With a fusillade of fireworks and "Bollywood" cheerleaders, the Indian Premier League (IPL) is in full cry. The cricket season in England has also begun and will feature the ICC men’s World Cup, which begins on May 30.
Both events have the full glare of television and all the pomp and ceremony which now attends major sporting occasions. The names of tournament sponsors or "partners" are emblazoned at each host venue.
Cricket was the probably the first team sport to attract sponsors. Back in the 18th century, prominent aristocrats raised their own teams to play matches and domestic staff were often hired with cricket in mind. In 1792, Lord Tankerville advertised for a footman and the specification was that "he must neither drink gin nor brandy and must not keep company which smoaked (sic) tobacco, and he must play at cricket decently".
The most famous cricket ground in the world bears the name of Thomas Lord, a wine merchant with an eye for the main chance. He instigated the annual club dinner of the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC). He also made provision for keeping the crowds fed and watered. "A very good cold collation was spread out under a covered recess for the accommodation of players and subscribers," said one newspaper report. It was possibly the first sports hospitality, though it is not recorded whether the food on offer included prawn sandwiches.
Caterers also sponsored the first England cricket team to visit Australia in 1861. The trip was supported by Spiers and Pond. Financing a trip overseas was an expensive business and in those days the sport had no formal governing bodies, so it fell to commercial enterprise or rich individuals to organise the tours. In 1891, Lord Sheffield was the benefactor of an England tour to Australia and the players wore specially-designed caps in a rather natty combination of purple, red and gold.
Cricket was still socially divided. A match between gentlemen and players (amateurs against professionals) was first played in 1806 and endured until 1962. Until Len Hutton of Yorkshire did so in 1952, no professional player had ever captained England in a Test Match.
In the years which followed the Second World War, huge crowds flocked to cricket grounds. The players became household names, none more than Denis Compton, a gifted batsman who also played top-level football for Arsenal and was a hero to a generation of youngsters. It was said that Bagenal Harvey, an entrepreneur and soon-to-be sports agent, discovered Compton’s car boot full of unanswered correspondence and offered to take care of it. Thus, Compton acquired an agent. There soon followed a high-profile endorsement of a well-known brand of hair cream. From then on, Compton was known as "Brylcreem boy".
Soon, Harvey’s stable of cricketing talent had grown. It included the debonair England batsman Ted Dexter, nicknamed "Lord Ted" for his stylish play, and many others.
At the time, one-day cricket was virtually unknown at the top level of the game, although it was a format familiar to those who played at club and village level.
With Dexter, Harvey devised a series of limited-over matches for a team of international stars "to provide teams for charity matches and overseas tours". Tobacco firm Rothmans were signed up as sponsors for the "International Cavaliers". Compton was installed as President and played in some of the matches.
The team was cricket’s equivalent of basketball’s Harlem Globetrotters and, in some ways, a forerunner of the all-star franchises of the IPL.
Cavaliers matches were played on Sundays "in the right place at the right time in the right way". Matches were designed so that "every match would have a winner and a loser. Draws were out".
Batsmen were rather more willing to try to hit sixes than was usually the case in more traditional cricket, and on occasion even smashed windows in the television commentary box, to the delight of the spectators.
At the height of their popularity, the Cavaliers played some 21 matches in a season which ran from April to September.
"The result is a type of cricket which has won many new supporters to the game, some of whom had never watched cricket before," said the popular television commentator Brian Johnston.
At the same time, a one-day knockout tournament was launched. This was initially sponsored by Gillette. In the early years, the final was invariably a sellout. The concept spread to Australia, New Zealand, the West Indies and South Africa.
Meanwhile, Rothmans was expanding its involvement and even sponsored a World Cup of sorts In 1966. This was held at Lord’s and featured only England, the West Indies and a Rest of the World XI. Unfortunately, it was launched the very week that football’s Jules Rimet Trophy was stolen from an exhibition in London. Cricket was getting used to being overshadowed by football.
The competition itself was held in September 1966 but it has been long forgotten, even by those who took part. England won both their matches to lift the rather unusual trophy. The whole thing was repeated in 1967. The matches were in the same 50-over format which will be used this summer, yet the tournament has never been officially recognised as the birth of one-day international cricket.
By this time "the Cavaliers had become a way of life", claimed former England captain Ted Dexter.
Yet cricket’s officialdom was planning another one-day competition for Sunday afternoons. This "Sunday league" adopted many of the playing regulations introduced by Cavaliers. These included a restriction on the length of run-up used by the bowlers. It was all designed to ensure play finished by evensong because the religious lobby in Britain remained strong in the late 60s.
Rothmans hoped to become involved in the new league but it became clear the wind was blowing in a different direction. Harvey left Lord’s after a stormy meeting and when it came to sponsorship of the league, the authorities recruited John Player, another tobacco firm and arch rivals of Rothmans. The BBC were to televise the league, which left the Cavaliers out in the cold.
Dexter described the move as "a harsh and clumsy decision". Cavaliers matches continued in 1969 but soon disappeared from the scene.
At a press conference at Lord’s, MCC secretary Billy Griffith said: "It has been suggested that we are trying to put an end to the Cavaliers. I have always said the Cavaliers have done a wonderful job for cricket. The only point which has created an issue between us is whether or not the Cavaliers matches involving registered players should be televised.’’
He confirmed that ‘’the counties would not permit television involving their registered players other than those matches in the Sunday league’’.
In 1969, future Australian captain Ian Chappell was refused permission to take part in Cavalier cricket. A decade later, he was banned from official cricket as one of those deemed "disapproved" after he signed up for media mogul Kerry Packer’s rebel competition, World Series Cricket.
In the meantime, international one-day cricket had taken flight in 1971 almost by accident. The third Test between Australia and England at Melbourne was washed out without a ball being bowled and at the prompting of Sir Donald Bradman, a one-day match was played instead.
The powers that be eventually gave the green light for the first fully-fledged international tournament in 1975, although they were not at all keen to use the term, "World Cup". All pre-tournament publicity used the phrase ‘’international championship cricket". Women’s cricket had no qualms. They promoted their first international tournament as a World Cup in 1973, two years before the men.
In 1975, eight teams took part in the Prudential Cup played under the aegis of the ICC. The eight included East Africa, which included players from Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia. South Africa were not invited as Apartheid was still in force.
The tournament was over in a fortnight and not all games were televised. Yet it was blessed by good fortune. Not a second of play was lost to bad light or rain, there were memorable individual performances and tense finishes.
Australia met the West Indies in the final at Lord’s. There was a capacity crowd and some even sat on the grass inside the boundary ropes. West Indies won by 17 runs with clocks in the ground showing 8.40pm. It was perhaps as well that the match was played on June 21, the longest day of the summer. The weather throughout the day had been pitch perfect.
Many officials were astonished by its success and the go-ahead was given for a second tournament in 1979, also held in England and won again by the West Indies.
India's unexpected victory in 1983 electrified their substantial fan base behind the format. By 1987, it had become an authentic World Cup with competitions held on the Indian subcontinent, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the West Indies.
It has come a long way since 1975, when Prince Philip was President of MCC and the eight competing teams were received at Buckingham Palace.
This time, the festivities will be conducted a few metres away. Some 4,000 fans will be allocated tickets to an eve-of-tournament party on The Mall which organisers say "will be a fitting celebration of a World Cup, cricket and sport with diversity at its core".