Thursday, April 25, 2024

TONY COZIER: Stanford’s stand


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ALLEN STANFORD’s typically defiant interview with the BBC from his prison cell in Florida last week revived mixed memories of the disgraced Texan billionaire’s involvement in West Indies cricket.

An imposing, self-centred individual, he maintained his innocence on indictment charges by the United States’ Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) of fraud, conspiracy and obstruction in February 2009 and subsequent sentencing to an improbable 110 years behind bars.

He spoke of his “hell” during nearly six years in prison, but confidently predicted he was “going to walk out of this place a free man”, showing no remorse for those who lost millions in his US$7 billion Ponzi scheme.

In 2006, proclaiming he had become a big enthusiast of cricket during his quarter-century residency in Antigua, he pumped US$38 million into the Stanford Twenty20 tournament, the first of its kind in the Caribbean. Its aim, he asserted, was to restore the region’s flagging game back to its former glory.

It was staged entirely at the small, neat, purpose-built, floodlit Stanford Cricket Ground adjacent to the international airport, encircled by boards exclusively advertising Stanford’s diverse empire, including two inter-island airlines that transported players and officials. It was all within the Stanford Complex comprising also the Stanford Investment Bank and Stanford offices, restaurants and newspaper plants. Television cameras that sent coverage of matches throughout the Caribbean and beyond were repeatedly trained on him.

It all explained his need to succeed at all costs.

He dished out US$280 000 in the inaugural series to each of the 19 participating teams for development and participation. Among them were The Bahamas, Bermuda, Cayman Islands and US Virgin Islands that had always been excluded from the mainstream of regional competitions.  

The Stanford Twenty20 offered prize money beyond the wildest imagination of the modestly paid West Indian players – US$1 million to the champion team, US$500 000 to the runners-up. One shot, the six by Narsingh Deonarine that won the first final for Guyana, was worth US$25 000, Man Of The Match Travis Dowlin pocketed US$100 000.

The prospects were exciting. Michael Atherton saw it as “perhaps the most significant event in world cricket at the moment”. Mark Nicholas wrote that “Stanford’s calypso cricket revolution might just save the game’s fall from grace”.

Such assessments seemed spot on. The Stanford Ground was filled to its 7 000 capacity for each match, the majority women and children, a new fan base.

No one expected the small fry to create upsets, but it did boost interest as well as giving the fishermen, hotel workers, carpenters and the like who made up their teams their moment in the spotlight.    

Stanford shrewdly signed eminent former players as directors of the operation, including West Indies selectors Gordon Greenidge and Andy Roberts. Sensing that it was all too good to be true, other West Indian legends opted out.

However, Stanford’s ambition went further following the second tournament. He announced that he would provide another US$100 million over three years to stage an annual international T20 tournament at his ground, offering the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) US$1 million to influence the International Cricket Council (ICC) to approve it. The ICC wasn’t convinced.

Stanford was undaunted. He proposed a play-off between four national teams with the winner to take on his Super Stars for a winner-take-all US$20 million.

In the end, for a variety of reasons, only the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) fell for the match, the self-styled 20-20 for US$20 million on November 1, 2008. It was the culmination of the Super Series that included the Stanford Twenty20 champions, Trinidad and Tobago, and the ECB champions, Middlesex.

Most England players were reluctant, unprepared participants. They were irked by their designation as England, rather than a less official title, while the West Indians were the Stanford Super Stars. Stanford’s ostentatious landing at hallowed Lord’s in a helicopter carrying a case supposedly filled with the US$20 million, to be greeted by ECB head Giles Clarke and CEO David Collier, was another deterrent.

Stanford ensured that his Super Stars had no such hang-ups. He assembled his men for a tough, lengthy training period under coaches Eldine Baptiste and Roger Harper. No-balls in the nets drew a fine. One player was dismissed for smoking marijuana.

The upshot was a thumping victory by ten wickets. Jonathan Agnew, the BBC commentator, said he hadn’t seen a recent West Indies team “as fit, focused, motivated or well prepared”. Nor has any since the Stanford Super Series collapsed on its financier’s arrest and conviction. The WICB has failed to take note.

Stanford’s demise did not hurt cricket alone.

In Antigua, hundreds of investors lost all they had in the billionaire Texan’s swindle and hundreds of those on his payroll as the major employer of the island’s population of 80 000 were instantly out of a job as he was escorted by three female guards, handcuffed and wearing the familiar orange garb of American prisoners, to his cell after his indictment for fraud.

That it is an affair West Indies believe is best forgotten is gauged by the absence of reports in the regional media of Stanford’s BBC interview. He now has his own battles to fight.

Tony Cozier is the most experienced cricket writer and broadcaster in the Caribbean.


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