Dancing with the devil
On Saturday night, England's cricketers will dance with the devil. Their team is selected, their excuses are prepared. The monstrous Perspex box that Sir Allen Stanford wheeled onto the stage at Lord's five months ago is set to be sprung open (as if it had belonged to Pandora all along) and the team that acquits itself best over the course of three hours, and through 240 balls of bedlam, will emerge rich beyond their wildest dreams.
It's a concept so preposterous, the only surprise is the naivety of the England players and administrators, who even at the eleventh hour seem clueless about the controversy into which they have waded. Stanford's bank lies but an Andre Fletcher on-drive away from the ground on which his millions will be fought over, and Kevin Pietersen might back himself to switch-hit a shot into the control tower of the neighbouring airport. If ever there was a venue designed for a smash, grab, and quick getaway, it is this one. But surely England never imagined it would all be that simple?
There are bound to be a few moments for reflection before the storm, so perhaps England might like to mull over a few of the warning signs that have flashed before their eyes in the past year. There was that helicopter for starters. A sleek black harbinger of what exactly? No-one knew for sure, but I can vouch that (aside from Giles Clarke's grin) the over-riding mood among those who witnessed Stanford's arrival at Lord's in June was faint nausea and genuine trepidation.
And that was even before the money had been unveiled. Cash, flashed, in exactly the manner that Donald Trump might use on those troublesome crofters at his proposed golf course in Scotland. Unlike those crofters, however, England took the bait without blinking, and it goes without saying that, while the lairds at the MCC got in a lather on their behalf over the black bats, that furore passed them by as well. But you would have thought, at the very least, that the identity of the opposition might have given England an instant or two of unease.
In this entire week in Antigua, has anyone spotted the maroon cap and palm-tree logo of West Indies, that proud but crumbling symbol of regional pride? It has been bulldozed to make way for the gaudy shield-and-eagle of the Stanford Superstars, a flag that fluttered with Texan immodesty even while the men who made the region great, Sir Vivian Richards and his fellow immortals, were playing a game of beach cricket against an England veterans side at Jolly Harbour. The West Indies Cricket Board, further emasculated by the Digicel row, might as well fade into the sunset with a rum punch in hand. By deigning to take part in this contest, England have given their blessing to a coup.
And yet, despite signing the death warrant of a body they invited to join the Imperial Cricket Council back in 1926 - England are here. Forget Stanford's faux-pas with the WAGs and the nonsense about the dressing room, forget the furore over the floodlights and the bleating about the pitch. The bottom line is that England still came, caps in hand, ready to have Stanford's largesse bestowed upon them. It can mean only one thing. They are desperate.
By they, I mean the ECB and their players alike, because it doesn't take a conspiracy theorist to surmise the cause of the desperation. Kevin Pietersen's public agitation about joining the Indian Premier League might have died down since he was offered the England captaincy, but as Lalit Modi told Cricinfo this week, his signature is still a done deal. The stars want the cash, and the board want its stars, and so, to square a particularly vicious circle, the board was forced to bribe the stars with cash from Stanford's coffers.
All of which makes this week's whingeing about a "garden party" atmosphere ever so slightly rich. If the circumstances of the jackpot offend their sensibilities quite so much, then the players are well within their rights to donate their winnings to charity (or the ECB coffers - I'm sure they wouldn't object). But that is assuming they do win, of course, because amid all the hand-wringing that's gone on this week, England have committed cricket's cardinal sin of taking their eyes off the ball.
The crux of England's complex is that they aren't used to being unloved. Middlesex's captain, Shaun Udal, provided a sane analysis of their situation on Thursday evening when he implored them to win for England first and take the money as an afterthought, although with only three members of the Barmy Army out here for the contest, they can't help but feel that their fans have voted with their feet. What is more, the Stanford Superstars - self-evidently - have none of that patriotic baggage to weigh them down. They've spent six weeks preparing to be merciless mercenaries, and as Fletcher and Kieron Pollard showed in their dress rehearsal, it is a situation with which they seem utterly comfortable.
And yet, perhaps England need not fret unduly about the mixed emotions. Yesterday I awoke to a chain of emails from my friends back home in London, which had been launched by the following:
I know it's Mickey Mouse cricket, but two things strike me about the Stanford Series.
1) It looks to me like the pseudo-West Indies team will beat England, and
2) I really don't want that to happen!
I didn't think I would care about it at all but in fact I do. I don't like seeing England lose, even though I grew up with it happening all the time so I ought to be used to it.
Am I just being ultra-competitive? Does anyone else care?
The fact that I still haven't got to the bottom of the chain of responses tells me everything I need to know about the answer to that one.
This is not sport without meaning, as Mike Atherton wrote in The Times earlier this week, but sport without context - strangely enough, to me it feels like a 21st century reincarnation of the Oxford-Cambridge boat-race, a sporting oddity in a world where wealth has supplanted learning as the means to obtaining power. Of the millions who tune in to watch either occasion, only a handful will have the privilege either of an Oxbridge education, or six zeroes in their bank balance. But that doesn't preclude the remainder from rooting for one team or the other.
As I discovered while speaking to the main man yesterday, Stanford is an extremely plausible character. He has a strong handshake, he looks you in the eye, he doesn't duck questions, even when they are addressing scandalous rumours involving his fiancée and his Superstars captain. ("Horse manure" is his answer to that one, incidentally). Something still seems to be amiss about his motives, but how can cricket - with matchfixing and the Zimbabwe crisis among its most recent skeletons - possibly get sanctimonious on that score? It is a sad fact of the sport that its administrators are morally bankrupt. These days it's all about the devil you know.
And he has an agenda that could yet be a winning formula. Stanford sees opportunities for Twenty20 cricket that his guests and creators of the game - to their eternal chagrin - could not. He has forged from the inter-island rivalry of the West Indies, a competition that has done more for cricket in the Caribbean in two years than the WICB (through their own endeavours) managed in 82. He sees a future for the game in the USA market, and aims to turn a few heads with Saturday's extravaganza, and not unreasonably, he wants to have "a little fun" along the way.
It's not impossible that his intentions are genuine. But if England find a future in the pocket of a Texas billionaire too abhorrent to contemplate, there is an alternative - one which, Clarke, an unashamed brinksman, has doubtless contemplated. They can accept the need for root-and-branch reform of the very same domestic structure that forced the ECB into bed with the man in the first place. If it wasn't for the counties sponging the sport's profits and crushing all attempts at innovation, the players could be paid their market rate, and there would be no need for this charade.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo.