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Selling tickets and not the soul

Eagles fighting with Sharks, sparks flying between the Dynamos and the Lightning, and a derby between the Brown Caps and the men in pink shirts: it’s Twenty20 time again.

Yet somewhere over the past four years of beach parties, mascot races and evening boozing, a decent tournament has emerged. Counties no longer need gimmicks to fill their grounds, many people come simply to watch cricket.

Some will tell you cricket was reborn at Edgbaston in August 2005, that when England won that thrilling second Test match against Australia to level the Ashes series – and kept the momentum going right to the final ball at the Brit Oval – it made cricket a sport for the masses again.

The truth is that the seeds of growth were sown two years earlier, when the first Twenty20 Cup brought in more than 250,000 spectators. Staggeringly, the 2005 tournament, which finished before the Edgbaston Test started, drew 476,000 spectators, albeit with an increased fixture list.

Last year, more than 500,000 people watched Twenty20 and the growth is set to be even greater this season, with Surrey alone having sold more than 100,000 tickets for the Brown Caps’ four home games and many other counties reporting sell-outs.

If this was all about spectators wearing fancy dress and listening to loud music in the evening sunshine while professional cricketers play a game of slap and giggle, then letters would still be pouring in from retired colonels in the Home Counties, but Twenty20 has instead become a skilful, tactical battle that provides much more entertainment than 50-over cricket.

As players get better used to the freedom that the games give them, scores have increased – four of the five highest team totals came last season – and bowlers have become more canny.

It has become an axiom that slow but accurate bowlers flourish in Twenty20 because they are harder to hit. Jeremy Snape, the Leicestershire Foxes off spinner, is a master at this, bowling so slowly that the ball almost stops before it reaches the batsman. Yet Stuart Broad, Snape’s teammate, bucked the trend last year, bowling at about 90mph but conceding only 4.5 runs per over – an astonishing 1.5 runs fewer than the next best regular bowler in the competition.

Leicestershire, who won their second title last year, have shown how brains mixed with gusto can turn an unglamorous team into the masters of Twenty20. They may regret losing Darren Maddy, their carefree opening batsman, to Warwickshire, and Brad Hodge, who captained Leicestershire to the title in 2004 but is now at Lancashire, is possibly the best Twenty20 batsman in the world, but the Foxes have other aces up their sleeves.

Paul Nixon is one of many cricketers hoping to be selected for England at the inaugural Twenty20 World Championship, to be held in South Africa in September. The Leicestershire and England one-day wicketkeeper said Twenty20 was “all about us expressing ourselves and showing no fear”.

The gimmicks will still be there this year – Northamptonshire will have a “Monty Zone”, where spectators are invited to come dressed as Monty Panesar, the local hero – but Middlesex’s plan to wear pink shirts evolved from a prank to something more worthy.

“It was a daft idea I had to brighten up the side,” Vinny Codrington, the Middlesex chief executive, said. “Too many sides were going for drab colours and, being a rugby fan, I had loved seeing the Stade Français fans decked out in pink, so decided to do that.

“Then we came up with the idea of supporting Breakthrough Breast Cancer, with proceeds from the sale of shirts and caps going to charity. I imagine our rivals will be green – or rather pink – with envy that they didn’t think of it first.”

The facts, the fixtures, the ones to watch

Brad Hodge
The Lancashire batsman is cocky enough to have told the Australia selectors that he is the best in the world ahead of the first Twenty20 World Championship this autumn. He has captained Leicestershire and Victoria (twice) to domestic titles in the shortest form of the game. In January, his innings of 106 off 54 balls, after being hit on the helmet by Moises Henriques, crushed New South Wales in the Australian final. Bowls useful off-spin too.

Twenty20 record: 27 matches; 1,211 runs at 50.45; 21 wickets at 15.42

Adam Voges The 27-year-old batsman has joined Hampshire to replace Stuart Clark and seems ideally suited for Twenty20 having hit the fastest century, off 62 balls, in Australian domestic cricket three years ago. His nickname is “Happy”.

Twenty20 record: 6 matches; 246 runs at 49.20; 3 wickets at 32.66

Jeremy Snape
The Leicestershire captain remains one of the canniest one-day players around, even if England didn’t learn from his coaching in the recent World Cup. Proves the adage that slower bowlers are better bowlers in Twenty20.

Twenty20 record: 35 matches; 518 runs at 25.90; 33 wickets at 19.21

Sanath Jayasuriya
A replacement at Lancashire for Muttiah Muralitharan, Jayasuriya’s one-day record is staggering – his average of 47 this year was his highest in five World Cups. Turns 38 next week but still hungry for runs.

Twenty20 record: 5 matches; 129 runs at 43; 10 wickets at 10.90

Tyron Henderson
Middlesex have signed “a right-arm fast opening bowler who hits the ball a county mile” to replace Chaminda Vaas for the Twenty20 Cup. Henderson, a 32-year-old from Durban nicknamed “The Blacksmith”, took two for 19 as the Lions won South Africa’s Twenty20 final this year.

Twenty20 record: 36 matches; 651 runs at 21.70; 38 wickets at 24.57

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