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October 25, 2008
In a hangar adjacent to the smart reception area in his aviation centre on Antigua, close to one of his homes and his own ground on the edge of the airport, Sir Allen Stanford houses his Global Express aeroplane, which, in addition to his six corporate jets, is how he conducts his many business deals around the world. The crisis in the financial markets has been all consuming these past weeks and has taken him to parts of the world where cricket is far from the passion that it is in the Caribbean. Rest assured, though, that no detail of the tournament in his name that begins this Saturday and culminates in the $20 million winner-takes-all match between his Superstars and England on November 1 will have escaped him. A tycoon who looks initially at the smaller details in a bank or a restaurant, the state of the lavatories and how quickly the receptionist answers the telephone, will not take his eye off the bigger picture.
Stanford says he is no Kerry Packer: his motive is to have some fun. What he has already achieved is recognition way beyond his native Texas and the Caribbean, where he has been based for the past 26 years. Hence he stresses that his ground, quaintly English in design and purposefully contrasting with the concrete edifices that now predominate in the region, is particularly welcoming for women and children and that musical instruments and flags will not be banned this coming week. His is a batsman's game and the five pitches being prepared for the tournament will have little grass left on them: there will be sixes galore and to that end the windows around the ground have been strengthened against both flying balls and the kind of hurricane which hit the island on October 15. Stanford takes an especial pride in the 'Sticky Wicket' restaurant at square leg - "a sort of Hard Rock Café" as he puts it - which has been renovated and where meals can be obtained as part of that very American all-inclusive ticket which can be obtained for his matches. A six star hotel is to be built amid the complex, which already features one of his banks. The great names of West Indies cricket are honoured through a number of plaques and pictures - even Michael Holding, who has disassociated himself from the project.
Stanford is the epitome of the restless tycoon: a backslapping, hand-grabbing, mind-whirring, dollar-consumed figure who is constantly on the move. By contrast, the 'Stanford Legends' by his side are measured and even somewhat subservient. One is Sir Everton Weekes and the other Sir Viv Richards. On the outfield, Lance Gibbs has been conducting the Superstars' fielding practice. One reason why Stanford's annual tournaments are a success is because he has obtained the support of the great names of West Indies cricket. Thus, innovation is neatly packaged with tradition. There is no whiff of vulgarity in the air. The whole setting would not look out of place at the Bath festival.
There is no question, either, that the people of Antigua are keenly anticipating this week-long fiesta - not least because tourism is down in the wake of the murder of the British honeymoon couple, Benjamin and Catherine Mullany, and because of the recession. But what of the great players? "I have nothing against change so long as Test cricket can keep going," said Weekes. "This is mostly entertainment, although I did not think it would come to the stage at which a chap becomes a millionaire overnight. If you are a good Test cricketer, you should be able to play in the limited overs game." Richards, who is taken with "the family orientated homeliness and friendliness" at the ground, believes Stanford has given the game in the Caribbean "a 100 per cent lift." He himself would have enjoyed playing Twenty20, he said, "cutting loose as quickly as possible." He believes that Kevin Pietersen can become "a generally great player" and that England were right to make him captain. He is less complimentary about the new grounds in the Caribbean and the price of Test match tickets. As West Indies Board's stock falls, so Stanford's rises.
Around 200 media representatives plus photographers will be attending the tournament. No wonder Stanford believes that the future of the game lies in the Twenty20 format, although, interestingly enough, he will be experiencing Test cricket for the first time when he watches the Ashes series in England next summer. His deal involving reciprocal tournaments with the ECB runs for five years and, although he says he has no wish to buy a ground in England or develop the game in the United States, businessmen such as him always have the capacity for surprise. Stanford is certain that the tournament will be a success: one school of thought on the island is that he will not let any player go home empty handed, win or lose. That would be another masterstroke of public relations, at which he is adept.
A look back at five high-profile exhibition matches