Cricket: Lord's reaping the thin harvest of failure

Stephen Brenkley hears that money is no longer rolling in to the game
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The Independent Online
AS POOR, hapless England try desperately to alleviate their travails in South Africa the harsh financial facts of the persistent shortcomings in their performance will be revealed at Lord's this week. The winter meeting of the first-class counties will be told that sponsors have still to be found for the ground-breaking one-day international triangular tournament next summer and that Cornhill Insurance, whose name has been attached to Test cricket in this country for 21 years, have yet to decide whether to continue their involvement after 2000.

The company are expected to inform the England and Wales Cricket Board of their decision before Christmas. The delay is a sure sign only that they are not sure and the ECB could be spending the new millennium trying to convince firms not previously associated with the game that it has considerable merits. This is true, but it will be a difficult case to argue if South Africa are at the time wiping the floor with the core product.

Money at the board is so tight that the five-year plan designed to plot and secure cricket's future has been abandoned. The principles it would have embraced still hold firm but it was felt there was no point in adopting a strategy without the means to carry it out. The board's resources have been further stretched by the need to allocate nearly pounds 3m to cover the extra costs of two new ventures.

Of that, pounds 2m will be paid as staging fees to the six Test match grounds, thus encouraging them to improve their standards, and almost pounds 1m has been set aside for the central contracts being introduced for a pool of international players. Even the latter figure has been trimmed to ensure that there is no overspending. "It hasn't been an easy task to meet budgets," said Tim Lamb, the ECB's chief executive.

"There is perhaps a perception that this is a wealthy game. It isn't. It is worth saying again that the whole of cricket has a turnover less than that of Manchester United and probably of other Premiership football clubs as well. We need partners and will continue to stress the importance of receiving government help in terms of the Lottery."

The 18 first-class counties are still expected to receive a five per cent rise next year in the money they each receive from the ECB's profits. This is likely to give them pounds 1.25m apiece. This may not please all of them, although it was projected, and the meeting may not pass quietly. The counties' share of the proceeds went up by 15 per cent for two consecutive years until 1999. The cash handout for this year has still to be finalised because the World Cup did not make quite what it was expected to do.

"I know the economy is seen to be booming but companies are still working to tight margins and sponsorship of sport is a competitive business," Lamb said. "Everything we do has to be aimed at getting a winning England side again, but that probably isn't going to happen overnight. We have to be patient."

Considering that the game is struggling it might seem odd that counties are paying more and more to their players. But there, as Lamb pointed out, lay a conundrum. The game had to be seen to be paying decent wages to attract possible future players while still ensuring that it was not ruining itself.

Giving the game a broader appeal has never been more urgent and those at the ECB seem determined to impress this policy on the counties and everybody else. They are pinning huge hopes of Channel 4's refreshing coverage - the station is apparently planning an entire Caribbean summer around the visit of the West Indies. But they are aware that getting a wider cross section into grounds may be difficult with tickets priced at anything up to pounds 40.

Lamb called it a juggling act. Cricket ain't broke but that is not to say it does not need fixing.