<i>It's just not cricket from Collingwood's chaps</i>

THESE ARE difficult times for elite cricketers. Will be they be able to afford one Maserati or two? A holiday mansion in Dubrovnik or a beach-front villa in Ibeza? Gucci or Ralph Lauren? And what about the yacht, helicopter pad or second ballroom? Every day, it seems, they're faced with more decisions.

Hardly surprising, then, that the spirit of the game is receiving such a kicking. Wealthy fat cats with little appreciation of cricket's mores are dropping out of the skies to grab a piece of the action. A once proud and principled institution is being buried under a mountain of private investment, much of it tawdry in the extreme. Souls are being bought and sold like fresh fish at the market. With millions on offer, winning at all costs has become de rigour. We've seen it twice in recent weeks; the first time at Edgbaston when England skipper Paul Collingwood was happy to tolerate inclement conditions until it looked as if his team might lose. And then we witnessed it again at The Oval when he refused to recall Grant Elliott after a mid-pitch collision with Ryan Sidebottom.

To be frank, we probably should steel ourselves for more unsavoury scenes. Collingwood might have apologised for his antics in London last week but the mere fact he didn't immediately appreciate the correct course of action speaks volumes. Clearly, in his book, the end justifies the means. There is no such thing as honour, much less dignity.

Much has already been written about the incident but New Zealand were entitled to be furious. If it's acceptable for batsmen to be floored, injured and run-out, then the time will come when they start running between the wickets using their bats as cudgels. Laws need to be revised, discretion taken out of the hands of the players. If a batsman is knocked to the ground, umpires should be obliged to call dead-ball.

So much for the preamble in the Code of Conduct, which charges captains with the responsibility of upholding the spirit of the game, and threatens them with stiff penalties if they don't. At a time when success can mean the difference between a million dollar windfall and an uncertain future, expect more players to put greed before grace.

On that note, only last week 50% of England's international squad admitted that they would be prepared to retire prematurely in order to sign with the lucrative Indian Premier League. In a sad but sobering commentary, they confirmed loyalty to the folding stuff has eclipsed their devotion to the three lions.

Of course, New Zealand isn't immune to such indiscretions either. It wasn't so long ago that Stephen Fleming effectively threw a game against South Africa in order to best manipulate the competition format in an Australian tri-series. Kiwis involved in the IPL have put money before their country; indeed Jacob Oram is already seeking dispensation to compete in this year's yet-to-be- finalised Champions League.

Some folk have mentioned the parallel between Elliott's misfortune and New Zealand's run- out of Muttiah Muralitharan at Christchurch a couple of years previous, but it's hard to understand the logic. Elliott was pole-axed by an opposition player; Murali ran down the wicket of his own accord as a return throw was being rifled in from the boundary. The spirit of the game need not extend to stupidity.

Whatever your thoughts on that, there seems to be a formula at work these days. The more money being ladled into the game, the less principled the contestants appear to become. The old saying about some people knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing has never seemed so accurate.

Sunday Star Times