February 18, 2009 7:47 pm

Poor judgment exposed

On the day of the final of cricket’s first World Twenty20 tournament nearly 18 months ago, the game’s rulers met Sir Allen Stanford in a hotel room in Johannesburg: His room, he insisted, not the one they had hired.

The senior officers of the International Cricket Council (ICC) thought they were meeting to discuss a scheme to arrange a tournament between some of cricket’s leading nations and a team of Stanford all-stars.

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Matthew Engel

Malcolm Speed, the ICC’s then chief executive, had a large folder with carefully drawn-up plans as to how such an event might work.

The officials entered the room to find a claque of famous West Indian cricketers surrounding Sir Allen. Mr Speed began outlining the contents of his dossier and the ways in which he thought this scheme might be put into practice. He didn’t get very far. “Oh, no,” said Sir Allen. “I’ve changed my mind. I just want to play the winner of today’s game.”

It is fair to say that the ICC does not have a great reputation within cricket for sound judgment. But it has its limits. And its officers decided there and then that not merely did they not wish to go up the jungle with this man, they were getting out of the canoe straight away.

Many within cricket suspected not everything about the Stanford empire might be as it seemed. A few were aware of specific allegations in the public domain, including those from regulatory sources and ex-employees. Some of those who dealt with Sir Allen quickly concluded that he was a bumptious egotist who knew nothing about cricket and cared less.

A great many more took one look at his stick-on smile and his moustache, a sort rarely seen since the heyday of the 1930s cad, and took an instant dislike.

This is a game with global reach – the ten major cricket-playing countries are spread over six continents. Its leading players now aspire to and demand considerable wealth.

But it has never had the depth or resources of the great world sports – football, tennis, golf. And if Texans come along bearing gifts, it cannot spurn them on principle.

In any case, cricket is a game with a long memory and is still seared by the schism of the late 1970s when media tycoon Kerry Packer tried and failed to buy the Australian TV rights, and then bought the world’s leading players as a consolation prize.

And now there is Twenty20 cricket, the new bite-sized version in which a complex and profound game that can last five days is pared down to a three-hour hitting contest. This is so popular there were realistic fears that the Stanford intervention might head in the same direction as Packer’s. If the administrators refused to endorse his matches, he might stage them anyway.

Two of cricket’s leading powers failed to get out of the canoe. The enfeeblement of the once-mighty West Indies, on the field and off, is now so total that, given Sir Allen’s power within the region, it had no chance of resisting.

The case of the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) is more complex. Twenty20 cricket was the ECB’s invention and it proved an instant success when it was unveiled in 2003. But India, now cricket’s financial superpower, has in effect kidnapped England’s baby.

It has also taken over England’s once-undisputed lead role in cricket politics. India has weight of numbers (two-thirds of cricket’s core market of 1.6bn people) and increasing wealth. Furthermore, cricket is the overwhelmingly dominant sport within India.

Once India embraced Twenty20, backed by industry and Bollywood, it did so without reservation or inhibition, and the Indian Premier League, which began last year, became the major source of income for the game’s leading performers.

The ECB, headed by chairman Giles Clarke and chief executive David Collier, saw Sir Allen as a vital counterweight to India.

With Stanford as an ally and a revenue source, the board felt it could negotiate with the Indians rather than kowtow. In their anxiety, Clarke and Collier appear to have suspended their disbelief and their better judgment.

matthew.engel@ft.com

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