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ECB hit for six by Stanford

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Mihir Bose | 14:46 UK time, Wednesday, 18 February 2009

The main charge against the England and Wales Cricket Board on the issue of Sir Allen Stanford is not so much the question of whether it could have carried out better financial diligence - I shall return to the issue - but that it ever agreed to let the England team play in a match organised by a private individual.

It is important to note that many other cricket boards, and in particular the Indian Board, would never have considered that.

Back in 1991, after the Indian team had played in matches organised by private individuals in various parts of the world, the Indian board passed an unanimous resolution that stipulated that the national team would only play in matches organised by a recognised cricket board affiliated to the International Cricket Council.

It was on this basis that the Indian board rejected overtures from Stanford, who also failed to persuade the boards of Australia, South Africa and New Zealand to take on his team of All Stars.

Stanford had been knocking on the doors of cricket boards for some time. In Johannesburg for the final of the first Twenty20 World Cup in September 2007, he held a meeting with the ICC on the morning of the final at the Sandton Sun and Towers Hotel.

Sir Allen Stanford flies into Lord's to announce details of the Super Series

Turning up with his West Indian greats, which included Wes Hall, Sir Vivian Richards, Desmond Haynes, Courtney Walsh and Michael Holding, he met a team from the ICC that included then chief executive Malcolm Speed, president Ray Mali and president-elect David Morgan, plus two general managers.

There had already been contact between Stanford and the ICC. ICC officials felt they could not ignore the Texan businessman, fearing he might set up a rival cricket tournament outside ICC control if he was just brushed aside.

Under discussion at the meeting was the possibility of two full members of the ICC playing a match against the Stanford All Stars each year. But the meeting in Sandton went badly. The moment it began Stanford revealed that he had changed his mind. What he wanted instead was a game between his All Stars and the winners of the Twenty20 final between India and Pakistan. Failing that, he asserted, the next visitors to the Caribbean, which would be Australia, should provide the opposition.

The meeting soon got heated and eventually had to be adjourned. The Indians, who went on to win the final, rejected Stanford's proposals and decided to set up the Indian Premier League instead. The Australians also rejected talk of a match against the All Stars, while several other cricket bodies dismissed Stanford's advances. The only joy he got was from England and, of course, the West Indies, a country he already had close links with.

The issue here is very simple. A cricket board is the regulatory body for cricket in the country or territory it covers. A private individual or company can use a match to advertise its products. It can also sponsor games. But it cannot be an organiser. In other words, matches or series must be played between recognised bodies, ones that possess similar, if not the same, regulatory powers. However, the ECB decided to ignore this principle. While the ICC was prepared to explore Stanford's proposals, only to be ultimately put off by his demands, the ECB jumped into bed with the billionaire.

Giles Clarke, the chairman of the ECB, has strenuously denied that his organisation could have done more to check out Stanford financially. They made sure he had the ability to pay the money he was promising. What more could they have done? It is important to stress that at that stage there was no hint of the problems Stanford would face. And while the charges made by the US Securities and Exchange Commission could not be graver, they are only charges at this stage, nothing has been proven.

It is easy to see how Stanford could have charmed Clarke. I myself, during a brief interview, found the Texan charming, but then I was not doing business with him. That said, there can be no sympathy for the ECB when it comes to the reasons it gives for jumping into bed with him.

Giles Clarke, ECB chairman

The ECB claims it did it to revive cricket in the Caribbean and promote the Chance to Shine initiative, which attempts to expand the youth game. These reasons are a fig leaf. The real reason was expediency. The ECB was trying to recoup ground it had lost as a result of its failed strategy in relation to the Indian Premier League and the impact this was having on England's leading players.

Allowing a private individual to organise a match and failing to come to terms with the Indians was, as Gandhi once said on a somewhat different issue, a "Himalayan blunder".

It will be interesting to see how Clarke and the ECB recover. He will be under pressure from the counties, some of whom are feeling the credit crunch, to dip into the ECB contingency fund. This reserve is believed to be £25m and is necessary in case Test and one-day matches are cancelled due to security issues. Several chairmen urged the ECB to release some of this money back in January. Now with the Stanford cash drying up, those calls will be renewed and the ECB may not be able to fend them off so easily now.

Clarke will also have to deal with the damage done to English cricket by its association with Stanford. The only silver lining for him is that relations with India have been repaired thanks in part to England's decision to recommence their tour there in the wake of the Mumbai terror attacks.

As for the Indians, they could not be more delighted with Stanford's fall. Clarke needs to build on this. The Indian board can be difficult to deal with at times, but they are a proper board and infinitely preferable to a private entrepreneur whose background may well prove dodgy. It is a rocky road but the only one left for the ECB.

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