It is still a bit too easy to sneer at the Twenty20 Cup. Connoisseurs weaned on the four-day game deride it as fast-food cricket.
It is still a bit too easy to sneer at the Twenty20 Cup. Connoisseurs weaned on the four-day game deride it as fast-food cricket. Others dismiss it as hit-and-giggle, as if sport should have nothing to do with frolics and fun.
A few even point to the recent five-over-a-side game - the minimum requirement for a match - between Essex and Surrey at Chelmsford as evidence that it is just not cricket.
Yet today at The Oval a crowd of 22,000 will beg to differ. Whether they are supporting Lancashire or Surrey, Leicestershire or Somerset, or have simply come along for the ride, they all point to the same conclusion: the Twenty20 bubble is far from bursting.
Not everyone has shared the optimism. Last October the England and Wales Cricket Board announced that each side would play eight group matches in 2005 instead of five, a total of 72 games rather than 45. It was a decision, said Wisden, that "clearly smacked of greed". Suddenly, "overkill" became as synonymous with county cricket as "conveyor-belt" and "mediocrity". References to endangered milch cows and infertile golden geese began to pop up all over the place.
The reality has proved different. The average attendance for a group game this summer was nearly 7,000, an increase of more than 850 on the 2004 figure, which itself was up by 800 on 2003, when the competition started. This is doubly impres sive. First, there were 27 more group matches this season, which according to the doom-mongers would spread the crowds more thinly. And secondly, 11 of 72 matches were ruined by the weather.
"Overkill and the Twenty20 is not something I would recognise," says the Somerset chief executive Richard Gould. "Against Gloucestershire we had to shut the gates." Despite the fanciful image of slavering West Countrymen storming fortress Taunton in search of a seat, the general feeling is that the ECB has got it about right.
Officials at The Oval reckon that today's influx will take the number of people who have watched Twenty20 there this summer into six figures. Compare this with the 1,500 or so who turn up on average for a championship game and you get a sense of county cricket's shifting priorities. "Financially, Twenty20 is far more important than the county championship, where the income is basically made up of members' subs," says Lancashire's chief executive Jim Cumbes. "It's captured the public imagination."
Today represents a chance to capture it some more. England and Australia are not playing until Thursday and the football season does not start properly for another week. In a summer dominated by the Ashes the domestic game has been forced to pull up a pew at the back next to the Bangladeshis.
Gould says it is "important for county cricket to be able to raise its head above the para pet". Leicestershire's director of cricket James Whittaker calls it "a good showcase weekend for county cricket". And the Surrey coach Steve Rixon has even managed to draw a positive from the farcical nature of the quarter-final win against Warwickshire after their tie under the Duckworth-Lewis method. "The bowl-out excited everyone, not just here but around the world," he says. "I've spoken to people in Australia who knew exactly what was going on."
There had been concerns that the umpires' blunder that night, when a misreading of the Duckworth-Lewis regulation led to a sheepish knock on Surrey's dressing-room door, would tarnish the competition. But the hand-wringing might be missing the point. Chaos on the village green is a way of life: here, unwittingly, was top-class cricket's way of reconnecting with its grass roots.
The very human appeal of Twenty20 has not been lost on the players. "I think they've realised what an impact the game has had on the public," says the Leicestershire head coach Phil Whitticase. "It's now the biggest-watched form of the game in the world outside the international arena. More clubs have begun to take it seriously in the last couple of years after the trial and error of the first season."
Hylton Ackerman, the Leicestershire captain, played the game in South Africa - where they call it Pro20 - but even he has been taken aback by its impact here. "People had told me it was massive over here but I didn't realise quite how massive," he says. "Other competitions really take a back seat while Twenty20 is on. The atmosphere is amazing."
Gimmicks have been in shorter supply this summer because chief executives have reached the conclusion that the cricket sells itself. But, if the presence of Girls Aloud strikes a slightly incongruous note, the decision to allow spectators to tune in via headsets to Sky's commentary is inspired.
As long as Twenty20 keeps bringing the game to the people, the people will keep repaying its hospitality.
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