Cricket: Cricket learning to smoulder

County Championship: Glamour boys are the marketing men's dream as an ageing sport develops a new image
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The Independent Online
AFTER the calypso, it is back to the slow waltz. On Tuesday, the Parks and Fenner's will witness another stirring opening to a first-class cricket season. As Matthew Engel, the editor of Wisden, pointed out in his introductory remarks at the launch of the 135th edition, football opens for business with the Charity Shield in front of 75,000 at Wembley, the first pitch of a new baseball season is traditionally made by the president of the United States; cricket has Cambridge University v Northamptonshire set before a few passing maths dons, a student or two and John Major. Tony Blair must have other things on his mind.

And yet, the net curtains are beginning to twitch. Do you know how many day/night matches are scheduled for this season? Twelve on seven different grounds, including Hove and Bristol, but not, in this millennium at least, Lord's. The first is at Old Trafford - Lancashire v Surrey - on 17 June, the last - Nottinghamshire v Lancashire - on 9 September. Warwickshire attracted a crowd of 15,000 for a floodlit match last year. Yet, Surrey's waterlogged attempt at a day-night fixture was laughed to scorn, along with the Sunday afternoon frivolity, Surrey Lions, furry mascot, deafening music and all. Surrey were the only side to increase their AXA Sunday league gates last season as others have noted. Sussex have become the Sharks.

For a split second last autumn and this spring, a marketing man's dream took shape. It starred a bunch of likely lads led by Adam Hollioake, who played handsome, aggressive, cricket and won a lot, at least a lot more than the Test team. Four successive defeats by the West Indies have proved an abrupt wake-up call, but there are creative minds working on cricket's behalf who do not accept the overriding claims of football on the nation's sporting consciousness. "Imagine," says Stephen Sparrow, sponsorship and media manager at The Oval, "next year, England beating Australia in the final of the World Cup, with a century by Ben Hollioake. You've got thousands of kids running around being Ben Hollioake not David Beckham." Thousands of walls, in bedrooms of boys and girls, plastered with the mean and moody features of Surrey's finest.

A series of 10-second commercials has been running on Sky through the last month of the Test series in the Caribbean. Mark Ramprakash, Ben Hollioake and Mark Butcher, dressed in pukka whites, set against a dark, atmospheric, background, play a series of choreographed attacking shots. The bat spins into focus. Slazenger? Dear old Slazenger, founded in 1881, purveyors of cricket bats to the gentry, the handcrafted Barnsley willow with which Sir Garfield Sobers once hit six successive sixes. Surely not.

"Heritage is a bit of a bad word at the moment," says David Bell of Cheetham Bell, the agency who created the ads. "These are young, sexy and instinctive cricketers. We wanted to get across some of the drama and passion of the game, linking them with a new, dynamic, image of Slazenger." The message is simple: play Slazenger and be a hero. But there is a subliminal theme which augurs well for English cricket. Not many Beckham-worshippers will be buying Slazenger bats in the near future, but in Ramps, the Hollioakes, Butcher, Graham Thorpe and Dean Headley, cricket has a coterie of stars quite able to smoulder with the best of them in the pages of lads' literature. Loaded spent most of last summer pursuing Adam Hollioake; MTV, the Europe-wide rock station, wanted to run a feature on the brothers; next year, Sky are scheduled to run a series of documentaries in which leadership qualities of sporting captains are tested on local village teams. The elder Hollioake lines up alongside Lawrence Dallaglio and David Seaman.

Numbers in the book are not everything these days, but the de-wheeling of the Hollioake bandwagon in the Caribbean will have hit the marketing department of the English Cricket Board with special force. At a stroke, Hollioake has become another losing England captain, just when a nice momentum was being built for the 1999 World Cup. Over the next 18 months, cricket has to scrap for its streetcred with football's summer World Cup and the rugby World Cup in the autumn of 1999.

"It's an enormous opportunity for us to promote the game," Terry Blake, marketing director of ECB and tournament director of the World Cup, says. "Cricket is still seen by some as old- fashioned, a bit too establishment, somewhat authoritarian and, you might say, anti-feminist, but the game is on the move. We won the Under-19 World Cup, we're about to develop floodlit cricket, the national league starts next year and many of the counties are really looking hard at their structures and how they're promoting themselves." A three-year communications strategy, a first for English cricket, had just landed on his desk.

"Can Hollioake match Beckham? I don't see why not. People like to follow the soap opera of cricket, a bit of controversy, some scandal in the establishment and, maybe, an England team based around a gnarled old pro like Alec Stewart and young studs around him, the Hollioakes, Butcher. It's an exciting prospect." An ECB roadshow trailer will be on the move this summer, bringing images of cricket to footballing heartlands.

But getting cricket on to the streets is only half the problem, Blake feels. Investing in it over the next decade, so that little Johnny can go outside and play, that is the critical half. If the Government accepts the unanimous recommendation of its advisory committee to protect only secondary - not, as now, live - coverage of Test cricket, television rights would be open to more lucrative competition and cricket would have more cash for development.

Some counties are entering into the spirit of new Labour with gusto; Surrey, Warwickshire and Sussex, for example. Others think Cool Britannia means a two-sweater day at Derby. Surrey have just signed a deal with Computacentre for close to pounds 1m for three years, Alec Stewart has gained personal sponsorship from M&G Unit Trusts ("a safe pair of hands" etc) and Saqlain Mushtaq from Lasmo's oil exploration company (slogan unknown). The team will be kitted out by the tailors Gieves & Hawkes. "We're a mile from the heart of the city, we have a bunch of good-looking athletes and a blue chip identity," Sparrow says. "You've just got to use your nous a bit, that's all."