Twenty20 set to take centre stage
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
Source - icbirmingham.co.uk