David Owen

Who remembers the love affair between tobacco and sport?

A noteworthy anniversary of this long, mutually-beneficial fling is reached this week with July 22 marking 50 years since the inaugural final of cricket's Benson & Hedges Cup.

This was a then dashingly short-form 55-overs-a-side competition played out mainly between county teams in England and Wales.

Given the date of the first season, 1972, it comes as little surprise to learn that sports marketing pioneers West Nally - set up two years earlier by one of the BBC’s voices of cricket, Peter West, and a young man in a hurry called Patrick Nally - were at the heart of the enterprise.

Nally, of course, is still on the scene as President of the International Federation of Match Poker.

According to an account provided to me by him, a ban on cigarette advertising on television put in place in 1965 was a key factor in turning tobacco firms towards sports sponsorship.

As readers may remember, gold featured prominently in Benson & Hedges packaging of the time, offering fertile scope for leverage in a sporting context.

The Benson & Hedges Cup final put tobacco centre stage ©Getty Images
The Benson & Hedges Cup final put tobacco centre stage ©Getty Images

According to Nally’s account, "West Nally were able to introduce 'The Benson & Hedges Golden Year of Sport' - involving quality events in cricket, snooker, show-jumping, tennis, golf, horse racing and music.

"The concept was to build a significant annual event calendar including new 'hallmarked' events under the gold Benson & Hedges identity."

This was an era when, notwithstanding the paucity of channels, cricket had a significant presence on summer day-time TV schedules in the UK.

Consequently, West Nally’s close relationship with the BBC came in very handy.

Says Nally: "As we planned the cricket, we knew we would have solid TV exposure…

"The brand exposure for B&H on the principal channel was very valuable and key to our planning."

Not even the most meticulous planning could ensure full co-operation from the capricious British climate: 29 April 1972, the proposed opening day, was a washout.

As a reporter for the Sunday Mirror called Ted Dexter recorded, "The new Benson and Hedges 55-over competition went up in smoke with not a ball bowled anywhere".

Something else that "went up in smoke" later the same evening was England’s men’s football team, dismantled at Wembley by Günter Netzer's West Germany.

By July, however, events had worked their course and the cricketing stage was set for a mouthwatering Lord’s showdown between two revered sons of Yorkshire - the off-spinner Raymond Illingworth, who had moved on to captain Leicestershire, and opening batsman Geoffrey Boycott.

The Benson & Hedges Cup was blessed by stars including West Indies great Viv Richards ©Getty Images
The Benson & Hedges Cup was blessed by stars including West Indies great Viv Richards ©Getty Images

As Nally also recalls, his firm attended every game with a leading cricketing personality to judge who was "Man of the Match"; Illingworth and Boycott received this accolade in their teams' respective semi-final victories.

Once again, though, fate took a hand - literally - this time in the guise of a young fast bowler called Robert George Dylan Willis.

As described in a unique and engrossing new book on Boycott’s career*, part memoir, part skilful authorial contextualisation, on July 5, just over two weeks before the final, a lifting ball from Willis trapped the master batsman's hand on the handle of his bat.

"There is blood everywhere.

"When you get your glove off, the tip of your middle finger has burst open from the impact.

"The pain is instant and excruciating…

"All you feel once the pain is gone is anger, anger that you will… miss out on the chance to lift that new gold trophy".

Boycott’s absence from the Yorkshire team for the final was costly.

Geoffrey Boycott missed the inaugural Benson & Hedges Cup final with a finger injury ©Getty Images
Geoffrey Boycott missed the inaugural Benson & Hedges Cup final with a finger injury ©Getty Images

Without him, his team-mates could muster just 136 for nine wickets - a total that by the standards of today’s harum-scarum short-form game would be considered barely adequate from 20 overs, never mind 55.

In spite of a slow start, Illingworth’s Leicestershire duly coasted to the first major cricket trophy in the county’s 93-year history and what Dexter described as "that nice fat £2,500 ($3,000/€2,930) cheque".

The £100 ($120/€117) gold award went to a Leicestershire batsman called Chris Balderstone, one of the last athletes to play both cricket and football professionally over a sustained period.

The adjudicator was Peter May, the former England captain and a supremely elegant batsman in his day.

Some two weeks later, and exactly a month after the Willis delivery hit him, Boycott turned out for Leeds in a club game with an aluminium stall over the finger whose top a surgeon had told him would have to be amputated if it sustained further damage.

He scored a century.

The Benson & Hedges Cup survived into the new millennium; its 31st and final renewal came in 2002.

Being Geoffrey Boycott by Geoffrey Boycott and Jon Hotten, published by Fairfield Books, and available here.