1994 April 25, 2009

An unsavoury farce

As plans emerge of an unauthorised cricket tournament planned to be staged in New York in October, we look back on a private venture that was stillborn

World Series Cricket and, until the credit crunch and US regulators bit, the Stanford 20/20 showed that with the right financial backing allied to professional organisation, private cricket ventures can succeed. But for every Allen Stanford and Kerry Packer, there are other entrepreneurs whose dreams have crashed and burned. One of the least savoury events took place at The Oval in September 1994.

In the summer of that year, a company called Cricket Legends, fronted by former Middlesex and England batsman Roland Butcher, announced that it would be staging an international sixes at The Oval. A host of big names from around the world - Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thomson, Clive Rice, Gordon Greenidge, Allan Lamb - committed to a two-day floodlit tournament that was to be televised throughout Asia. Viv Richards was also included in all the pre-tournament publicity but was absent when it all got underway.

There was little to indicate the farce that was to come in the days leading up the event. The players, who had been promised up to £10,000 each, came from far and wide. The shrewder of them had insisted on return tickets upfront. Shrewdest of them all, and the only man not to lose a penny, was Geoff Boycott, the match referee, who demanded and got all his money in advance.

The first day was blighted by bad weather, causing a two-hour delay, or so around 1000 paying spectators were told. The reality was that behind the scenes the players were refusing to play unless they were paid in advance. It was clear from the off that the lack of people in the ground would cause cash-flow issues. However, the organisers produced the signed contracts, which specified that the second half of the cash would be paid at the competition's conclusion, and the players were left with little option but to start or be sued. They warned, however, that unless they were paid the next morning, there would be no second day.

The event started with green-shirted Pakistan against red-shirted India and plodded on from there to continued antipathy from those who had actually bothered to turn up.

While the concept of six-a-side, five-over games was sound - it is a tried and trusted format for club cricketers - the reality was that the cricket was dire. "It was a slog," noted the Independent, "and a half-hearted one at that. Imagine the last five overs of a tight one-day game between two teams from the same pub, and you can capture the subtlety, devotion to history and searing competition that sixes generates." The temporary floodlights, which bathed the ground in murky twilight as dusk approached, did not help.

As if the almost total public apathy and player rebellion had not killed the event, the next morning's media coverage applied the coup de grace. "What are these people doing abusing the game that brought them fame and fortune?" asked Clement Freud in the Times. And the Independent pondered the ageing stars on offer, noting that Lillee and Thomson, "were now about as energetic as Agnes and Lily in the bingo hall".

When everyone trooped back to The Oval the next day, it was obvious that the tournament was doomed, and for several hours the players milled around while the organisers were nowhere to be seen. When Butcher finally arrived at 3.30pm, he was accompanied by a bodyguard. He spoke to a couple of players before being asked to leave by Surrey officials.

"I categorically say now," Butcher said in a radio interview later in the day, "that in no way did I attempt to con anyone. If anybody is going to try to say that this was a deliberate thing, I can tell you it wasn't."

While Butcher was left to face the music, the real blame seemed to lay with Simon Jacot, an Old Harrovian who had been the financial brains behind the scheme. The company issued a statement blaming the behaviour of the players and the media for the failure of the event. "[There was] no mention of their own incompetence or the appalling product they were trying to sell," noted Mike Selvey in the Guardian.

The withdrawal of some backers after the first day's farce - many doubted their existence in the first place - left most people out of pocket. The little cash that had been taken at the gate was in Surrey's safe and they were not about to release it.

While almost all the participants were out of pocket, at least they could get home. Some, such as Thomson and David Hookes, had been given one-way tickets. Eventually, Surrey paid for their return tickets. Butcher made contributions to some players out of his own pocket.

Surrey were left with a loss of £15,000. Although they had taken a deposit, they were left to pay groundstaff, cleaners and security staff, and they also refunded anyone who had bought tickets for the second day. The company that supplied the floodlights was £50,000 out of pocket, while the TSL TV were thought to have lost around £45,000. The liquidators of Cricket Legends Ltd reported the total loss was somewhere around £330,000.

Dermot Reeve, who was one of the disgruntled players, said that the whole thing was "approaching fraud" and suggested that the police should be called in.

The organisers clearly had no idea of what they were doing and not a clue about the financial realities. Jane Lindquist, one of the company's directors, had rejected such accusations a month before the event. "It was not born out of a whim," she said. "It has been carefully researched over 12 to 18 months." It turned out that research had been that crowds for sixes events in Hong Kong were good and the weather in England in September was better over the previous decade.

Reviewing the whole sorry escapade, Vic Marks in the Guardian concluded that the cricket authorities should take note: "If they are too greedy, at a time when there is more money coming into the game than ever before because of television, the public will become wary and bored by any gimmickry, while the players will be exhausted in their pursuit of short-term gains."

Plus ca change.

Pakistan 73 for 1 beat India 69 for 0
England 62 for 0 beat India 61 for 1
Legends 76 for 1 beat India 76 for 2 (fewer wickets lost)
England 79 for 2 beat South Africa 74 for 1
West Indies 69 for 1 beat Australia 62 for 3

Martin Williamson is executive editor of Cricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa