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Skilful decisions needed by ECB

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Mihir Bose | 18:35 UK time, Thursday, 18 December 2008

Sir Allen Stanford may or may not stay with cricket, but the events of the last 24 hours and the conflicting statements about his intentions - first he was evaluating his options which suggested he was on his way out of the door, then he announced he was committed to English cricket - merely reinforcing the impression I formed last November after the highly-publicised million-dollar match in the Caribbean.

I returned from Antigua extremely doubtful that the Stanford Super Series would do anything for West Indian cricket and utterly convinced the England and Wales Cricket Board had taken a wrong turn.

This marriage between the Texan billionaire and England was a hasty wedding conceived for the wrong reasons. It was driven by naked money-making ambitions yet clothed in high-sounding talk of doing good for our fellow men and reviving West Indian cricket in particular.

English cricket insisted it was not getting into bed with Stanford simply to seek compensation for its decision to shun the Indian Premier League. According to Giles Clarke, head of the ECB, it was also doing its bit for West Indian cricket. After all, what could be more noble than helping restore that once great cricket power, one we all love whatever our allegiance, to its rightful position high up in cricket, lovely, cricket?

Now let me make it clear, I am an old romantic when it comes to West Indian cricket. My formative cricket years are full of memories of Gary Sobers, Rohan Kanhai, Wesley Hall, Lance Gibbs, Basil Butcher, even that wild man Roy Gilchrist, the most fearsome fast bowler I have ever seen. If I had had a son, I would have named him Rohan. I wanted to bat like him, complete with falling hook and all.

Nobody who grew up in the 1960s, as I did, can deny the huge influence of West Indian cricket:

How the 1960-61 series against Australia, which saw the first-ever tied match, revived Test cricket when everybody thought it was dying.

How the West Indian tour of England in 1963 so utterly changed English cricket that from the mid-60s there were twin-tour summers and a relaxation of the rules for overseas players in county cricket.

And, of course, anyone who has read CLR James's Beyond A Boundary, the greatest of sporting books, will be aware of the enormous influence sport can have on the social and political life of nations.

To see a mighty West Indies again would be marvellous. But don't kid yourself. Even if there is a revival, it will make no difference to the modern economic realities of the game.

I know how much sports fans hate talking of the business of sport but cricket is big business and it is controlled by India. West Indies is a collection of disparate islands.

There is no West Indian nation, no integrated economic unit to match India, the second most populous country which provides such a large chunk of world cricket's income.

If West Indian cricket is to be revived, it will need to address the way it is run. Even before the lucrative Stanford match, there were signs that the very structure of West Indian cricket - many competing islands in an unwieldy board - was so flawed many prominent West Indians were in despair.

Sir Vivian Richards, among others, felt all was not well with Stanford and the West Indian board. He told me that some of the money the Texan wanted to invest had not been handed over because of problems with the board. Indeed, Richards went on to say that he feared for the game in that part of the world because of the way the board functioned, or rather did not function.

Stanford himself was less than happy after a court ruling in London before the Stanford Super Series denied him the opportunity to do business with the sponsor he had lined up. The result? Lost money all round for the game in the West Indies.

The Superstars celebrate

It is interesting to note that, following the match between England and the Stanford Superstars, the media made much of the latter's 10-wicket victory and how this would help revitalise the game in the West Indies.

Stanford, however, seemed to make little of the triumph. Now we know why. He was clearly rethinking his options. He has already disbanded the Stanford Legends, an ambassadorial vehicle that he used to bring together such West Indian greats as Hall and Richards.

There was also talk that Stanford's Twenty20 competitions would help take cricket to the United States, a long-held dream. It was always unlikely - and the evidence is that they have thus far made little or no impression. The conclusion is obvious: it is not that easy to break into the American sports market, as football knows only too well.

In essence, however, the most fantastic ambition of this misconceived marriage was that English cricket would emerge with a Twenty20 format that could prove a viable rival to the Indians.

We have never been given details of how this was going to be done, and I am told that even some on the ECB board have not heard them. It is hard to envisage how England and Stanford could take on the Indians and the rest of world cricket. The Indians, to their credit, have devised a domestic cricket format that works.

Cricket is that odd team game where most of the money, if not nearly all, is generated by international matches. It is international cricket that nourishes the domestic game. That is what happens in England and all over the world.

The IPL is more like football's English Premier League, on which it is modelled. It has also managed to marry cricket with Bollywood, a more powerful and enduring alliance than the one between English cricket and Stanford.

The whole Stanford issue raises questions about English cricket's decision to take such a disastrous wrong turn last summer. Whatever happens, it will take a lot of skill to ensure they get back on the right track.


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