The birth of the sports agent can be traced, so the story goes, to England's 1948-49 tour of South Africa, when Denis Compton handed a suitcase to the journalist, Reg Hayter. It contained hundreds of letters that Compo, a man hardly cut out for admin, could not face opening.
Hayter began ploughing through them and found scores of what would now be called commercial opportunities. Among the invitations to after-dinner speaking engagements and public appearances was an offer of £2,000 to write a column for the News of the World. There was also a further letter, written two months later, withdrawing the offer because the paper had not received a reply.
Hayter passed the suitcase on to Bagenal Harvey, a publisher who quickly abandoned books to devote himself to the promotion of sportsmen. Harvey secured the £1,000-a-year Brylcreem contract that put Compton's face and gleaming hair on posters across the country, and happily trousered a 10% fee for himself. His success with Compton had the leading lights of other sports scurrying to his office, among them Fulham footballers Jimmy Hill and Johnny Haynes. Hill was campaigning for an end to football's £20 maximum wage (that was £20 per week, not per minute) and, when he succeeded in 1961, Harvey was well placed to secure Haynes the first £100-a-week contract.
Ever since then, football has dwarfed cricket, where players of limited profile and modest income have presented few opportunities for agents following in Harvey's footsteps. There have been exceptions for exceptional players.
The eccentric entrepreneur "Lord" Tim Hudson sparkled briefly, promising to take Ian Botham, the most marketable English cricketer since Compton, to Hollywood and make him the "new Errol Flynn". (Nothing came of it and Hudson, down on his luck, was reduced to living in a caravan adjoining the Cheshire estate he owned in his pomp.) David Gower, meanwhile, is still represented by Jon Holmes, a friend of his and Gary Lineker's from their Leicester days, whose SFX agency grew huge from its provincial roots.
Botham and Gower stood out because they were marketable well beyond the county grounds. For the average county player, however, sponsorship opportunities in the 1970s and 1980s were limited to a car from the local garage and the occasional tryst with a Benson and Hedges cigarette girl. Players were reluctant to share 10% of either.
In the last five years, however, changes to the structure of the domestic game, increased television revenues and more aggressive marketing of the sport have led to an increase in cricket's fortunes. And in sport, where there's brass, there are agents.
There are now more than a dozen agencies representing English cricket's 350-odd middling players. (There are even agents operating outside the firstclass structure. For instance, Paul Carrick, a civil servant based in the North-East, offers overseas professionals to league clubs via his website.) For evidence of their growing influence, you have only to turn to the acknowledgments page of Michael Vaughan's hastily ghosted book, A Year in the Sun.
There, in a list that includes his parents, his brother and sundry Yorkshire coaches, England's captain thanks the team at International Sports Management for guiding his career thus far. James Anderson, rising star of Vaughan's England, was at it too when he stepped up to receive his award for the 2003 Young Cricketer of the Year at the Cricket Writers' Club annual dinner. "Thanks to everyone at ISM," stuttered the tyro.
When Vaughan had the captaincy thrust upon him much was made of his old-fashioned virtues. He wore an England cap to his first press conference, and his former captain David Byas revealed that Vaughan was known as "the Amateur" at Headingley. In fact Vaughan is far more Player than Gentleman and, along with Anderson, Andrew Flintoff and others, is one of a new generation of English international cricketers benefiting from an unprecedented degree of professionalism in the management both of their careers and their bank accounts.
Vaughan's agent is Andrew "Chubby" Chandler, a modestly talented former European Tour golf professional who realised there were better ways to make money out of other golfers than losing to them, and established ISM. His core business is still golf, a game awash with money. However, Chandler has moved into cricket and established a specialist division headed by the former England batsman Neil Fairbrother, a man with excellent contacts in the Lancashire dressing-room and beyond. As well as Vaughan and Flintoff, ISM represent just a handful of the most marketable and high-profile players, including Muttiah Muralitharan and Marcus Trescothick, reasoning that once you move away from the elite, cricketers make little commercial sense. With the average county pro earning around £50,000 and with limited potential to make more, agents have to represent a lot of players before they can make a decent living.
"The idea is to have a small group of players you do a real proper job for," says Chandler. "We are starting to see crossover opportunities between cricket and golf, we do pro-am days and have clients out for dinner with the players. There's potential there. The difference between cricket and golf is that cricket's a team game, so I can't put a logo on Freddie's helmet. If I could, I'd get him £200,000. But our cricket broke even in the first year and we'll make some money in the years to come."
Chandler may focus on the elite, but it is among the modest ranks of the game that the growth in player representation is most marked, thanks mainly to the easing of restrictions on overseas cricketers, a rise in the number of players moving counties and the advent of the EU-qualified cricketer. Richard Thompson is chairman of cricket at Surrey CCC and managing director of Merlin Elite, a sports management company, so he is both poacher and gamekeeper and has watched the process at first hand.
