All Set For Twenty20 Cheer
It seemed inconceivable a year ago that English cricket should become reliant so soon on the county game for a dose of the feelgood factor but the Twenty20 Cup, which begins today, has quickly established itself as the golden boy of the domestic circuit.
With an injury-stricken England side rapidly losing the goodwill it built up last summer, Twenty20 - now in its fourth season - provides cricket with a chance to keep its head above water during football's World Cup, even if a concession has been made by the venues that have decided to erect giant screens and keep the football fans happy.
Weather permitting, the 72 group games played over the next 15 days might persuade the cricketing public that there is life after the Ashes.
To the England and Wales Cricket Board's delight, early indications are that spectators have not lost faith with a competition that the players, initially sceptical, regard as the second-most important.
Advanced ticket sales are up 26% on last year, the Roses clash between Lancashire and Yorkshire at Old Trafford on July 7 is already sold out, and the two London derbies between Middlesex and Surrey at Lord's and The Oval are not far behind.
A spokesman for Surrey, who have managed to persuade four firms, led by Sporting Index, to pay more than £100,000 to sponsor their home games alone, said 10,000 tickets were sold before February.
The seriousness with which the 18 first-class counties now take Twenty20 is also reflected in some of the overseas locums. Kent have signed the all-rounder Tyron Henderson, who was South Africa's Pro20 cricketer of the year in 2004-05, and Northamptonshire have gambled on Sourav Ganguly's off-side scythes.
Somerset have brought in the Australia opener Justin Langer, who said he was looking forward to being able to "play with some freedom". It is an approach which, when the competition began in 2003, was supposed to sound the death knell for spinners, but three of the four leading wicket-takers last year were slow bowlers and variations in flight and pace could again prove the key element.
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