Packer for the 21st century

A Texan billionaire is trying to shake up Caribbean cricket from the top downwards - what's it all about?

Edward Craig

A Texan billionaire is trying to shake up Caribbean cricket from the top downwards - what's it all about?

The Stanford 20/20 will involve 19 Caribbean countries © Cricinfo Ltd.
So this is where the once great, all-conquering West Indians have ended up: PR for the travel industry. At the World Travel Market in London Joel Garner towers over the Barbados stand next to a stooping Garry Sobers; Viv Richards clutches a rum punch, chatting to Richie Richardson on the Antiguan stand; Gordon Greenidge floats between the two groups - all just faces in the crowd. The supreme sportsmen of their generation now battle to maintain the Caribbean's profile, one they had worked so hard to establish in the first place.
Tourism is fundamental to the Caribbean economies and, Brian Lara apart, these legends are still the best ambassadors the region has to offer which is why they have to spend a week schmoozing and sipping cocktails with the travel industry, making small-talk about West Indies' latest debacle in Australia.
But there is a new item on the agenda. An Antigua-based, Texan billionaire has pledged a serious sum of money to a new tournament in the Caribbean. And the first people he approached to help promote it were the men who made West Indies cricket great. He convinced 14 greats of the game, from Sir Everton Weekes to Ian Bishop, to endorse his project.
Allen Stanford's five-week tournament is scheduled for August or September 2006 and has a budget of $28m, including a $1m first prize and a total $2.1m in prize money. The Stanford 20/20 will involve 19 Caribbean countries, playing a knock-out 20-over-a-side competition with man-of-the-match awards of $25,000 each, funding for each participating team and the chance for players to be selected for a Stanford Super Star team. This side will then take on two world-class sides with a staggering prize fund of $5m.
Stanford has unashamedly copied Kerry Packer's blueprint by using private funds to set up a lucrative and independent tournament not endorsed by the national board. He has, though, an initial, tentative blessing from the West Indies board (WICB).
Richardson says it is the injection West Indian cricket needs, particularly with the World Cup on the horizon: "There will be no entrance fees, it will be a carnival, a wonderful atmosphere, lots of entertainment and the players will take it seriously as there will be a lot of money involved. This tournament will assist the players getting ready for the World Cup 2007."
Greenidge, though, thinks there is another purpose: "It is designed to showcase players, new players within the Caribbean from all the territories as they are all invited. Hopefully we can find one or two that we would not have seen otherwise. If you can widen the base, the pyramid starts to take shape."

St. Kitts PM Andy Roberts and Allen Stanford © Cricinfo Ltd
It is a big if. The event was launched with a fanfare at the beginning of October but details are sketchy. There are no definite dates yet, the West Indies board and the 14 ex-players do not seem entirely in agreement about its purpose and the WICB now refuses to comment on its exact status. There is scepticism, especially with the sums involved. It is similar to Kerry Packer's emergence in Australia 28 years ago: players are excited, the board is scared and the media want to know what Stanford is really up to.
By employing the past players he has skilfully won the battle for hearts and minds in the Caribbean. Cricket fans love the idea - internet noticeboards and chatrooms show wholehearted support - and detractors are up against the powerful voices of Clive Lloyd, Richards and Sobers. It takes a football administrator to fire the warning shots. Jack Warner, president of the region's football association, Concacaf, says Stanford is investing the wrong way round: "Stanford believes he can save cricket by building at the top. What he should have done with his money is invest in cricket from the bottom, build on the ground, go into youth programmes."
As the money and tournament are Stanford's he can, of course, do what he wants and cutting out the WICB is a good thing according to the ex-players. Richards and Richardson have barely concealed contempt for the way West Indian cricket is run. Richards says: "There are people in administrative positions that cannot be trusted. We need leaders not followers at all levels of West Indian cricket; this is the only way to improve." Richardson agrees: "At the moment we are fractured in many places. The whole system has to change." He also says Stanford does not trust the board. "Normally a big company would give the money to the board but he is doing it himself. That is his way of helping."
But what is in it for Stanford, a Texan who lives in Antigua, investing vast sums in cricket? It sounds incongruous. The answer is that he invests also in Antigua and the broad scope of the Caribbean. He is a businessman, does not expect to invest without return and appears to believe cricket holds an answer for the West Indies. "The 14 legends have given us a pride and passion for cricket which is unfortunately slipping away," he says. "When the cricket team is successful, the world takes note of a very small part of the world."
Stanford owns a Caribbean airline and hotels, has invested in companies and owns a bank in the region. If the profile and attention in Antigua and the rest of the West Indies increases, he will make more money. And that is why some of the games' greatest names are at a trade show in London discussing the price of ferry tickets to Barbuda.
This article was first published in the January issue of The Wisden Cricketer.
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Edward Craig is deputy editor of The Wisden Cricketer