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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Bob on June 13, 2008, 14:20 GMT

    LOL at RajKS. When it's an Indian giving millions to play T20, it's alright, but not when a whitey does it? Spek hit it right on the money. Test cricket is not financially viable, and ODIS are slowly dying. T20 is exciting enough to bring into Europe and American markets, and see it become a global sport in a few decades, rather than just a commonwealth pastime.

  • karthikeyan on June 13, 2008, 12:24 GMT

    stanford has prescence in golf ,i think. he wants to promote cricket in america and wants to capture the market in america ,mexico,brazil..(north and south america).that may be his desire..right now he caught the big fish.ie ecb..his aim is to absorb one big fish intially.ie india or australia or england.he achieved one thing one..his another desire is to capture the american market....there are big money in america...remember.it can overtake some sports

  • Derek on June 13, 2008, 10:07 GMT

    CricketCrazy19 , Stanford is an American citizen and therefore cannot offically be referred to as SIR. We could not have SIR Ronald Reegan and many others before or after him for the same reason. If Al Fahad moves his head quarters to Antigua, Bermuda or the Falkland island he still cannot become SIR.. Is Stanford's reall interest then buying a knighthood via the WI and England? A case of have money will get what I want.

  • George on June 13, 2008, 9:35 GMT

    As long as Test cricket remains superior to T20 (which T20 detractors always maintain is the case) then there is nothing for Test fans to worry about. Right? After all, what other professional sport is conveniently played mostly during working hours on weekdays, when few can either attend or watch it live on TV? Add to that the buttock-numbing duration which sees the crowd halved by stumps each day, and the near empty stadium which greets the climactic finale of most matches, the inability to tell one player from another, and the drawn out defensive play that the format fails to discourage, and you have a surefire winner for the 21st century.

  • Thewalker on June 13, 2008, 6:54 GMT

    The ECB and the Windies board have decided that they are not going to look the gifted horse in the mouth. Whether all this money will mean a resurgent West Indian team is any body's guess. However, from reports over the years, it appears that the lack of money in the sport is what prompted young West Indians to take up football or basketball. In terms of a wider talent pool, this surely is good.

    What is upsetting, though, is Stanford's utter disregard for Test cricket. He is not a purist, granted, but does that mean that he has to wear it on his sleeve? If - or is it when - cricket makes waves in the US, there will be several other money men who will want to jump on to the bandwagon. And then, what fate Test cricket? Where is the time to play it in the midst of all the T20 games?

    Modi, you have no idea what you have unleashed. Count the money and watch the demise of Test cricket.

  • Cy on June 12, 2008, 22:47 GMT

    Its amazing that the ECB has no qualms accepting this cash, however, they were up in arms over the money being bandied around in the IPL. What a hypocritic bunch. Its okay for ECB if tomorrow a group supporting Bin Laden offers ECB 20 million USD to play a one-off match against the Taliban crazies or some other scum of the society. They would then claim that they are just promoting cricket everywhere. The nerve of them to find fault with the IPL, ICL etc.

  • Clive on June 12, 2008, 22:13 GMT

    I live in the u.s.a. but I was born in Jamaica....still follow the game though.I think I known what Stanford wants(to kill Test Cricket so he can make more money) but I am not sure what those W.I. legends viz. Sir Viv. Everton Weekes, Richie Richardson, Sir Gary and Dessie Hanes among others want. The Man had openly said that Test Cricket is boring, so he has no interest there. I guess that he must have turn all these people heads with his money for not one of them to be saying anything about the relative merit of both forms of the game and to see where Stanford is taking it. There is no way that T20 cricket is going to lead to an improvement of the game in the Caribbean. These legends follow the money then complain when the youngsters on the present team fail to perform. The money in the game is directed at the wrong place and I think that these experienced former players should be the ones to see this first. But I think the money talks and all else walks.

  • George on June 12, 2008, 19:22 GMT

    sorry, but i fail to be led into the idea that he is some heart warming philanthropist with just the love of the game and the Windies spurring him on. One does not accidentally become a Texan Billionaire. He's savvy and he knows America is his breakable market as soon as he can manufacture a game that will appeal to their ad heavy television style, and the four hour spectacle akin to Baseball. If it helps developing cricketers then great, if it makes for competitive test futures even better, if it simply makes a new generation of sloggers looking for the short boundary, then it's a disaster waiting to happen. But that's sport these days, amazingly i fail to notice an increase in my enjoyment of an event in direct relation to the cash windfalls the players are relishing. And Botham should hang his head frankly...

  • Vishu on June 12, 2008, 18:02 GMT

    I don't understand what's wrong here. If one billionaire wants to spend his wealth for his entertainment, on his favorite sport and, on his two favorite teams, why are others having stew about it?? Let him[Sir Stanford] spend(Or waste, whatever it turns out) his money. It's cricket which is an eventual winner out of all this coup. We all know that, test cricket is not going to end with this stint. What's wrong if cricketers also earn as much(if not more) as footballers do?? We should thank Sir Stanford and Mr. Giles and even Lalit modi, for that matter, for bringing-in life in cricket, once again, which was almost dead after the last ODI world cup. According to me, it's an "Bloody lively coup" rather than "Bloodless coup", again opinions will always differ..

  • karthikeyan on June 12, 2008, 15:33 GMT

    this stanford is very smart guy.he is not interested in the result.he wants the english board to his control.there by he will control the icc ,very very easily.so that he will make the icc's decisions in future.thereby taking the competition to the bcci.so it will be stanford vs bcci in future.in smart it will be stanford vs modi....am i right

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