Cricket: The world in their hands

Blake's hope for glory has roots in '66
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The Independent Online
Just about two and a half years ago Terry Blake sat down at his desk and surveyed a blank piece of paper which was eventually to turn into the blueprint for the organisation of the 1999 World Cup. Blake, a fortysomething cricket fanatic, who has been head of marketing at the England and Wales Cricket Board since 1989, could call on his experience organising a World Cup of golf and a number of years in sports marketing, first with the pioneering West Nally, then with Parallel Media, but nothing had truly prepared him either for the expanse of white vellum in front of him or for the daunting thought that the eyes of the world would focus on the 12 teams qualified for the seventh cricket World Cup.

To those well acquainted with the inner politics of English cricket, Blake is either the hero who has edged the game towards a more modern and prosperous future or the villain who has sold the soul of cricket for a mess of potage. If advertisements scorched into the Lord's turf bother you or flickering enticements for closer shaves on the sightscreen, then Blake is your nemesis.

The face will be more familiar by summer's end, as will the voice, once used to broadcast cricket reports on the World Service. "I've always liked the sound of my own voice," he says. When he was auditioned for a role as a cricket commentator all those years ago, stuck up in the radio box at Lord's and told to ad lib his way through a particularly tedious century by Geoff Boycott, little would he have guessed that as tournament director of the 1999 World Cup his would become the voice of the self-styled carnival of cricket for a precious five weeks.

At the start of a momentous year, both personally and for the sport to which he has devoted the best years of his life, Blake took a well-earned break in the Maldives. He was therefore out of earshot the day the prevailing groans of the nation turned into squeals of delight. Not for the first time, England's cricketers were in danger of consigning the national summer pastime to a sporting footnote. Then came Melbourne and a spasmodic indication of life after the Ashes. All Blake would ask is that the new-found resolution should last into the New Year, preferably as far as May and June, when 12 teams arrive to play 42 matches in 21 venues in an orgy of one-day cricket which, for a month or two at least, should stop the runaway juggernaut of Premiership football in its tracks. Though sponsorship and television deals have already been signed and sealed, both France 98 and Euro 96 showed how much patriotic fervour can be unleashed by a good cup run.

After the last hopelessly unwieldy World Cup, the format has a smarter tempo. Countless air miles - and nearly a month - were expended in discarding the United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Holland and Zimbabwe from the original field of 12 in 1996. This time, the two groups are halved in just over a fortnight to form a Super Six second group stage, from which the top four qualify for the knockout semi-finals. The disadvantage is that, drawn in a group with Sri Lanka, India and South Africa (plus Zimbabwe and Kenya), the hosts have no guarantee of qualifying. Blake has prepared for the calamity.

"Commercially, the event will stand on its own two feet, whether England qualify for the final stages or not. The sponsorship and television deals and much of the licensing has been done and dusted. But we saw in France last summer and at Euro 96 what happens if the home team does well.

"This is a terrific opportunity. I don't think that if we fail to take it the game will fall apart. But we want to create a wider and more passionate following for the game, particularly among the young, and the best way to do that is for England to win the World Cup. It would be 1966 revisited."

The common error in misjudging Blake is to presume that he sells cricket like soapflakes. Nothing could be further from the truth. Blake invests in the game the passion he once reserved for playing it. England defeats are taken personally; rare victories are creatively interpreted. Like the weather, the eccentricities of the England side are beyond his control. The collapse of the Asian economies rather than England's late middle order is inclined to punctuate his sleep patterns and the thought that a posse of disgruntled West Indians might renew their stake-out of a London hotel. Deep in the drawers of his office at Lord's lie contingency plans for everything bar ill-timed meteorite showers.

The rest, he says without exaggeration, has been a welcome change from the taxing task of selling the image of cricket to boys in Michael Owen shirts.

Questions such as which class the teams should fly and whether squads should sport numbers on the back of their coloured clothing have been delightfully interspersed with the more upmarket considerations of Palace protocol - finger buffet or full roast lunch for the royal party at Lord's? - and the compilation of a commemorative musical CD. A cricketing "Vindaloo", perhaps.

More central to the profit-and-loss account have been the budget restrictions imposed by economic uncertainty. "We've had to make quite tough decisions about the budget, about whether to commit money up front for promotion or to go with more PR-driven stories. In an ideal world, we would launch a poster campaign two weeks before the event, but we haven't had a big enough budget for that." Blake estimates the tournament will generate revenue of pounds 50m for world cricket.

"This is a terrific opportunity but we mustn't forget there are other good things happening in the game. The World Cup is just one element in cricket's march towards the Millennium."

The personal toll will only be quantified when the last ball of the final has been bowled on Sunday 20 June, and Molly, aged five and a half, Peter, three and a bit, and wife Ianthe renew acquaintance with the stooped stranger once known as daddy. All have played a silent part in the pageant.

"They bring me down to earth because raising a young family is as much of a challenge as organising a World Cup," Blake says. "I do tend to bring the World Cup home with me. I need to talk about it to unwind. But when the idea of becoming tournament director came up my wife said I wouldn't forgive myself if I turned it down. It will be the pinnacle of my career without any doubt."

A month of sunshine and a rampant England would figure strongly in Blake's prayers over the next four months. "I am an optimist by nature," he says.

Come spring time, that might be the most valuable commodity of all.