Cricket: Gent becomes a player at Lord's

Stephen Brenkley discovers that cricket is still an attractive financial proposition
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For all English cricket's much-trumpeted, supposedly manifest mediocrity, blue-chip sponsors remain prepared to part with vast sums of cash. If ever the national team start winning regularly it is easy to imagine Lord's being forced to open a sub-branch in Threadneedle Street.

The latest company to exhibit apparently startling generosity for being associated with a loser are Vodafone, who will pay pounds 13m over the next five years. In what might or might not demonstrate that the old game is still viable, the firm's shares rose by 8.5p to 278.5p in the two days after the announcement.

Having guaranteed such a large investment, Vodafone's chief executive, Chris Gent, offered an idea of what might be required in return. This is likely to involve not only a victorious England but one becoming more widely accepted and acceptable - as mobile phones have done.

"Of course, we all want a winning England team but that's not all," he said. "Presentation is so important. That doesn't necessarily mean shaving every day but England cricketers have got to be good ambassadors for the sport."

So, cut out the scowling then, lads. Gent also seems quietly determined to see the game's present television arrangements continue. Contracts are due for renewal at the end of next summer and he said: "There is a lot of cricket shown and the balance seems to be right. I would like that to continue with the BBC involved."

Vodafone will embrace an impressive amount of the English game from the moment their money starts flowing this summer. Apart from sponsoring the England and England A teams in all matches from the winter they will also offer backing for matches between the counties and touring teams and support the growth of the highly successful hybrid, Kwik Cricket, which has already helped to introduce thousands of primary school pupils to the game. However, in a masterstroke of bet hedging (just in case the men still lose) they have agreed to support women's cricket - England are one-day world champions - for five years.

The company are hardly the first sponsors to enter on a tide of goodwill (though they may be the most modern in terms of their product). Starting with Gillette, who paid pounds 6,500 plus promotional costs for the first one-day knockout competition in 1963, the game seems to have gone through more sponsors than England have used bowlers.

Gillette withdrew eventually because they felt they were more associated with cricket than razor blades. Now they would have a ready if unwilling market in the England team. Maybe they can take consolation from the fact that some old duffers still call the premier knockout competition by its original name, presumably thinking that NatWest, the present sponsor of 15 years standing, was the American chap who wrote Day of the Locust.

Benson and Hedges, whose trophy many people are prepared to condemn, are cricket's longest surviving sponsors, dating back to 1972, followed by Cornhill (1978). Those that have come and gone include: John Player, Schweppes, Refuge Assurance, Holts, Prudential. Britannic Assurance probably deserve all their life endowment policies to bear fruit for sticking with the Championship since 1984.

Vodafone's is the most comprehensive of all sponsorships so far and the English Cricket Board's chief executive saw it as an opportunity to offer a reminder of the game's rude health despite everything. "There are more people playing than ever before," said Tim Lamb. "The game is vibrant in schools and in clubs. We would do well to remember that." Whatever England's performances he had 13 million other good reasons for saying that.