The day Allen Stanford landed as a 'messiah' at the Mecca of cricket

Allen Stanford talks to the press during the press conference for the Stanford 2020 tournament at Lord s Cricket Ground on June 11, 2008 in London © Getty Images

On June 11, 2008, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) inked a lucrative deal with the American billionaire Allen Stanford. It was supposed to be the ‘golden goose’ that gave England some standing in a world that was ‘threatened’ by the Indian Premier League (IPL). However, it all fizzled out in dramatic circumstances. Nishad Pai Vaidya looks back at a forgettable episode in English cricket.

 
The advent of T20 cricket promised to revolutionise the modern sport. While the purists lamented that it may be detrimental to the classical format, its monetary benefits were unmistakable. The mushrooming of numerous T20 leagues around the world, the Indian Premier League (IPL) to begin with, only strengthened its appeal as boards looked at it as a lucrative option. Thus, it was no surprise when the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) inked a $100 million deal with American businessman Allen Stanford on this day in 2008.

Stanford seemed to a larger than life figure with deep pockets. He came as a messiah for West Indies cricket — the once formidable world-beaters who had lost their sheen and glory. From losing their form at the highest level to the paucity of funds, West Indies cricket was stuttering. In came Stanford and announced an outrageous investment into the sport in the Caribbean. The islands then competed in the first Stanford T20 in 2006. The second edition was held in the first half of 2008, before the first IPL.

Looking at Stanford’s financial power and sensing the threat from the IPL, the ECB may well have contemplated a huge deal. Even today, the ECB shares a love-hate relationship with the IPL and the seeds were sown in the very first season. Ten days after the inaugural edition of the IPL concluded, Stanford landed at the Mecca of Cricket, Lord’s in a helicopter to signal success and the dawn of a new era for English cricket.

The day Allen Stanford landed as a 'messiah' at the Mecca of cricket

Sir Allen Stanford (left) is met by ECB Chairman Giles Clarke after arriving by helicopter at Lord s Cricket Ground on June 11, 2008 in London, England © Getty Images

At the outset, it looked like an attempt by the ECB to break the shackles and take a different tangent from their traditional structure. Even the staunchest purists, sitting inside the sacred territory at Lord’s may have been lured by the appeal. The whole deal had its critics, but many felt it could help English cricket.
Under the whole programme, an England side was to take on a Stanford Superstars line-up from the Caribbean in a winner takes it all contest. The prize money for such a contest was $20 million. When spread over five years, this investment totaled up to the $100 million. This was Stanford’s major victory. He had first approached South Africa with a similar deal, but was turned away. India also rejected his proposal and started its own T20 brand. This was Stanford’s arrival at the world stage.

The flamboyant millionaire seemed confident of his model. Beaming with poise, he told journalists: “I see the Stanford 20/20 as a fantastic opportunity for current players in the Stanford 20/20 tournament to take a giant leap into the spotlight and gain exposure to top class opposition. The Stanford 20/20 for 20 will be a highly anticipated event, not just because of the prize money, but because of the traditional friendly rivalry that exists between England and the West Indies.”  

The figures were mind-boggling. If the IPL auction earlier that year had surprised people, this made them watch in shock. How could a team that won a game of cricket in the space of three hours run away with everything? Like the IPL auction, this too wasn’t seen before. Stanford even went on to challenge Test cricket when he said, “Test cricket is not going to be the revenue generator that Twenty20 can be. Twenty20 can generate revenue through television.” Arrogance was it? The answers were waiting a few months down the line.

What happened later?

Amidst all the hype and drama, the Stanford T20 for 20 was played on November 1, 2008 at the Stanford Cricket Ground in Antigua. That venue was Stanford’s own baby as he tried to pump life into West Indian cricket. In the lead-up to the big clash, there were matches involving Trinidad and Tobago and Middlesex. On the big day, England were walloped by the Chris Gayle led Stanford Superstars. An out of depth England side were bundled out for 99 as the Superstars chased it with all wickets in hand.

However, more than the on-field action, the off-field events grabbed the headlines. During one of the matches in the series, Stanford was seen sitting with the wives of the English players. Matt Prior’s wife, who was pregnant, was captured sitting on the billionaires’ lap. Daily Mail quoted an England player saying, “If that was my wife he’d put on his lap I would have wanted to punch him.”

The English cricket establishment watched in horror as their supposed ‘Golden Goose’ didn’t garner the right interest. Their team also buckled under the weight of the cash that could have come their way.
It all looked like a dream with all that money coming in. Some said it was an illusion and they were vindicated early next year when Stanford was arrested on allegations of fraud through his investment company. The ECB broke its association with him immediately. He even lost his knighthood. The final nail in the coffin came when he was convicted in 2012 and sentenced to 110 years in prison for running a huge Ponzi scheme. It is an episode English cricket would like to forget.

The day Allen Stanford landed as a 'messiah' at the Mecca of cricket

Robert Allen Stanford arrives for a bond hearing at the Bob Casey Federal Courthouse June 25, 2009 in Houston, Texas. Stanford, chairman and CEO of Stanford Financial, has been indicted on 21 counts of conspiracy, wire fraud, mail fraud and obstruction of justice, and conspiracy to launder money in a seven billion USD fraud involving certificates of deposit issued by his offshore bank in Antigua © Getty Images

(Nishad Pai Vaidya is a Correspondent with cricketcountry.com and anchor for the site’s YouTube Channel. His Twitter handle is @nishad_44)