Until 1969 Sunday had been a day of rest for county cricketers, albeit one where they often took part in benefit or charity matches. A relaxation of the often Draconian laws preventing certain sporting activities on the Sabbath led to the introduction of a Sunday League, sponsored by John Player, in 1969. As with the Gillette Cup six years earlier, the new 40-over format, backed by coverage on the BBC, was an instant success.
The competition quickly became a fundamental part of the season, the after-lunch (or church) starting time attracting new audiences of families and children, and many counties took games to new, smaller venues, further increasing the appeal.
John Player's sponsorship ended in 1987 when they were replaced by Refuge, and yet another knockout cup was instigated at the end of the season involving the top four finishers. Mercifully, this was ditched in 1992. That season was an embarrassment for the ECB's marketing men, as they failed to find any sponsor following Refuge's withdrawal.
AXA Equity & Law came to the ECB's rescue in 1993 and the competition was extended to 50-overs-a-side, which was a far from popular move. While families were prepared to spend the afternoon at a game, the longer duration made it almost as lengthy a day out at a Championship match. The experiment was quickly shelved after one season.
The authorities' tinkering continued, and in 1999 the league was split into two divisions with three up and three down. CGU had a one-year sponsorship in 1999, and were replaced by Norwich Union in 2000. In 2003 the ECB again failed to find a sponsor, but totesport came on board in 2004.
In 2005 Wisden wrote: "The old Sunday league appeared to limp through 2004, under its 13th different name, and its eighth in nine years. The Twenty20 stole most of its thunder (though not all the rain); its compromise 45-over formula pleased almost no one; and the mix of Sunday, floodlit and weekday daytime matches confused more or less everyone."
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