The Twenty20 Cup's back with a bang
The sold out signs are going up outside county grounds across the country. Twenty20 — cricket’s biggest phenomenon — is back.
The fifth season of the Twenty20 Cup begins tomorrow and the short form England gave the world is more popular than ever.
International cricket is finally catching up with a fashion set by the counties and the first Twenty20 World Cup will be held in South Africa in September.
The two England v West Indies matches at The Brit Oval next Thursday and Friday have been sold out since Christmas.
But it is in the domestic game that the impact has been most profound. From players to administrators to commentators, converts can be found everywhere and even traditionalists have started to accept it as part of their cricketing diet.
Take Darren Maddy. A career that appeared to have peaked with three Tests at the turn of the century has been revitalised by Twenty20 to the point where he has been the most successful player in the four years of the competition.
He has inspired Leicestershire to two Twenty20 Cup wins and became the first batsman to score 1,000 runs in the tournament before his closeseason move to Warwickshire.
"I’m a traditionalist and I was a bit sceptical about Twenty20 at first," said Maddy, who captained Warwickshire in their Friends Provident Trophy semi-final defeat by Hampshire yesterday.
"But I soon realised this was no slogathon, it was a proper game of cricket played over a shorter amount of time. It has developed into the most high-profile competition we play as county cricketers and it gives those who haven’t played international cricket the chance to display their skills in front of big crowds in high-intensity games."
Former England coach David Lloyd has embraced Twenty20 in his role as a Sky TV commentator.
He admits, however, that even he has been taken by surprise at the growth of a game which began with gimmicks aplenty but which has seen the bouncy castles and face-painting stalls slowly disappearing from grounds to enable the game itself to take centre stage.
"I thought it would be a success but not as big as it has become," said Lloyd. "I get to grounds very early but when I do, there are already hundreds of people there trying to get the best seats. It has been an absolute winner."
But, unlike Maddy, he does not consider Twenty20 to be a bitesized version of the ‘real’ game.
"It’s pure entertainment where the players just happen to be using cricket equipment," said Lloyd. "Players can shed their inhibitions and express themselves in outrageous ways. I say to them, 'Let your hair down boys and have a good time'."
Then there are the financial gains. Twenty20 has become such a money-spinner that, over the next few years, the counties will probably become less dependent on ECB funding for their existence.
Marketing departments are also coming into their own.
Suzi Kent, Surrey’s head of marketing and communications, said: "Players probably still take the other forms of cricket more seriously and treat Twenty20 as a bit of fun but for us that is completely flipped around, with Twenty20 the big thing which allows us to support championship and 50-over cricket.
"We’ve sold 15,000 tickets for each of our four home Twenty20 matches so far and the revenue will enable us to be more creative with the other formats. It does make you wonder what counties did before Twenty20 cricket."
The big question is whether, as ever, the game will kill the goose that laid this golden egg by overcrowding the Twenty20 calendar.
There have been more games each season and Test countries, with the notable exception of India who worry about the reduced TV advertising revenue from a Twenty20 game rather than a 50-over one, are hugely enthusiastic.
As a traditionalist who puts Tests far and away above any limited overs format, I already prefer Twenty20 games to the tired old one-day international with its "is there much more of this?" tedium during the middle overs.
Maddy says counties are taking more time preparing specifically for Twenty20 and game plans are becoming more advanced. "A lot more thought goes into it than you might think," he added. "It’s not just swinging across the line. The game is evolving all the time."