print icon
Gideon Haigh

The meltdown that was in the stars

The likes of the ECB should have seen the latest Stanford developments coming

18-Feb-2009

Stanford's financials were obviously wonky, but the headline issue during last year's 20/20 for 20 tournament was about who sat on his lap © Getty Images
 
After the serial swindler Horatio Bottomley finally and deservedly ended up in Wormwood Scrubs, the story goes, the prison chaplain found him in the standard convict labour of repairing a mail bag. "Sewing, Horatio?" he said. "No," said a chagrined Bottomley, without looking up. "Reaping."
The relationship between sowing and reaping comes to mind strongly at news of the abrupt financial dematerialisation of Allen Stanford, and the humiliation of his uncritical admirers in the cricket boards of England and the West Indies. Still ascertaining the extent of Bernie Madoff's depredations, the Securities and Exchange Commission does not lightly bandy the phrase "fraud of shocking magnitude". But there can be no fraud without credulity, and that, in London and Antigua, appears to have abounded.
In truth, something of this kind has been in the stars since Wall Street's great houses began tumbling like dominos six months ago. Stanford Financial was a privately owned financial services and property group boasting prodigious asset growth and offering exorbitant interest rates even as markets were heading sharply in the opposite direction, while providing next to no detailed earnings- or balance-sheet information. Sounds like an institution to bet your life savings on, eh? Yet the headline issue of 20/20 for 20 was who had sat in Stanford's lap. At least the West Indies Cricket Board extracted some value from its dabblings with Stanford. The ECB has made itself a laughing stock - correction, a bigger laughing stock, because everyone's sides are still sore from the revolving-door exits of a disoriented Kevin Pietersen and Peter Moores.
The WICB, furthermore, had at least some reason, in their church mouse-poor region, for accepting Stanford at face value. The ECB is wealthy, secure, and apparently populated by men who understand business: those ever-so-impressive individuals behind whom sporting organisations have, during the last decade or so, fallen in obedient lockstep. Chairman Giles Clarke was an investment banker at CS First Boston; chief executive David Collier was a senior vice-president at American Airlines; its board consists, according to the ECB website, of "ten experienced non-executive directors". (True enough, in a way: if they weren't experienced before, they are certainly experienced now).
Little in cricket, of course, is completely without precedent. Sponsors, broadcasters and corporate partners do go broke from time to time. Cricket Australia's very first financial backer, Vehicle & General Insurance, which 40 years ago bought naming rights to this country's inaugural one-day domestic competition, collapsed after a season. But that dates from days when the game's governance was in the hands of genteel, sinecured amateurs. The ECB boasts income of about £100 million. It claims to have performed due diligence on Stanford Financial. Yet if this wasn't cursory, it must at best have been naïve. Something like: "Rich? Of course! I saw his money. It was there, in the Perspex box. He arrived in a helicopter for goodness sake - don't you know anything?" Because if the ECB did nurse apprehensions about Stanford's financial status and failed to impart them before Clarke's recent re-election, that raises many more interesting questions. Whatever the case, Clarke's celebration of his new term of office richly deserves to be the shortest in history.
 
 
The ECB claims to have performed due diligence on Stanford Financial. Yet if this wasn't cursory, it must at best have been naïve. Something like: "Rich? Of course! I saw his money. It was there, in the Perspex box. He arrived in a helicopter for goodness sake - don't you know anything?"
 
Much more will and should emerge about cricket's entanglement with the enigmatic Stanford, but something is already very obvious about the revolution the game is undergoing. Consider the relationship between cricket and the world economy - consider it, because there is actually not a huge amount to say. Test cricket is 132 years old, yet its success and failure have been relatively little influenced by exogenous economic events. In fact, during both the Great Depression of the 1930s and the stagflation/oil shocks of the 1970s, cricket was strong and vibrant.
In the last 30 years, by contrast, cricket's prosperity has been shaped increasingly by corporate interests: sponsors, broadcasters, licensees, and lately the franchisees of the Indian Premier League, plus private impresarios like Stanford and Subhash Chandra. Because the investment climate has been relatively benign, cricket and cricketers have benefited handsomely - to the extent of sovereign boards becoming sizeable commercial enterprises and players being paid millions of dollars for a few weeks of Twenty20 in the IPL, not necessarily because they are operating more effectively or playing better but because their assessed market value has risen.
Yet in many respects, the finances of the game remain precarious, even desperate. Last week, to choose a news item at random, Cricinfo reported that Derbyshire CCC had declared its third consecutive annual surplus: £14,065. Their chief executive paid tribute to "the outstanding hard work of the off field team". Doubtless true, but it is a lot of hard graft for not much.
Perhaps it is time to start wondering exactly how cricket would cope in the event of commercial default precipitating a serious insolvency in its own ranks: the failure of a county, state, province, or even a country. The last is more than a reckless fantasy: the boards of Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Zimbabwe operate under perennial financial stresses; the post-Stanford WICB invites a close look too. Would the state bail the failure out? Would the ICC act as a lender of last resort? Would India? Horatio Bottomley always had a plan: when creditors, process servers and discarded mistresses came calling, he availed himself of a secret door in the back wall of his Long Acre office. Where is cricket's emergency exit?

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer