Allen Stanford: The Man Who Bought Cricket | BBC Sounds
Poison (BBC Radio 4) | BBC Sounds
And Away… | Audible
Athletico Mince | play.acast.com
In 2008 a black helicopter landed on Lord’s cricket ground, an area of grass usually referred to as “hallowed turf”. Out of it stepped Allen Stanford, a big, brash American. To say this was unusual is an understatement. It wasn’t just the helicopter, but also that someone who wasn’t a member of Lord’s was permitted to put a toe upon the holy green stuff. “Trying to get into Lord’s is difficult enough,” remembers Nasser Hussain, former England captain. “As captain, I couldn’t walk through the Long Room to take a look at the pitch.”
No such restrictions for Stanford. After being warmly greeted by the bigwigs of the England and Wales Cricket Board, he made his way inside the building to a large Perspex box. There, the assembled media took his photograph, as he grinned alongside Ian Botham, Viv Richards and the ECB chaps. The box was front and centre, because inside the box, in neat piles of $50 bills, was $20m.
The money wasn’t (just) a gimmick. It was a prize. Stanford was funding a one-off cricket match in the Caribbean between England and his own handpicked West Indian team, the Stanford Superstars. The winning team would take the entire contents of the box. “And if you lose?” asked a reporter. “Nothing, absolutely nothing,” said Stanford. Unbelievably, the ECB was up for this. “We were just furious,” recalls Jonathan Agnew, the BBC’s cricketing correspondent. “It’s not cricket, it’s everything that cricket isn’t.”
Allen Stanford: The Man Who Bought Cricket is the second, and much better, series from Radio 5 live’s podcast strand Sport’s Strangest Crimes. The first series, you may recall, was about the kidnapping of the racehorse Shergar. That series was narrated by Vanilla Ice. This time round our host is more … expected. Greg James, Radio 1 breakfast show host, is well known as a massive cricket fan, and co-hosts a popular podcast on the subject, Tailenders. And here he is clearly having great fun. It’s enjoyable stuff.
Despite its sporting title, we could file this podcast into a familiar schaden-fraud true crime slot, alongside other great shows such as The Dropout and WeCrashed. They all go like this: small-town blagger with ginormous ego morphs into massive bullshitter who parlays their way into a lot of money. Then it all goes wrong. That’s the “fraud” bit. The “schaden” part is not only provided by the central character being brought down, but also by us laughing at all the important people willing to link their money and reputations to such an obvious charlatan. Here, the enjoyment is provided by leading members of the England and Wales Cricket Board. You may have guessed (or remembered) that the link-up doesn’t end well.
James is an excellent host, neatly manoeuvring between cricket acronyms, FBI investigations and general silliness. His script sometimes over-explains – did we really need a deconstruction of ye olde “So what attracted you to billionaire Allen Stanford?” joke? – and I would have been happier with slightly sharper editing and a shorter series. But this is immensely entertaining stuff, enlivened by James’s warm interviewing and presentation.
Another man of merde de taureau is, sadly, the former president of South Africa Jacob Zuma. In Poison, a short series in Radio 4’s after-lunch 15-minute slot, Andrew Harding unpicks Zuma’s strange obsession with being poisoned. This, too, is a very interesting story, but had the opposite problem to the Allen Stanford tale: there were occasions where we needed more context and explanation. Just a date, or a short summary of Zuma’s rise to power, or what he was being prosecuted for. Perhaps the 15-minute slots weren’t the right format for this fascinating tale. It might have benefited from a little longer to breathe.
A slight detour: I spent a bit of time in bed last week, and I can recommend, both for this situation and for most others in life, the audiobook of Bob Mortimer’s touching, funny autobiography And Away… Mortimer, who reads it himself, has an uneven delivery, sometimes swallowing his words, but when he steps into silly character he’s absolutely hilarious. And for those who might protest that this isn’t a podcast or a radio programme (it is audio, of course), then may I push you towards Mortimer’s longstanding podcast with Andy Dawson, Athletico Mince? I hadn’t listened to it for a while, but it’s as madly daft and laugh-out-loud as ever, with the pair telling made-up stories about “Mr” Sting being tragic about his lute, Jeremy Corbyn being mean about a runner’s medal and loads more. If you liked the odder characters in Vic Reeves Big Night Out, then this one’s for you.