Twenty20 set to take centre stage

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With football and tennis dreams out of the way cricket as the chance to take centre stage for the next five weeks.

With Tim Henman licking his wounds and England's footballers bemoaning their ill fortune, cricket has a great opportunity to win a new generation of supporters during the next five weeks.

Had England progressed in Portugal and - don't laugh - Henman made it to the final at Wimbledon, there would have been little media space devoted to the return of Twenty20 cricket. Yet thousands of people who might not normally think of going to a cricket match are planning to make an evening of these contests. County cricket has another chance to reverse the misplaced but growing perception that it is dull or unfashionable.

Twenty20 cricket returns this evening. All 18 first-class teams are in action and Warwickshire host Somerset at Edgbaston. Though it would be an exaggeration to say that the future of cricket in this country depends on the success of the format, it is extremely important that more people are attracted to the game. More than 250,000 watched Twenty20 matches last summer and indications are that this year's competition will prove equally popular. Some matches (such as today's at New Road) are already sold out, which suggests that those who came last year enjoyed themselves and want more of the same.

Hot tubs, girl bands, barbecues: all will return, with Warwickshire also offering a 'speed dating' service. Fine, but cricket doesn't need any of it. The game of Twenty20 cricket is plenty entertaining enough. Many traditional cricket-lovers were pleasantly surprised by the orthodox nature of last year's matches. It wasn't a burlesque of cricket as was feared; the best players (and Collins Obuya) succeeded by translating normal cricket skills to the accelerated nature of the game. There is no reason why those who enjoyed the matches would not enjoy a normal county oneday or even Championship contest.

"It's a means to an end," Stuart Robertson, the marketing man at the ECB (though he is now with Warwickshire) who 'invented' the format, said. "The hope is that a 20-over match after work or school will be the first rung on a cricket-watching ladder that has a Championship game at its top."

There's not much evidence that such a progression has occurred as yet, though perhaps Championship attendances would increase if it was marketed just as aggressively, rather than allowing leading players and administrators to openly demean it? Certainly at no stage of last year's Twenty20 Cup did I see an innings as attractive, possibly even as flamboyant, as Mark Wagh's century on the first day of the Championship match at Stratford.

"Twenty20 is more orthodox than people like to think," Dougie Brown, Warwickshire's stand-in captain, said. "At Warwickshire we like to think that the traditional skills are still vital in this form of the game. We looked at the figures and saw the most successful batsmen last year were guys like Nick Knight, Andy Flower, Michael Hussey and Simon Katich: good, pretty orthodox players. The key to success would seem to be players like that dovetailing around the guys who like to hit the ball out of the park, so we may be looking to use guys like Graham Wagg as a pinch-hitter, but after the initial six overs.

"If conditions are helpful we'll be bowling normal, length deliveries, but in good batting conditions we'll have to mix it up much more and bowl a lot more slower balls and yorkers." August will see the first Twenty20 international match, when England's women taken on New Zealand's in Hove, while next year England and Australia will contest a one-off match during the Ashes series. The ECB have already suggested that it could become an Olympic sport and the success of the format appears assured.

It will be interesting to see how the England selectors pick the side for next year's international matches. Bear in mind that none of the England team have played Twenty20 cricket - it still seems a strange decision to keep the best-known players out of this showpiece event - so the likes of Neil Carter and Knight will surely have to be considered?

The weather is the major caveat to the success of this year's tournament. Last year's competition was blessed with sustained sunshine which made watching cricket a comfortable business. But as the average county cricket spectator knows, an umbrella and thermos of hot coffee are as essential requirements in the English summer as a bottle of sun block, and the wavering cricket-lover could be put off for life by an evening of pitch inspections. Umpires and players must be encouraged to play on whenever possible.

Bizarre as it may seem, Obuya was at the centre of Warwick-shire's success in this competition last year, though it seems fair to presume that Brad Hogg will be a more than adequate replacement. Brown said: "We noticed that the spinners were very successful last year, and Collins Obuya bowled really well for us. But the weather last year was a lot drier, so there may be a little more help for the seamers and less help for the spinners this year."

The loss of Knight is much more serious. A great one-day player, he was also in the form of his life, and last year led Warwickshire with imagination in this competition. It would be naive to think that he can be replaced. His absence will be a major obstacle to Warwick-shire's aspirations. Brown said: "He's our captain and leading batsman, so losing him is a massive blow. But we're hoping he is not out for as long as we originally feared."

Dewald Pretorius will play today, with Heath Streak not permitted by ECB regulations to return before Sunday. Trevor Penney also returns after a foot injury. Brown said: "The key is going to be flexibility. We'll open the batting with Mark Wagh and Neil Carter but after that people must be prepared to be flexible. So must the bowlers. They've got to be prepared to come on for one-over spells at the end of the innings."

"As bowlers, we know that there will be days when we suffer. At some stage some batsman is going to get away with it, and you're not going to have a good day. That's the nature of the game, it's tough for bowlers. I'd expect most teams to go for it very hard in the first six overs, when the fielding restrictions apply. The tactics may have developed a bit from last year when teams were still feeling their way a bit."

Warwickshire's opponents this evening, Somerset, are experiencing a terrible run of form. They remain without a win in Championship cricket and will be without injured fast bowlers Andy Caddick (rumoured recently to be on the verge of signing for the new American Pro Cricket League), Richard Johnson and Nixon McLean as well as Ian Blackwell, who is on England duty. They still have some dangerous players, however, and are captained by former Warwick-shire wicketkeeper-batsman Michael Burns.

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