"More and more counties are looking for dual-passport players because they are cheaper and cost nothing to develop," says Thompson. "You can have as many as six effectively foreign players in a team now, and the agents are selling these players to clubs. I am constantly getting lists of players from agents via fax and email. I'm sure most players could get by with just a good lawyer advising them, but agents are useful sometimes. In cricket we deal with a lot of fathers, and in some ways I'd rather deal with an agent than a parent."
A selection of players and the agents who represent them (as at end 2003). These arrangements are subject to regular change.
athletes 1 (David Ligertwood) - Gareth Batty, Ian Bell, Mark Butcher, Paul Collingwood, Ashley Giles, Adam Hollioake, Darren Lehmann, Vikram Solanki, Chaminda Vaas
ISM ("Chubby" Chandler) - James Anderson, Andrew Flintoff, Matthew Hoggard, Muttiah Muralitharan, Marcus Trescothick, Michael Vaughan
SFX (Jon Holmes) - Nasser Hussain, Graeme Smith
World Tel - Sachin Tendulkar
Graeme Staples - Graeme Thorpe
21st Century Media - Rahul Dravid
"The finances of the cricket agent's business are tight," he says. "A senior pro, capped and with six years behind him, will earn on average £50,000, and have a bat and kit deal worth around £10,000. At Surrey we also offer personal player sponsorship deals to companies. For between £10,000 and £15,000 the client gets, say, five personal appearances a year from the player, who will also be around during Oval Test matches and come along and say hello when the sponsor has guests in his box. But even taken together, a cricketer's income is small by the standards of other sports."
Despite the modest returns, there are more agents then ever, and the ECB and the Professional Cricketers' Association have introduced a registration system to ensure that counties deal only with approved agents. Their role remains controversial. In football, agents are blamed for unsettling players and encouraging them to move so the agent can pocket a commission. Cricket remains more stable, largely thanks to the benefit system, but young players are far more restless than they used to be. And when they need a new county, an agent will help them find one. "Youngsters are unlikely to linger in Second Eleven cricket at their first county for more than a season or two now," says Thompson. "At Surrey, the bulk of the home-grown players - Thorpe, Bicknell, Butcher and Stewart - spent up to four years on the fringes of the first team before nailing down their places. That wouldn't happen now."
Ligertwood says cricketers are commercially viable to his firm for two reasons: volume, and because they offer their clients more than occasional contract advice. "The easy part of representing a player is getting them a county and doing the contract. All you need for that is a few contacts. What we offer the players is the whole deal. We do all their legal work and accounting, financial planning, deal with the taxman, source sponsorship opportunities for them, open their mail when they are on tour. If you sit down with a player and say 'we can save you £10,000 this year and it's going to cost you £1,000', you often find they are interested."
Ligertwood is starting to bring some of the more sophisticated strategies common in other sports into cricket. For example, county salaries are made up of two strands, one for playing and another for promotional work on the county's behalf. One method employed by athletes1 is to separate those streams and siphon the money for the promotional work into a separate company. It is common practice in football where image rights are recognised as one of the key assets a player has, but it is relatively new in cricket.
"These are all pretty straightforward, tax-efficient ways of doing things, but they are just coming into the game in this country," says Ligertwood. Ligertwood is frank about the marketing opportunities presented by England's current first-class stock. "The game here is not nearly as marketable as it is in Australia. There the players are massive, huge stars, as big as any footballer here. But in England there is so much competition and, unless you are really special, you are not going to make a fortune.
International players will have their central contract, a bat deal worth up to £60,000 and then a bit of media work, but it's still a long way off golf. "Vaughan is marketable because the captain always is. Butcher is fantastic and if he was captain he'd be huge. He's got personality, he's a top bloke and a rounded guy, he plays the guitar, and he's had a bit of sketchy publicity about his personal life. He's easy to market.
"Anderson's all right, but he's done nothing yet apart from dye his hair red. You have to be absolutely outstanding as a bowler to get really big because all the focus is on the batters. Darren Gough, who was the most marketable Englishman since Botham, was only just good enough in a poor side to be worth it, and that was because he had such charisma on top of his ability."
Ligertwood forecasts that for now cricketers' earnings will remain modest compared to golf, tennis and football. "None of the really big agencies, the Octagons and IMGs, have an interest in cricket at the moment, so outside India we've not seen any mega-deals, the sort you get in football where Coke or Pepsi buy up a whole team of players and use them across the board."
He does see richer times ahead, however. In 2002 the ICC approved a change in regulations to allow players to display the name of any sponsor on their bats. Prior to this, only kit manufacturers were permitted to advertise in that space, a rule famously broken by Arjuna Ranatunga who displayed an ad for Sam's Chicken and Ribs at Trent Bridge in 1998. At the moment the space available is restricted to ten square inches on the back of the bat, which is barely visible on a stump cam - and even that is illegal at ICC events such as the World Cup and the Champions' Trophy. Discussions continue, however, and if the players get their way, cricketers' incomes could be transformed. "If you had a large space on the front of the bat you could see players getting up to £200,000 each. If four kit manufacturers can push it up to £60,000, imagine what open competition could do," says Ligertwood. When that day comes, you can be sure no cricketer will ever have to open his own mail again.
Paul Kelso is sports news correspondent of The Guardian.