Stanford Twenty20: The game of cricket will be the loser in this ‘single richest match’

2008-10-10 00:00

Every once in a while a leading sportsman stands up and speaks the truth. It happens so rarely in this age of spin doctors and PR consultants that the spectacle can seem shocking.

Alistair Cook is an established top-order batsman in the England cricket team. Born on Christmas Day 1984, a former choir boy at St Paul’s Cathedral and a much-lauded schoolboy hero at Bedford School, the tall, dark left-hander has always looked the part and is widely tipped as a future England captain.

On Wednesday this week, he turned up at the BBC television centre in Wood Lane, west London and, smiling in the warm autumn sunshine, calmly and confidently answered a series of questions about the imminent Stanford Twenty20 cricket extravaganza due to take place next month in Antigua.

“A million dollars, I think,” he said. “It’s an extraordinary game. This is cricket going to a level that none of us has ever experienced, or anyone has ever experienced, playing for that much money, but, in terms of the actual cricket, it’s quite unimportant, apart from financially. We’ll use it as a warm-up for the Twenty20 World Cup in England next year.”

The interviewer asked: “So if it wasn’t for the money, it wouldn’t be such an important match?”.

Cook replied: “No, of course it wouldn’t. It’s just a one-off game. Money does talk and obviously a lot of the players are excited about playing it, but we know that, in terms of the cricket, it’s not that important. If you talk about playing for the Ashes or the Stanford millions, there’s only one winner.”

“And what have you guys been told about it? Do you know any more than we do?”.

“No, no. I don’t think even the English Cricket Board [ECB] know too much about it.”

Even the most casual observer of international cricket will have noticed the gentleman’s game has recently been flooded by Indian money, washing away any remnant of integrity and class. The ICC has lost control of the sport, dithering while a variety of entrepreneurs and egomaniacs run amok.

Who can tell whether either word can be fairly applied to Sir Allen Stanford? The billionaire financier, a fifth-generation Texan who took up dual citizenship with Antigua and Barbuda 10 years ago, emerged some years ago as the self-styled saviour of West Indies cricket; however, perhaps feeling overshadowed by the Indian Premier League, he has shacked up with the ECB to create something an even richer event.

The result is the Stanford 20/20 for 20 Super Series, which, following this week’s resolution of a sponsorship row, will start on October 25 and culminate in a one-off match between England and the West Indies on Saturday, November 1. The winning team will supposedly take home a staggering $20 million.

“One night. One shot. $20 million. There can only be one,” boasts the publicity for the event that accurately claims to be the single richest match in the history of the sport.

Anybody who has ever had anything to do with professional sportsmen will find it difficult to believe the two sets of players will not get together beforehand and discretely agree to split the money whatever the result. Even so, at least the illusion of a winner-takes-all thrash is appealing, particularly if a player drops a catch that costs himself and his team-mates $1 million each.

Whatever happens on the night, cricket’s tragedy is that this surge of revenue into the game is being channelled into the pockets of a chosen few players, those fortunate enough to hold Stanford, IPL or ICL contracts, at a time when so many clubs and grassroots structures around the world quietly sink into poverty.

Sure, there is a short-term spectacle to be enjoyed, but long after the fireworks have fizzled out, long after the Texan billionaires and Indian movie stars have moved on, the signs of neglected roots will appear and people will ask the ICC why on earth this amazing windfall was not used for the greater good.

By then, as the famine follows the feast, as it always does, it won’t only be Alistair Cook saying the cricket seems quite unimportant.

•Edward Griffiths, journalist, author and former CEO of SA Rugby, can be contacted at www.onesmallvoice.co.za.

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