December 18, 2008

The party's not yet over

Stanford's intention to review his relationship with the ECB has left the latter nervous, and further reiterated which party is in control

English cricket needs Stanford more than Stanford needs English cricket © Getty Images

If there was ever any doubt as to who wears the trousers in the ECB's bizarre marriage of convenience with Sir Allen Stanford, it was made abundantly clear by the board's panic-stricken reaction to Tuesday's revelations in the Daily Mail. Far from signalling his imminent abandonment of the quaint old sport of cricket, the announcement of Stanford's intended review of an eventful year might well come to be regarded as the moment his foothold in the English game became a stranglehold.

When, midway through the inaugural Stanford 20/20 for 20, the ECB announced - rather ungraciously, if truth be told - that it intended to undertake its own review of the series in reaction to a week of negative and often embarrassing publicity, Stanford merely shrugged his broad Texan shoulders and told everyone to relax and enjoy the ride. Now, with the tables turned, a nervous ECB, whose attentions have been so focused on re-establishing a chummy relationship with the BCCI that they were completely broadsided by the revelations, has reacted with wide-eyed horror.

English cricket needs Stanford more than Stanford needs English cricket, and for a man said to possess an ego proportionate to his wealth, that is a delicious state of affairs surely transcending the short-term loss of US$40 million that befell him in November's inaugural event. Stanford never envisaged immediate returns on his investment. As he told Cricinfo during the tournament itself, he hadn't expected to make a profit at least until the second or third years of his five-year deal, and aside from his long-term ambition to break into the lucrative US TV market, his main aim was to have a little "fun" along the way. What could be more fun than making a once-powerful sporting body dance to his improvisatory tune?

In the current economic climate there are realistic reasons to speculate why Stanford, who made his multi-billion-dollar fortune in the imperilled financial industry, might feel the need to cut his losses and retrench his operations. Then again, though, his area of investment has been niche in the extreme. Sub-prime mortgages couldn't be further from the thoughts of a man who has catered for the richest of the rich in the quarter of a century that he has been basing his operations in the Caribbean. If his core business remains sound (and most of the world's billionaires will remain that way, even when the credit stops crunching) there seems no logical reason why he would give up on his hobby.

The announcement that Vodafone, the England team's principal sponsor since 1998, will not be renewing its contract when it expires in 2010 leaves the national side ever more vulnerable at a time when the global credit crunch is causing a reassessment of priorities across the sporting world

The reasons Stanford has given for his review are telling. First and foremost, he has reiterated his desire to work with the ECB, which he has regularly - at least since his grand arrival at Lord's last June - talked up as the best-organised cricket administration in the world. With four more years of the Stanford 20/20 for 20 in the pipeline, as well as the inaugural Quadrangular Tournament at Lord's and the first season of the English Premier League, to which he is expected to contribute an all-star team, there are plenty of reasons for him to remain involved.

On the other hand, there has been absolutely no such reassurance offered to the bankrupt WICB, which incurred his wrath, and rightly so, back in October when its duplicitous behaviour in the Digicel row was revealed. Enticed by Stanford's billions, but already tied into a long-term deal with its principal sponsors, the WICB effectively attempted to sell the same product twice. Bernard Madoff himself couldn't have been caught any more red-handed, and sure enough, the West Indies board has been paying the price ever since.

Aside from the power the WICB wields when it comes to votes at the ICC (and that vote, arguably, is the only reason the ECB is sufficiently moved to care for its plight), there is absolutely nothing of worth left to salvage in that defunct organisation. The famous maroon cap and palm-tree logo of West Indies cricket were nowhere to be seen throughout England's recent fortnight in Antigua, not even when the now-disbanded Stanford Legends were playing beach cricket on the eve of the big match. By deigning to take part in his tournament, the ECB effectively gave its blessing to a coup.

Now, however, the ECB runs the risk of tasting a similar dose of medicine. The announcement that Vodafone, the team's principal sponsor since 1998, will not be renewing its contract when it expires in 2010 leaves the national side ever more vulnerable at a time when the global credit crunch is causing a reassessment of priorities across the world of sports sponsorship. If Stanford's largesse seemed attractive earlier this year, when the only thing being sought was a bribe to prevent England's players defecting to the IPL, it will appear trebly so henceforth, when it's not just the big-name mouths that need feeding.

There is no way that Stanford can be unaware of the extent to which a fifth of the Test-playing world now relies on his wealth. As Michael Atherton told the Times website on Tuesday, Stanford's involvement in cricket has always been a business decision, and the mark of the best businessmen is their ability to sniff out a bargain. If it so happens that the dissolution of the Stanford Legends marks the start of a tactical withdrawal from West Indian cricket, then it's safe to assume one of two things. Either his entire operation is in peril, or he's found a better offer elsewhere. Next time, it might not be merely a sleek black helicopter that lands at Lord's. The painters and decorators might be sent along as well.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo