Cricket World Cup: Warning word from our sponsors

The England inquest: 'It's shown up the lack of spirit or flair in our team, and that's disappointing'
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The Independent Online
COUNTY CRICKET seemed, more than ever, a game apart last week, its lazy rhythms unbothered by the fall-out from England's global inadequacies.

At Tunbridge Wells, the diehards huddled beneath rugs, clutching flasks and scorecards, while a procession of Kent batsmen passed before them in between the showers. None of the England World Cup boys was there. They were too busy meeting the Queen or licking their wounds, but the two sides paraded enough internationals to highlight the vagaries of recent selectorial policy. Ben Hollioake, Alex Tudor and Dean Headley would surely have been an improvement on the Dad's Army in pyjamas who masqueraded as the England cricket team.

The County Championship has a new sponsor this year just in time for its thrusting new 21st-century move towards promotion and relegation. It has become the PPP Healthcare County Championship, which further distances it from the bright new image of cricket the England Cricket Board are trying to create. You wonder who's health is most in need of care.

It was difficult to know which was more depressing, England's tame departure or the air of resignation and inevitability which accompanied it. "There's still a great tournament going on out there," as one ECB official put it. There is, but England are not part of it and that will hit rather more than sales of the World Cup anthem and England shirts.

This was supposed to be the kickstart for a street-led revolution, but no sooner had the back pages been cleared of Manchester United's triumphs than the England cricket team were heading back to the backwaters of county cricket. A generation has been mislaid and, for once, Alec Stewart's chipper soundbytes about "bouncing back in the Tests" were not an adequate explanation for a campaign which was heading for the buffers from the start.

Mixed in with the frustration was genuine anger, in the media and, more importantly for the marketing department of the ECB and the game's precarious financial future, from sponsors. AXA have already switched their budget from cricket into English football and, for all the recent debate about the Derby, Vodafone, sponsors of the England team, must have considered their support of the Epsom Classics a more worthwhile investment than a cricket team who have left their own party embarrassingly early.

But only one sponsor in cricket has earned the right to air its full concerns about England's abysmal World Cup campaign. NatWest has been supporting cricket for the past 20 years, from grass roots to the Test side. Their pounds 8m investment in the last year alone gives them a prominent voice in any discussion about the future of English cricket. Their name adorns the outfields of the World Cup grounds, their banners ring the boundaries of county games and their cash supports less glamorous areas of cricket like the England Under-19s, who won the World Cup last year.

Cricket still matches the profile of many of NatWest's customers, but it would be naive to think that a sponsor's patience is inexhaustible. A high-profile company in a competitive market can only be associated with mediocrity for so long, a point that NatWest executives will doubtless make pretty forcefully to the ECB before their sponsorship deal is due for renewal next season.

"There will be some hard talking within NatWest," said Ian Schoolar, head of brand communications. "This was an opportunity missed. If England had stayed in, it would have been more likely to be on the back pages of the newspapers. The World Cup can still promote the game per se, but it's shown up the lack of spirit, flair, whatever, in our own team and that's a disappointing gap.

"People want to have heroes and we [cricket] don't have heroes at the moment. There's Hollioake and Flintoff, but we need more of them. We need to develop new blood and keep it there, not keep swapping around. It takes time. Why should youngsters look up to so and so if the heroes are dull? They'll prefer to think of football. We've got one more NatWest Trophy to do in 2000 and then our present contract finishes in October next year and, absolutely, we have to ask: 'Is this working for us?'

"There are two ways of answering that question: one is to walk away because it's not working properly, the other is to say that cricket is still our national summer sport but it's in trouble, so what can we do to help?" One of Schoolar's fears is that far from playing less cricket, as Lord MacLaurin, chairman of the ECB, wants, the schedule for next season is more cluttered than ever.

Two factors might persuade NatWest to renew their support: one is the thought that their investment in the lower levels of the game should be bearing fruit early in the Millennium, the other that Channel 4's coverage of cricket, from this summer's New Zealand Tests, is a real step in the right direction. "That could be a very exciting development," Schoolar adds. "They want to make the game more dynamic and more accessible."

This is as forceful a shot across the bows of English cricket as the game's leading sponsor would care to fire. The official line is that England's departure, while regrettable, does nothing to alter the financial success of the World Cup, which is largely pre-paid. The undeniable truth also is that, jingoism apart, the tournament has lost nothing in terms of pure entertainment now that England have gone. For the second World Cup in succession, England have been clumsy and ponderous, way off the pace. The inept run chase against India betrayed their inexperience in this form of cricket.

Equally baffling at a time when cricket is trying to maintain its popularity has been the format of the World Cup. Try explaining the stagnant closing stages of the Australia v West Indies group match to a 10-year-old. One mention of net run rate and he's off to play a more simple game. And how is it possible that Zimbabwe are within 24 hours of going out of the tournament one moment and topping the Super Six table the next? It might have looked good on paper, but in practice it is daft. If Zimbabwe win the World Cup it will serve the International Cricket Council right.

None of this mattered much to the regular residents of the timewarp at Tunbridge Wells. The sun even shone for an hour or two. These are dangerous times for English cricket, again. Much good work is being done to infiltrate the schools and re-establish cricket as a serious sport. We were informed by the ECB recently that more schools are playing cricket than ever. But it is an uphill struggle, and everyone involved would have gone to work with a heavier heart last Monday.