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Australia forced to take sides

Australia is caught in the middle of a brawl between financial superpower India and traditional ally England over rival Twenty20 leagues.

With millions of dollars in prizemoney for Victorian and Western Australian players at stake, the dispute threatens to further fracture a cricket world deeply divided by the decision to keep the Champions Trophy in strife-torn Pakistan. James Sutherland, the Cricket Australia boss, and in-house lawyer Dean Kino have flown to Mumbai to meet the Indian Premier League supremo Lalit Modi.

If a compromise cannot be reached, Australia will be forced to choose whether its states compete in the "Indian" Champions League, a concept originally conceived by Sutherland, or an English version financially backed by the royal family of Abu Dhabi. Such a choice would present obvious dilemmas for Cricket Australia, which wants Indian players to appear in its own IPL-style Twenty20 league from 2009-10, and has invested significant time and resources in developing a business model for the Indian proposal, but which has an emotional attachment to the England and Wales Cricket Board stretching back 130 years.

The problem has arisen because India refuses to allow England counties containing players from the "rebel" Indian Cricket League to appear in the event featuring the best domestic Twenty20 sides from around the world, which is scheduled to be staged in India in late September or early October.

England argues that to ban the ICL players could amount to restraint of trade under European law, and in turn proposed its own rival event, to be staged in the Middle East in early October, also inviting Australian states to compete.

A spokesman for Cricket Australia said Sutherland remained optimistic that Victoria and WA (the states that qualified for the tournament by making the final of the Twenty20 Big Bash) would still compete on the international stage for a multi-million dollar prize.

However, he could not say which event Australia was more inclined to support. "Our desired outcome is to see a concept fly this year, which will allow our state sides to participate, which was always the ambition," said general manager of public affairs Peter Young.

The latest stand-off draws clear battle lines between England, which once dominated how the game was run and has sought to regain some influence under chairman Giles Clarke, and modern power India.

As the International Cricket Council, bruised by conflict over the legitimacy of Zimbabwe and the security situation in Pakistan, lurches from one crisis to the next, Australia will have to weigh the competing interests carefully. Australia, England, New Zealand and South Africa are considering whether to boycott the Champions Trophy for safety reasons or send second-rate teams after the Asian bloc voted to keep the tournament in Pakistan.

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