Cricket bowled over by busting of billionaire

<img border='0' align='left' title=' ' src='' class='caption'> For England's cricket guardians, Stanford wealth provided them with a counterweight to India, the game's 900-pound gorilla.

Updated: February 25, 2009 16:03 IST
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With the wisdom of hindsight, it's easy to see why English cricket bosses fell head over heels for the charms of Allen Stanford's billions. Private helicopters and crateloads of cash can make even sober minds giddy.

Most of all, like any good sugar daddy, the Texas tycoon offered protection against the outside world. For England's cricket guardians, his wealth provided them with a counterweight to India, the game's 900-pound gorilla. As it turned out, it's a shame they declined to look Stanford's gift horse in the mouth.

The sellout of English cricket to Stanford, always controversial, screams of mismanagement now that the billionaire stands accused in his native United States of investment "fraud of shocking magnitude" by the financial market watchdogs at the Securities and Exchange Commission.

The SEC alleges that his offshore bank and financial companies lured investors with sham promises of high returns.

Also too good to be true was Stanford's sweet talk that the England and Wales Cricket Board, with its know-how and his deep pockets, could take cricket by storm and lead the Twenty20 revolution that is reshaping the game.

Even if ECB executives now succeed in convincing their many critics that they couldn't have known that Stanford would turn out to be as seemingly crooked as a Texan steer's horns, they look hopelessly naive for believing that he could help them compete against the Twenty20 onslaught from India.

With Stanford out of the picture, the lucrative Indian Premier League now looks even more like the only Twenty20 game in town. India's monster market of 1.1 billion largely cricket-mad people is the sport's cash cow, generating the lion's share of its global revenue. England players, not surprisingly, want to share in that wealth by playing in the IPL, with its juicy paychecks that attract big-name Indian and foreign stars.

For a while, Stanford's money bought the ECB time against the Indian juggernaut. The ECB was able to prevent English players from competing in the first IPL season last year in part because Stanford rolled up with a wallet-bulging, eye-popping alternative: a US$20 million Twenty20 match in the Caribbean.

To make sure that his money talked, Stanford showed off a clear plastic box full of the stuff _ bricks of $10,000 in $50 bills. The ECB swooned, letting him land like a messiah in his helicopter on the manicured grounds at Lord's. Against the intoxicating whiff of all that cash, it didn't seem to matter to the ECB that its savior found Test cricket "boring" _ a remark that had purists retching on their cucumber sandwiches.

In this era of instant everything, Stanford asked, who has the time to watch a Test match that lasts five days?

Brief 20-over games completed in a few hours, more easily packaged and sold to TV viewers with short attention-spans, are the future, he argued. Backed by his largesse, Twenty20 cricket "has the potential to be the most popular team sport in the whole world," and the ECB and its West Indian allies could lead the charge if they "take this sport now, as they say in Texas, by the horns," Stanford gushed enticingly.

Stanford also played to the cultural differences that often color cricketing relations between England and India, its former colony. His suggestions that the Indians can't really be trusted to lead the Twenty20 revolution spoke to those in English cricket who bridle at the shift to Asia of the sport's center of gravity and feel that it is being cheapened by the colorful, innovative and highly commercial spectacle of the IPL.

"No disrespect to the Indians or the IPL, no disrespect whatsoever. They did this too fast, too quick. The ECB's taking a more logical approach. They have a better structure," said Stanford.

It seems now that the only question ECB executives posed was 'where do we sign up?' Warning signs over the years suggesting that Stanford's business wasn't what it seemed were apparently overlooked. But, to be fair, the SEC seemingly made that mistake, too. With ECB blessing, a team of England stars was dutifully flown over to the Caribbean to be thrashed last November by a West Indian squad of "Stanford Superstars'" at the tycoon's Stanford Ground on the island of Antigua. The victors got $1 million each; the English got zilch.

Now stripped of that Stanford bargaining chip, the ECB will find the lure of Indian paydays for its cricketers even harder to fend off. The ECB had begun to bend to the inevitable even before the SEC charged Stanford last week with perpetrating an $8 billion investment fraud, releasing the likes of Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff to the IPL this year.

Despite a clash with the early part of its own domestic season, the ECB is allowing the two former England captains to play for the first three weeks of the six-week IPL competition that starts April 10. The pair fetched record salaries of $1.55 million each at the league's player auction.

The next step could be the ECB clearing the England calendar completely in future years so that players can play for the entire or more of the IPL season.

The Indians "seem to have captured the market," says Dougie Brown, chairman of England's Professional Cricketers' Association. "They came out of the Stanford situation very well indeed."

So perhaps Stanford was right: Twenty20 is the future of the game. But it will be led by India, not England.

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