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ECB interested in Caribbean bounty

England's cricketers could be the beneficiaries of the biggest payday in the sport's history.

Texan billionaire Sir Allen Stanford yesterday offered to fund a $20 million prize for the winner of a 20-over "Stanford Challenge" between England and a West Indian all-stars side in the Caribbean next spring.

Within the history of sport, only a very small number of major boxing fights have offered such astronomical rewards for a single day's work. The prize fund is hugely exciting for the cricketers themselves, who are used to being paid far less than the world's best footballers or baseball players.

But the idea will surely alarm traditionalists, who are bound to fear that the spirit of cricket could be eclipsed. The pressure on the teams would be astronomical, and it would be a brave man who volunteered to bowl the last over with the game on the line.

The England and Wales Cricket Board issued a tight-lipped statement yesterday that gave little clue as to the seismic implications of Stanford's proposal. It merely confirmed that "a meeting has been held with Sir Allen Stanford in the full knowledge of the West Indies Cricket Board", and described the conversation as "very positive and constructive". Further discussions will follow next month.

If the deal can be finalised, it will certainly help relations between the ECB and their players, who are furious that they are not being allowed to play in the billion-dollar Indian Premier League either this season or next.

Stanford flew into London yesterday, where he went on a tour of Lord's and then into a meeting with Giles Clarke and David Collier, the ECB chairman and chief executive respectively. He then laid down his proposals: a $20 million (10.2 million) prize fund for the winning team, nothing for the losers. "I call it the OK Corral, Twenty20 for twenty," he has said in the past.

Stanford has now organised two seasons of domestic 20-over cricket in the West Indies under his name. Even in this inter-island competition, the prize money has boosted players' incomes beyond all expectations: Trinidad and Tobago claimed 510,000 this year as champions, while the total fund distributed was around 1.25 million.

His motivation lies chiefly in the publicity the competition provides for the Stanford Financial Group, but also in the possibility of cracking the untapped market of the United States. Since the launch of the Twenty20 Cup in 2003, there has been a growing feeling that this format has the potential to rival baseball.

This is not the first time that Stanford has made such an indecently lucrative proposal to a national team. He went to South Africa with a 2.55 million offer in 2006, which fell through because of opposition from the West Indies Cricket Board. Then India rejected a 5.1 million offer last September.

Further proposals to set up a quadrangular tournament met with opposition from the International Cricket Council. The ICC saw the idea as a potential rival to their own World Twenty20 championship, while also questioning whether the prize fund could knock cricket's economics out of kilter.

It might seem remarkable that a man with a broad smile, a hefty wallet and an open chequebook has been rebuffed so many times by the establishment. His very wealth has fostered suspicions that he might be looking to gain a foothold in the sport before launching a hostile takeover operation.

But now that the IPL has shifted the game's centre of gravity towards the east, Stanford is suddenly looking less like a privateer and more like the counter-balance the game is looking for. The "Stanford Challenge" could be an idea whose time has finally come.

A source close to the deal suggested yesterday that "the ECB should be interested, not just because of the money, but because Giles Clarke may think, 'If we can link up with another billionaire, it might just make the IPL mob back off a little bit'. The IPL's chairman, Lalit Modi, is a very aggressive character."

England's 2009 tour of the West Indies is scheduled to end in early April, a week before next year's IPL gets under way. But which player would fight to appear in India if it meant missing out on Stanford's millions?

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