Cavalier cricket: when Bagenal Harvey brought stardust to the sport | Simon Burnton

Cricket was set on its lucrative path to the IPL by sport’s first super-agent and an all-star Sunday afternoon competition that forced the MCC into desperate action

It was exactly 50 years ago this week that the MCC’s Advisory County Cricket Committee took a decision that they hoped might, as the Guardian’s John Arlott put it in a news story, “change the shape and mathematics of county cricket” forever. That, as it turned out, was a significant understatement.

Their decision was to introduce, from the 1969 season onwards, a Sunday County League, with matches to be composed of two innings of no more than 40 overs. This, Arlott said, would “present the County game in a fresh way, which may well recall the deserters, attract new and regular spectators from an entire fresh (television) section of the population; and perhaps even achieve the financial solvency so lately tacitly regarded as impossible”. The only county to vote against the idea was Yorkshire, who eventually consented that they would fulfil fixtures on Sundays, though never at home. This form of the game was at the time known as “Cavalier cricket”.

The Cavaliers were a premonition both of the kind of star-studded limited-overs franchise cricket now globally prevalent and of the rise of the sporting super-agent, having been the brainchild of a certain Bagenal Harvey. In Jimmy Greaves’ autobiography the former England striker, briefly a client of Harvey, colourfully describes him as “a dapper man, a gentleman of impeccable manners who often wore a worsted jacket and an open-necked shirt from which billowed a red cravat like a June rose”. He has gone down in history as sport’s first agent, having made his name in the late 1940s by landing a £1,000-a-year contract for Denis Compton to advertise Brylcreem; from there he assembled a bulging roster of Britain’s finest sporting talent of the day, all of whom wanted a slice of that kind of action.

In December 1968 Harvey was discussed at a meeting of the Football Association council, where he was described as being “harmful to the game” (when the comments were reported in the press, Harvey successfully sued the FA for libel). There was, we reported, “some disquiet inside the governing bodies of various sports that wherever they turn they meet a Bagenal Harvey face”. Not only did he represent leading figures from cricket, football and athletics. He also negotiated for several television and radio presenters, was involved with Wimbledon and worked with a handful of big-name journalists, including Arlott. He had his finger in every available mid-60s pie. During the battle to end football’s maximum wage Jimmy Hill was working from his offices and, when he won that battle, Fulham’s Johnny Haynes was the first great beneficiary, instantly quintupling his wages – and Harvey represented him as well.

The Cavaliers were born of a conversation Harvey had with one of his clients, Ted Dexter. In the early 60s he had found a sponsor, Rothman’s cigarettes, who were keen on promoting high-profile Sunday matches, and the BBC were interested in broadcasting them – but only if there was a guarantee that play would be finished by 6pm. It was Dexter who created the rules that allowed this to happen – limited overs and restricted run-ups – and Harvey then assembled a roster of talent impressive enough to beguile cricket fans.

International stars, emerging youngsters and high-profile Englishmen, frustrated by a lifetime spent, in Dexter’s words, “travelling 150 miles to play in front of two men and a dog at some obscure outpost of cricket’s over-expanded empire”, signed up to spend their day off with the team (though the money also helped). “We had such an amazing side,” Dexter said. “Sobers, Compton, Graeme Pollock – I was only able to creep in at No6 or seven.” Wherever they played, five-figure crowds flocked to witness them. “When we went to Lord’s for the first time we told them to be ready, there’d be a big crowd,” Dexter recalled. “They said, ‘No, no there won’t.’ They’d sold out of everything by 12. We took the place by storm.”

They broke new ground not just in the format of cricket but also its broadcasting. Arlott and Learie Constantine commentated; Frank Bough (no prizes for guessing who his agent was) presented. In one match Richie Benaud and Compton wore radio mikes linked to the commentary box. The counties watched their success enviously and eventually decided to drive them out of business and keep the money they were making for themselves. On 1 February 1968 they made their move.

The new competition would, MCC promised, allow players to earn “far more than they have previously enjoyed”. They would be paid a minimum of £6 10s (adjusting for inflation, about £107) per game, rising to £11 (£180) if they won, plus prize money and bonuses for the competition’s top performers. Rothman’s, having put their money behind the Cavaliers, said they hoped that “the MCC will come to us and give us first refusal” on sponsorship for the new competition; the counties instead signed a deal with their rivals, John Player, worth £60,000 a year (very nearly £1m in today’s money).

The Cavaliers vowed to play on, even suggesting they might compete as a regular member of the new Sunday league, so the counties pressed the nuclear button. English players registered with first-class or minor counties were forbidden from taking part in televised matches without permission; agents were banned; the idea of the Cavaliers joining the league was dismissed; and a deal was signed with the Cavaliers’ own broadcast partners, the BBC, pushing them off the airwaves.

“Thus the International Cavaliers, who have become the symbol of Sunday afternoon cricket, Rothmans, who sponsor them, and the Bagenal Harvey Organisation, who administer them, were virtually made illegal,” the Guardian reported, these moves coming despite the fact that “they alone succeeded in creating fresh interest, entertainment and revenue in post-war cricket.” They fought on through the first summer of the Sunday League, in 1969, and disbanded the following year. Where Harvey had led, other agents followed and flourished. He died in 1987, virtually forgotten; his passing was not mentioned in the Guardian.

As the world’s leading limited-overs specialists come to terms with the lucrative deals they have just been handed to compete in this year’s IPL, and half a century after the English game moved to sideline him permanently, it is perhaps appropriate to give some measure of thanks to the man who first set cricket on this lucrative path. But though Harvey never had any trouble arousing intense emotions among those governing the game, somehow gratitude was never one of them.


Simon Burnton

The GuardianTramp

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