Never mind Alton Towers, for a real white-knuckle ride watch Northampto nshire at Luton - but remember to turn up on time

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Spare a thought for Beacham's, a firm of loss adjusters based near Luton. They had fringed the boundary at Luton Town Cricket Club with candy-striped marquees for the duration of the County Championship match between Northamptonshire and Essex. They had signed up as major match sponsors and they were determined to make the most of it.

So they decided to invite their clients - to schmooze, to network, to drink the marquees dry - for Friday, the second day of a scheduled four- day game. Most of them would not be interested in the boring non-event cricket on offer anyway, was presumably the thinking, and it would give them the weekend to recover from the hospitality. And then 30 wickets go and fall on the Thursday.

Luton has a long history as a cricket club. The walls of the pavilion at Wardown Park are lined with pictures of past teams, stretching back to the first XI in 1910, striking languid Edwardian poses and wearing big moustaches (RW Jeakings, club captain back then, was clearly a sartorial role model for Graham Gooch). Behind the bar is a framed pair of knickers, kept there by a barmaid who keeps a record of visiting internationals by encouraging them to autograph her frillies: "I got Viv Richards," she explains, proudly. "And I got Curtly twice."

But rarely can the place have seen a day like Thursday, 15 June, 1995. There was something very familiar about the cricket I was lucky enough to witness then. The procession of batsmen wandering forlornly out to the crease in the certain expectation that they would soon be back, a collapse from 45 for 5 to 46 all out, bowlers finishing with figures the local school Under-12s would be pushed to beat. Yes, it was just like my mate Mike's stag cricket match last summer, when one of the bowlers had the match-winning idea of remaining sober for the duration and skittled us all out like, well, like Mark Ilott on song.

I should have sensed something was up from the start. I arrived five minutes after the scheduled start of play to be confronted by Graham Gooch, still the best player in England, already out and making his way to his car. Being out so soon, though, was mixed news for Gooch. The disappointment at failure was tempered by the welcome opportunity to catch up on his paper-work. He emerged from his car with a briefcase the size of small filing cabinet, plus an armful of different autobiographies, called things like "Gooch" and "Goochie" and proceeded to spend much of the day scurrying around, camping on the payphone in the pavilion bar, exchanging envelopes with his dad (who watches every game he plays and clearly acts as administrative support).

Gooch is not alone in regarding matches in the County Championship as an extension of the office. Last season Northamptonshire attracted 3,727 paying customers through their turnstiles for Championship matches. That is not per game, that is for the entire season. Add to that about 1,500 members, and you can see why sponsorship, encouraging firms to do their business at a game, has become so important. No professional cricket club could survive on gates which would shame football clubs in the Scottish Third Division.

"We used to play at Wellingborough and Tring, too," said Fred, one of Northants' corps of volunteer stewards. "But now the only match we play away from Northampton is at Luton. And that's because Beacham's were prepared to sponsor it."

Frankly, in the modern Championship, you could probably persuade a county to put up stumps in your back garden, if your cheque book was persuasive enough. Northants had taken all the sponsorship paraphernalia down with them to Bedfordshire: the boundary hoardings, the stewards' coats (Fred looked like Damon Hill, decorated with logos for Carlsberg and Uncle Ben's Rice), even the note on the score-card that "Players meals are sponsored by Dr Martens".

"Mind you, they'll take some money on the gate today," predicted Mark, a spectator, at the start of play. "It's a big event locally, this. A lot of Luton society turns up here to see and be seen."

Maybe it said something about Luton society, but there could have been no more than 400 people scattered around Wardown Park, watching the drama unfold. And most of them appeared to be Northants members.

"Mal, is your dad not here today?" shouted one member at Malachy Loye as he fielded at fine leg.

"Nah, he's at work," came the reply.

"Shame, that," the man said. "He'll be sorry to miss this."

And so will the sponsors. On the rare occasion when a Championship match you have bought was really worth turning up for, they were back in the office.

"I'm glad to get out of here," said Alastair Primrose, a Northants season ticket holder since 1957 at the end of play. "My nerves are shot. I couldn't handle another day like that."

Perhaps after this Northants will be putting their sponsorship prices up, under the legend: never mind Alton Towers, for a real white-knuckle ride, watch Northants at Luton. But remember to turn up on time.