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Rivals plan Twenty20 'piracy'

Satisfaction at the inevitable commercial success of this evening’s inaugural Twenty20 international in England will be followed tomorrow by the first of two serious challenges to the control of the ECB over its own event.

Satisfaction at the inevitable commercial success of this evening’s inaugural Twenty20 international in England will be followed tomorrow by the first of two serious challenges to the control of the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) over its own event.

Whether England or Australia draws first blood in the shortest of the potential 13 matches between the countries this summer, the match at the Rose Bowl marks a logical extension of the successful prototype in county cricket and, local transport difficulties aside, should be cause for triumph for the organisation that conceived the latest form of instant cricket and had the courage to market it aggressively. As with all good inventions, however, there is a danger that others will profit.

The governing body’s bid to patent the Twenty20 brand and to ensure that the pudding will not be over-egged is to be threatened by two groups wanting to cash in on its enterprise and spadework. Intriguingly, too, one of the groups involves several disaffected members of the ECB itself.

At an hotel opposite Lord’s tomorrow a group self-styled as the Get Fit Foundation (GFF) and calling itself “the national governing body for physical activity” will announce (at what its public-relations team has misspelt the “Dennis” Compton Suite) details of what it grandly calls “the first-ever 20-20 World Cricket Classic”. Initial publicity promises that “many of the world’s greatest cricketers, representing eight countries, will be involved”.

It is safe to say that already the group is in no danger of underselling itself. The “world’s greatest cricketers” are unlikely to include many of those now playing at international level — Mike Gatting and Alec Stewart may be the most eye-catching of the former England Test cricketers involved — and the matches are likely to be staged in Bermuda, to a commercial formula similar to that of the rugby union Masters series.

That will not prevent it from being viewed with concern both by the ECB and the International Cricket Council, who have an equal interest in maximising the potential of Twenty20 without prejudicing an already overcrowded programme of officially sanctioned international events.

Any day now the GFF’s brazen piece of potential piracy will be followed by another from the group of Asian businessmen now running the marketing of Leicestershire cricket to use the Twenty20 concept for a spurious extra tournament in September.

The Times understands that an initial application to the ECB has already been made for a “Champions League” to be held in the third week of September. It has not yet been considered but is hardly likely to be approved, especially as two of the main domestic competitions will be approaching their climaxes.

Leicestershire won the Twenty20 competition last year before the Investors in Cricket group became involved at Grace Road. Like the GFF initiative, theirs seems to be designed primarily to exploit the apparently bottomless appetite in Asia for cricket on television, but they will find it hard to get agreement from either the ECB or other national bodies to release their players. Time will tell how much these are exercises designed simply to cash in on an idea that has worked wonderfully well at county level so far.

The ECB has, to its credit, avoided excessive exploitation, settling for only a modest expansion in fixtures this season and for two internationals a season from next year, one against each of the main touring teams.

Board officials reacted cautiously when approached by The Times but they are understandably concerned that those involved with tomorrow’s announcement include several of their own former colleagues at Lord’s.

Keith Pont, until recently the board’s director of development, is now chief executive of the GFF. Terry Blake, formerly the ECB’s marketing director, who resigned in 2002 as commercial director, has helped to negotiate TV rights to the proposed matches and the services of a television production company.

John Read, who resigned last year as director of corporate affairs, has helped as a “behind-the-scenes volunteer” in a media and PR role. The group even claims the approval of Lord MacLaurin of Knebworth, the former ECB chairman.

The next meeting of the ECB management board is scheduled at Lord’s on Wednesday. The ECB has already trademarked the title Twenty20 cricket in the UK and copyrighted the rules. A spokesman said: “Obviously if we receive requests from individuals wanting to stage Twenty20 matches, they would have to be considered by the management board.

The ECB will do everything in its power to ensure that any development in this area is beneficial to cricket. The fact that others are considering this format shows the concept’s success and we are happy for it to be taken on by other international boards.”

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