the annual Cowdrey Lecture on the Spirit of Cricket. But the traditional values espoused then were nowhere to be seen now, as English cricket put dignity to one side and embarked on the biggest cash-grab the game has ever seen.

Down swooped the chopper, the legend "Stanford" emblazoned in gold letters along the side. It paused momentarily above the square of the Nursery ground, rotated 360 degrees, then came to rest by a freshly painted "H" in the outfield. It's fairly apparent what impression this was meant to give, but the din of the descent was more Apocalypse Now than Opportunity Knocks. Trepidation, slight nausea and wide-eyed intrigue were the overriding emotions for the entourage of journalists invited to witness the dawn of English cricket's brave new era.

As the engines were cut, Stanford emerged triumphant into the light, pointing cheerily into the middle distance in that matey manner so beloved by US presidents, with his entourage following closely behind him. Sir Vivian Richards, Sir Everton Weekes, Richie Richardson, Curtly Ambrose and Desmond Haynes arrived by air, along with the WICB president, Julian Hunte, while Sir Garry Sobers joined them at ground level moments after landing.

By then, the ECB delegation had already marched out to meet him. The chairman, Giles Clarke, led the way, strutting to the middle as if keen to present himself as an equal partner (though General Jodl at Reims came more readily to mind). But it was his sidekick, David Collier, who gave a truer indication of England's standing in this arrangement. He was unable to decide whether handshakes or hugs were appropriate for Texan royalty, and so ended up performing a floppy chest-bump that was exquisite in its awkwardness.

 
 
There's no question that Stanford's involvement with West Indies cricket has been a force for good, but English cricket is not flatlining quite so drastically as to require this degree of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation
 
And there is something undoubtedly awkward about all this, although it would be wrong to be out-and-out cynical. Money is something that English cricket desperately needs, both to promote the game domestically and to compete at boardroom level internationally, and let's not forget that, back in 2003, the entire English media (and I include myself) was wrong in its initial impression of the Twenty20 Cup. But in keeping with the Texan connection, there is more than just a hint of cowboy about the way in which the ECB has leapt into bed with the first and highest bidder.

That sense of unease had been fuelled as we waited for the arrival. As various scenarios were speculated upon by the journalists, one of the tabloid reporters stated baldly that Richards and Sir Ian Botham would be making cameo appearances in November's inaugural winner-takes-all game, to provide some "legendary" pizzazz. It soon turned out he was joking, but it was a measure of the moment that no one could seriously write such a suggestion off.

And then there was the décor. All around the Nursery pavilion, placards had been hung on the walls with grand motivational quotes plucked from history. The one that caught my eye came from Rudyard Kipling's "If". "If you can make one heap of all your winnings. And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss," were the chosen lines. The next two words, as if anyone needs reminding are: "And lose". Too much of this arrangement seems out of context with the game that we have known and loved for generations, but Clarke has taken his gambler's instinct and made a break for the big-time.


Stanford's presidential-style arrival at Lord's © Getty Images
 

At what cost, however, remains to be seen. There's no question that Stanford's involvement with West Indies cricket has been a force for good - the team's recent improved form undoubtedly stems from the improved sense of worth and identity that his competition has brought to the region, not to mention the riches. And yet, English cricket is not flatlining quite so drastically as to require this degree of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

In fact, there is a fine line between a kiss of life and a smothering, because the greatest fear about the day's events was the one that Stanford singularly failed to allay. When asked his opinion of Test cricket, he responded baldly: "I find it boring, but I'm not a purist." Then, in a sweeping metaphor about the architecture at Lord's, he went on to liken the "1700s" pavilion to the Test game, and the "Eye in the Sky" media centre to Twenty20s. "Test cricket is the foundation, that's where cricket came from. Twenty20 is the future, that's where the money is."

It's not a ringing endorsement for traditional values, and on today of all days, Clarke was not about to leap to Test cricket's defence. "He's more than entitled to his opinions," Clarke retorted. "We've made it very clear how highly we regard Test cricket in this country, we think England is the home of Test cricket." How much longer can this remain the case, however. The only man in Stanford's line-up who spoke out on the old game's behalf was Botham, who also looked as though he'd strolled off the golf course with a Pringle sweater draped over his shoulders. But even his words were lost amid the glitz. Botham, remember, refused to go to the ICC World Twenty20 because he thought the format was a joke. Something's changed his mind, and it's probably the very same thing that has turned the ECB's heads.

Stanford is no fool, but nor is he a philanthropist. He wants a return on his investment, and - as the tagline from Jerry Maguire goes - he expects the ECB to show him the money. With that in mind, he decided to flash the cash himself, and onto the sleek, black, neon-lit stage, he wheeled a vast cabinet full of 50 dollar bills. So that's what US$20 million looks like - it's also what England's future looks like. Nothing about this game is ever going to be the same.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo

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