Allen Stanford - the American crook who bought cricket’s soul in the Caribbean

Ireland’s Ed Joyce and Tim Murtagh were on the 2008 tour organised by Texan fraudster

"Some of the girls I'm coaching have been messaging saying 'I can't believe you were there'". The incredulity described by Ed Joyce, the former Ireland international and current women's head coach, pretty much sums up the universal reaction to cricket's involvement with Allen Stanford.

Formerly Sir Allen, this Texan tycoon, financial fraudster and supposed billionaire even managed to get himself knighted. That is, until the honour was revoked when his crimes came to light. We'll get to that.

In 2012 after an FBI and US Securities and Exchange Commission investigation, Stanford was found guilty of running a Ponzi scheme, defrauding countless investors of billions of dollars. Money laundering was also allegedly involved in his story (though Stanford was never charged with laundering offences), as were drug cartels and extra-marital affairs. Stanford remains in prison currently serving a 110-year sentence.

The exact numbers involved in his company, Stanford International Bank, are difficult to quantify. What is certain is that upon his sentencing, Stanford was ordered to surrender $5.9 billion.

The bizarre tale of this criminal’s investment in cricket took place back in 2008, but has been catapulted back into the public eye thanks to two recent documentaries, both called The Man Who Bought Cricket. One was a podcast produced by the BBC, the other a three part video series on Sky.

To be fair to the countless other nations that play the sport, it was solely English and Caribbean cricket that Stanford temporarily ‘bought’. His involvement started in 2008 and ended the following year when he was taken into custody.

Stanford based himself in Antigua. Being the island’s largest employer, he was widely seen as a hero, hence the knighthood. He also pumped his (well, it probably wasn’t his, as we now know) wealth into West Indian cricket.

According to the Sky documentary, Stanford wanted to build his profile in the UK, so - ever the showman - he flew to London and landed a helicopter at Lord’s, English cricket’s spiritual home.

$20 million

The England Cricket Board (ECB) welcomed him with open arms. What he had to offer was $20 million in prize money for the winner of a one-off match in the stadium he built back in Antigua. The competitors were to be England and a Stanford Superstars side - essentially the West Indian national team. It was the richest single payday in the history of team sports. The ECB asked where to sign.

England went to Antigua in October 2008. They were joined by Middlesex, the winners of a domestic English tournament that year. Trinidad & Tobago, champions of the equivalent Caribbean competition, also tagged along since England and the Superstars needed warm-up games before their contest. Middlesex and Trinidad had a one-off cash showdown between themselves, but it was for $280,000, far less than the $20 million figure offered to their international counterparts.

Eagle-eyed Irish viewers of the Sky documentary would have noticed a few familiar faces. Joyce was there alongside fellow Ireland international Tim Murtagh, both playing in Middlesex's distinctive pink jerseys.

For many, the idea of the big money games just ‘wasn’t cricket’. Joyce makes his attitude towards the Caribbean trip abundantly clear: “Honestly from our point of view we were on holiday.

“It didn’t seem strange at all. This super wealthy guy thought it was a good idea so we didn’t question it. Not many people would have known who Allen Stanford was before, so it just wasn’t a big deal.

"Myself and my wife got married just before it, we were supposed to go on honeymoon straight after the summer to Argentina and we ended up going to Antigua for a cricket tour instead. It typified our relationship; she calls herself a cricket widow, sacrificing her honeymoon for a tour."

Murtagh echoes similarly positive sentiments: “To be fair the whole thing was really well run. People picked us up from the airport, they all had the Stanford clothing with logos on, the buses had Middlesex plastered on the side, it was all professionally done. We stayed at a place called Jolly Beach, an all-inclusive resort.

“The ground itself was quite picturesque, nice grassy banks around it, but I remember the facilities being pretty ropey.”

These facilities ended up costing Joyce and his Middlesex teammates a bit of cash. During their $280,000 match against Trinidad & Tobago, an expensive dropped catch was blamed on the ground’s lighting.

"I dropped a bit of money for the lads alright" admits Joyce. "We didn't get much of a score but it wasn't a great wicket and we actually were doing quite well, but then I dropped Darren Bravo at long on."

Murtagh adds some important context in jest, but to be fair to his former teammate, he is quick to point out a mitigating floodlight issue at Stanford’s ground that caused catching problems for all the teams: “Bravo went on to score the runs that won them the game! The lights were so low at the ground that any ball that went up above them, you lost sight of it - they were terrible. I’ll give him (Joyce) a little bit of leeway there but he definitely spilled a catch that might have cost us.”

"Andrew Strauss dropped one of the easiest chances" Joyce helpfully points out, referencing the then future England captain. "It was a tricky ground to field at."

Stanford was obviously not involved in the cricket, but he still did everything he could to make himself the star of the show. Murtagh recalls a strange encounter when the Texan entered the Middlesex changing room to say hello: “The dressingroom in sports is a sanctuary and not even members of management from your own county or country come in there.

“He (Stanford) constantly had a TV crew with him the whole time, so he walked in, shook everyone’s hand, sat down and had a beer with us. It was friendly and chatty enough but the fact that this bloke just bowled in was bizarre.

“Everyone went along with it since he was bankrolling the whole thing, it was like ‘be nice to this rich American bloke that none of us know, play our games, have the trip and then get out of there’.”

Joyce agrees: “It was his ground, his rules.”

Power

Stanford clearly thought that his cash gave him power over the players. He tried to further show them who was boss during Middlesex’s clash with England. The Sky series details how, in the middle of the game, he popped up on the ground’s big screen with one woman sat on his knee and his arms wrapped around two more. Some of them turned out to be wives and girlfriends of the England players. You can guess their reaction, given how the partners were put in such an awkward position, even if Stanford claimed to not know who they were.

Joyce moved clubs to Sussex the following season and two of his new teammates, Matt Prior and Luke Wright, saw their partners caught up in Stanford's off-field carnival. The episode and the Antigua experience as a whole did briefly come up in conversation: "It was a talking point between the lads since they were part of that England team but they didn't talk about the tour that much because they didn't win their game (the Superstars won the $20 million).

“I do remember the girls, they were just having a good time, thinking who was this guy with all this money, having a few drinks.

“They (the England players) were higher profile than we were and I remember them not being particularly happy about the whole thing. I can understand why, big schedules for those guys, big superstars and they’re almost being paraded by an American businessman (acting in this way).”

There is of course a more sinister side to this Caribbean jolly. It was an all-expenses paid holiday with a bit of semi-serious cricket for Middlesex, but given what we now know about Stanford, whose money actually paid those expenses?

Nobody blames the players, they were just fulfilling a schedule handed to them by organisers. The real questions should be aimed at the governing bodies that associated their talent with Stanford.

“It affected people’s lives and you felt bad” admits Murtagh. “I guess he used that money to pay for us to fly out there, to be put up in the nice five star resort, so now thinking back it’s the first time you realise it was normal people’s money and their life savings, money they never saw again.

“We relied on the ECB to have done their due diligence and worked out if it was the right thing to do.”

As Joyce succinctly adds: “That’s where the ECB have egg on their face, getting into bed with a massive crook.”