For fans batty about Freddie, only Woodworm is good enough

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The Independent Online

Every bit as breathtaking is the sponsorship deal the all-rounder, considered English cricket's most captivating player since Ian Botham, has signed up to. While the majority of players who will take to the field for Thursday's decider at The Oval endorse famous brands, Flintoff and his team-mate Kevin Pietersen will be brandishing bats made by Woodworm - an English company started just four years ago.

Flintoff was plagued by injury around that time so Woodworm's investment in him - a reported £250,000, equivalent to a year's turnover - was risky. Sales have risen from 5,500 bats to 15,000 in the past year and demand for The Flame, as used for the first time by Flintoff at Trent Bridge two weeks ago, is such that 10,000 bats are expected to be sold when it becomes available to the public in October.

It is the sort of hype that major sports brands normally only achieve through multimillion-pound advertising campaigns but which Woodworm has pulled off with a few shrewd signings.

Turnover has trebled to more than £1m this year, but Woodworm expects that figure to treble again thanks to The Flame.

"The pot has been boiling all summer with the increasing interest in cricket all over the country. But when Freddie scored that century the lid blew off," said the managing director, Joe Sillett, 33. "In 2002 when we launched the whole concept we tried to identify our business strategy. Rather than go for 5 per cent growth over 15 years we thought there was only one way to do it.

"We looked at the England dressing room and we thought there was only one guy who had what we were looking for.

"The rest is history in terms of how we have got on and how fantastic he has been over the last three years. As far as his attributes are concerned I would not know where to start. He's got bags of self-belief and he drags his team-mates with him. He is passionate and he is a role model to players at all levels."

The company's success began in 2001 with what Mr Sillett described as his "Eureka" moment as he was considering various enterprises. His father lent him a bat with the woodworm-infested edges cut off, and with The Wand he scored 142 in its first outing for club side Brook, in the third division of the Surrey Championship.

For Flintoff, The Wand has been replaced by The Flame, tailor-made out of English willow, which has thicker edges and a curved blade that combine to give a robust bat with a light "pick-up" best suited to the player's towering sixes. Pietersen has similar technical requirements to suit his swashbuckling style.

The bats range in price from £25 for a junior's to £250 for the Premier Flame - all but the most expensive are made in India. Sillett, a modern-languages graduate from Manchester University whose career had stalled after seven years with the US sports equipment maker Wilson, has enjoyed just one holiday in the four years since his company started. But he has had what he describes as "the most incredible week" as interest in cricket reaches fever pitch ahead of the Oval test.

Woodworm's small workforce is fielding hundreds of enquiries a day and potential investors are beating a path to the offices. Sillett is guarded about his plans but admits he is considering putting the Woodworm name to other sports products.

Yesterday he was celebrating another coup as fast bowler James Anderson, the only other English name in the Woodworm stable, was named in the squad for the final test.

Four years of success

Woodworm was established by Joe Sillett and two investment bankers, Mike Hiard and David Brawn. They wanted to shake up the market dominated by Gunn & Moore, Gray Nicholls and Slazenger - from whom they poached Andrew Flintoff - in the same way that Calloway burst into the established golf market several years ago.

With a staff of five in its Billinghurst offices, Woodworm outsources the majority of its bat-making work, although Sillett, a keen club player, influences bat design.

Top-of-the-range bats, such as The Wand and The Torch, are made by the Cambridgeshire firm Hunts County Bats while the remainder are made in India.

They have four players on their books: Flintoff, Kevin Pietersen, James Anderson and the Sri Lankan spinner Muttiah Muralitharan.