Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Smoke gets in your eyes

Paint drying website
Fantasy Bob is assured by associates who live on the wilder side of life that there are several websites on which you can watch paint dry.  He has never sampled these delights - they may be seriously addictive.

But he is put in mind of these temptations by the arrival on the nation's TV screens of the Snooker World Championship. FB assumes that this is offered to assist the nation's insomniacs who always find this time of year, when daylight extends at both ends of the day, a trial.

At first sight, Fantasy Bob concedes the resemblances between snooker and cricket are slight.  Although  outfields at prestigious grounds are often compared to billiard tables and while the green playing surface, the red and nowadays white and pink balls have a superficial air of similarity, it is uncommon for a cricketer to run up to the wicket in a bow tie and shiny paisley pattern waistcoat.  It is also uncommon for a batsman to twist his bat into a lump of blue chalk before taking strike.  FB must therefore conclude that the games are different.

But at one time the sports (if snooker is a sport) were conjoined in an unholy alliance. They were both recipients of significant financial inputs from the tobacco industry.  The snooker World Championship was sponsored by Embassy from 1976 to 2005 - the year that tobacco sponsorship was finally banned.  Other major snooker events were similarly smoky, notably the Benson and Hedges Masters 1975-2003.  Of course during these competitions, the competitors would frequently be seen sampling the sponsor's product.  No wonder the relations endured so long.

Cricket's relationship with the evil weed is no less reprehensible.  Cricketers themselves were as tobacco dependent as any other group of the population, as any search through old photo albums will confirm.  But cigarette cards were a phenomenon. The first set of cricket cigarette cards was issued in 1886 by WD & HO Wills - a year before an equivalent football set.   These proved hugely popular and many other manufacturers followed suit.  Sets showed counties, players, touring teams, coaching tips, everything and anything. They stayed in vogue until the 1950s.  Nowadays serious prices are paid by collectors for early samples.  A rare card of WG Grace was auctioned with a reserve price of £3000 earlier this year.  Start searching your attic.

John Player League
poster 1985 season
But sponsorship of events themselves did not start until the mass TV audience was available.  The John Player Sunday League started in 1969 and ran until 1987.  The counties played each other on a league basis in 40 over games, one of which was televised each week.  As with T20 today new rules were invented - while there were no power plays or free hits,  FB remembers bowlers' run ups being restricted as a device to speed up the over rate.  He also remembers many Sunday afternoons slumped on the sofa as the quiet tones of Jim Laker described the action from far flung county grounds in exotic locations such as Taunton and Canterbury.   The overt sponsorship was of course a challenge for the BBC - while the commentators tried hard not to refer to John Player, the cameras could not hide the extensive banners and branding.  Lord Reith turned again in his grave.

The Benson and Hedges Cup ran from 1972 to 2002.   At first 55 overs then 50 overs; there was a group stage then knock out rounds leading to a Lords final.  It is therefore the progenitor of the CB40 tournament.  Scotland joined the competition in 1980, a fundamental and important step on the long slow climb to associate and ODI status.  Scotland pulled off notable scalps from time to time, their first victory being against Lancashire in 1986, but they also had to take some severe medicine.  The record for the highest total conceded falls to them - 388-7 against Essex in 1992 - Graham Gooch getting 127.  But it is 2 times winners Hampshire who have the lowest total - they were skittled for 50 by Yorkshire in 1991.  Lancashire won the trophy 4 times.

England celebrate
the latest deal with publicity-shy
 N Power
Little by little attitudes changed and tolerance of smoking and of tobacco advertising and sponsorship waned.  It was finally banned across the EU in 2005.  Other financial sources had to be approached, and cricket in England is now heavily reliant on the insurance industry - Cornhill sponsoring Test cricket from 1978 - 2000 and Brit Insurance now in a 4 year deal sponsoring the Test side while LV= support the County Championship.  Other parts of the financial sector have also dipped in their pockets, Nat West and C&G have come and gone but Clydesdale Bank now support the CB40 and Friends Life the T20 competition. NPower have sponsored England's home Test series and range of other cricket activities since 2001.

FB will mention in passing with a sigh the challenge here for Scottish sport - all the companies supporting English cricket - and English rugby and football for that matter - are significant companies also in Scotland.  But the thought of, say O2 or Vodaphone, sponsoring a Scottish national team or competition is never on the cards.  Some playing fields will never be levelled.

For snooker the vice of the weed has been replaced by the vice of gambling on-line betting in the form of Betfred.com who now support the World Championship.

The experience in Britain is replicated across the world as tobacco sponsorship has moved from a dominant position to be outlawed.  For example, the Indian Cricket team once wore the Wills logo a brand of the Indian Tobacco Company.  But Sachin Tendulkar, amongst others, has made very public his refusal to endorse any tobacco or alcohol product.  And, quite rightly, alcohol looks like it is also retreating.  It was not so long ago that Autralian-England-W Indies tri series would have been fuelled by XXXX, Tetleys and Red Stripe and taken place at the Fosters Oval.  No more.

Paint drying website
A range of other activities were also contaminated by tobacco in these smoke filled years.  Most notably that other so called sport F1 (whose excitement regularly competes with the paint drying website).  So tobacco-dependent was F1 that, to the great embarrassment of Tony Blair, it persuaded the new Labour administration in 1997 to allow it to beat the coming ban.  

FB is pleased to note reports that the BBC might relinquish its incomprehensible purchase of F1 shortly.  Perhaps that will leave some space (if not cash) available for the channel to recapture its proud heritage to bring us the present smoke free versions of the John Player League and the B&H.  If not then the paint drying website might well prove to have its attractions after all.


  1. Groucho Marx, on a visit to London, was invited to watch a day's play at Lords. After half an hour, he was asked if he was enjoying himself and replied "yes, it's great but when does it start?". Anyone who has sat through a whole match of American Football might feel similarly disconnected. Paint-drying is in the eye of the beholder, I suspect.
    On the subject of sponsorship, FB will no doubt remember the original one-day county competition, sponsored by Gillette (later NatWest) and started in 1963. No pyjama cricket in those days and we got a proper 65 overs-a-side match, which allowed Geoffrey Boycott to play probably his most memorable innings - 146 in the 1965 final against Surrey, including 3 sixes. Any format which can produce that has to be worth having back.

  2. Indeed - FB's loyalty to Gillette (the best a man can get) stems from their pioneering sponsorship in the 1960s.

  3. FB might be interested in this website if he has a few moments to spare :- www.watching-grass-grow.com