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Thursday, February 25, 2021

Crumbled Stanford empire left Antigua on a Sticky Wicket

The bar was set up at the stroke of the millennium, just in front of what once was the Bank of Antigua, owned by Stanford.

Written by Sandip G | St John's |
Updated: August 20, 2019 8:34:29 am
The bar at the Coolidge Oval — a reminder of the heady Stanford days — now stands locked and empty. (Express photo by Sandip G)

The Sticky Wicket. There couldn’t have been an apter epitaph for the fall of the Allen Stanford empire than the name of the once-swanky — but now locked and empty — bar that he installed at the entrance of the Coolidge Oval, not long ago the Stanford Cricket Stadium. First came the bar, and then the cricket, and the story of the bar is as much the story of the American billionaire’s doomed dalliance with the game.

The bar was set up at the stroke of the millennium, just in front of what once was the Bank of Antigua, owned by Stanford. Straight ahead is a colonial mansion with majestic columns and cascades of flowering bougainvillea, home of the Stanford International Bank where the alleged bank fraud of $8 billion is said to have occurred. To the left is a huge empty building that once housed Antigua’s largest newspaper, The Sun, owned by the Texan billionaire himself. Walk a further down the road, there’s a desolate port which Stanford had plans to develop. The grand plan was to connect the port to a private arrivals centre at the airport, allowing Stanford to walk straight from his private jet to a deep-sea marina where his superyacht would be waiting to carry him across to Maiden island — which he also happened to own. Like with the cricketing dreams, it too crumbled.

Back to the Sticky Wicket, the most opulent bar ever on the island. Recollects Samuel Rodrigues, one of the Coolidge Oval ground-staff crew: “They got the most expensive brands of liquor, imported from everywhere in the world. They got the best crowd in there, politicians, industrialists, celebrities, some of them he used to fly from different parts of the world. It was party day in and out,” he says.

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Overlooking the bar were mostly bushes. “But there was a tiny open space in the middle of it, where kids played football and sometimes cricket. At night it used to be a den of drunkards and sometimes gamblers. Not quite anti-socials, but problem creators. The police were always patrolling in the vicinity,” he remembers.

But one evening, when Stanford was having drinks with his friends, the idea struck him — buy the land, build a cricket stadium and invite teams from all over the world. It was around the same time his friendship circle had begun to foray into the West Indies Cricket Board. Impoverished as the board was then, the dollars he splashed made infiltration easy. Recollects Anita Kentlish, a veteran local journalist who covered the fiasco: “He pumped in a lot of money into the cricket board so much so that they obliged all his wishes. It was his typical business operation. If he had set his mind on acquiring something that caught his fancy, from the oil company that he first set up to everything he had,” she says.

Some of them wondered why an American banker was so interested in cricket. But it didn’t matter because his empire was the second-most influential institution in the country. Stanford was the second largest employer on the island after the government, and in terms of wealth he towered them. His net worth was around $2.5 billion, the country’s was around half of that, says Kentlish. From a British colony, the island was about to being a Stanford Colony.

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So set off his cricketing aspirations. In less than six months, the construction began. He didn’t hire the Chinese company who were overlooking the construction of the Sir Vivian Richards Stadium in North Sound. “He got a Latin American firm and with the help of local manpower, build the stadium in double-quick time. It wasn’t as massive as Sir Viv, but the businessman in him realised it needn’t be. So before Sir Viv was ready, the Stanford Stadium was up and running,” remembers Rodrigues.

He built just one stand and a couple of corporate boxes attached to the Bar. But all that were immaculately state-of-the-art. Nothing reflects it better than the two-story high, aluminium stumps he had installed there. The outer walls of the clubs were adorned with bronze profiles include of legends such as Clyde Walcott, Frank Worrell, Wes Hall and Richards. He then shelled out a million dollars for the sound system alone. He named it, understandably, Sir Allen Stanford Stadium, though the locals began calling it The Sticky Wicket Stadium. It was both a shrine to cricket and a stately monument to Stanford.

The jackpot game

The completion of the construction coincided with the T20 boom, and Stanford had his grand scheme ready. In 2006, he launched the Stanford League, handing out exponential wages to the players. It was a timely fillip for a lot of players on the island. Back in the day, when franchisee-based T20 leagues hadn’t sprouted, and when the board and several players were at loggerheads, it was a blessing for them. “They used to earn something around $250-300 per four-day match and around $150 for List A games. Now they were getting around $1000. So that was a big positive,” says Rodrigues.

Then in 2008, he announced the winner-takes-all one-off T20 between England and Stanford XI, comprising entirely of Antiguan players for a jackpot of $20 million. “It was the biggest carnival the country had ever seen. Players, celebrities, booze, music, it was like Hollywood. As tourists flocked the island, tourism too boomed,” says Rodrigues who was among the ground-staff during the game.

Six months later, the news of his money-laundering and fraud came to light and he ended up in the cellars of a Florida prison. The fear that gripped the island then was diabolical. “Nearly 1,500 lost their jobs. This is a substantial figure for a country of 80,000. Three or four times as many had their bank accounts frozen. Around the clock, you could see depositors waiting outside the bank to withdraw their money. It was chaos,” says Kentlish.

As he was detained, the stadium too was shut and it was nearly back into its old bushy days, before the WICB took over the land from the government and brought a semblance of life back to it. They have has rechristened the ground as the Coolidge Oval, but for the locals it still remains “The Sticky Wicket Ground.”

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