Rain spoils sponsor's final innings

NatWest Trophy final: Frustration at Lord's as the domestic one-day showcase finds a wet reception

It was generally deemed as a wise and overdue precaution when the NatWest Trophy Final was moved forward a week. Tradition has it that the customary date of the first Saturday in September produced too many one-sided games in which the pitch had too much early morning moisture and the key manoeuvres lay in winning the toss, handing the ball to the side's deadliest seam merchant and checking with the county that they had a year's supply of silver polish.

It was generally deemed as a wise and overdue precaution when the NatWest Trophy Final was moved forward a week. Tradition has it that the customary date of the first Saturday in September produced too many one-sided games in which the pitch had too much early morning moisture and the key manoeuvres lay in winning the toss, handing the ball to the side's deadliest seam merchant and checking with the county that they had a year's supply of silver polish.

At least there was play. The 20th and last final to be sponsored by the company which is now part of the Royal Bank of Scotland had no such thing. Play was not abandoned until 5.15pm but almost constant drizzle and poor light made nonsense of the decision to stage this showpiece in August. Surely, there must be some way to blame the England and Wales Cricket Board for their lack of foresight and planning.

If it was a rotten day for the players of Gloucestershire, the defending champions, and Warwickshire and the crowd of some 10,000 who bothered to turn out, it was also a miserable valediction for the sponsors. Still, they have one more day of being associated with the oldest one-day competition in the world. Perhaps it would have been fitting if their replacements could have been named as soon as the match finishes. "NatWest is dead, long live Joe Soap." It will not happen because the Joe Soap in question has yet to be found.

The ECB is still searching for the competition's third sponsor since it began life in 1963 as the One-Day Knockout Competition, sponsored by Gillette, became the Gillette Cup the following summer and was transferred to the present lot in 1981. Gillette pulled out because folk identified them far more with cricket than razor blades. As it happens, some still do. This is probably not a concern for the potential new sponsor.

Progress at least is being made in securing the £2m a year it will take to win the sponsorship and give a new name to the cup. Terry Blake, the ECB's marketing director, said yesterday that while talks were proceeding with several inquisitive parties they were in close contact with one in particular. A deal could be only weeks away.

The appeal may have been considerably raised by further expansion of the competition. Two years ago it became what the chairman of the ECB, Lord MacLaurin, called cricket's FA Cup. The trophy, reduced from 60 to 50 overs a side, was thrown open to all the 38 county board sides as well as the 18 first-class clubs. Now, cricket could be getting its version of the European Cup.

The ECB and the West Indies board are discussing a quadrangular competition to be played in the Caribbean early each spring. The two finalists of the the English trophy will probably play the two finalists of the West Indies equivalent.

Blake is confident that this allied to the traditional appeal of the competition in the shires and the vast scope of spreading the word on the web sites, will harness a sponsor. "The Natwest Trophy was changing and NatWest was also changing as a brand. Having experienced the World Cup last year they decided that their future lay in the international one-day game."

If a possible difficulty in persuading a new sponsor is that the competition is too closely linked with NatWest then the biggest obstacle remains, perversely, the England team. If they can beat the West Indies in the Fifth Test, cricket will be as good as reborn.

Blake will surely collect domestic one-day associates and a replacement for the insurance group who have sponsored the Test matches for 22 years as he walks home from The Oval. "It certainly makes a difference and at least we're going there 2-1 up. I remember it was only weeks ago, however, that we were almost 2-0 down. I was at Lord's as England made their way to the final runs to win the match and on the scoreboard the scores drew level. Then for some reason it went back one and I thought, oh no, at least we'd got a tie. I could put up with a tie if necessary." How he must have heaved with relief when Dominic Cork at last slid the ball through the covers for England's two-wicket victory. If the recovery has made his job a trifle easier - he was in sanguine form - so has the partnership with Channel 4, who have been as keen on getting appropriate sponsors as the Board.

The hugely polished and pleasant manner in which they have presented cricket - light years away from the stilted formality of the BBC and a few urbane steps ahead of Sky - can only help in convincing companies that cricket is immensely worthwhile. Not that it was at any point yesterday.

But at least it gave the opportunity to see that the much-maligned ECB is learning. Lord's would not have been full yesterday even in ideal conditions. Some 4,000 tickets remained unsold.

"We have got to be more flexible with our ticketing and pricing policy," said Blake. "At between £50 and £325 they were also probably too high. Next year we will revise this. We want to get the young in and we don't want empty seats. And don't forget there have been two one-day internationals, two Test matches and two finals at Lord's this year." Well, whose idea was that then?

First, let us hope for an appropriate farewell to NatWest, whatever their business is, today.

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