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The Twenty20 Cup Returns

Twenty20 cricket returns on Friday, still purring with satisfaction at its remarkable impact last season.

Twenty20 cricket returns on Friday, still purring with satisfaction at its remarkable impact last season. It surprised us all with its popularity, especially the antediluvian doubters like me.

Why, it even led to South Africa running with the idea, introducing their Standard Bank Pro20 Series. Their average crowds of 9,000 even dwarfed those here (5,300). One match at The Wanderers in Johannesburg attracted 18,000. Sri Lanka and Pakistan are already formulating plans for their own competitions. And now, of course, there is news that Twenty20 will go international with the announcement of the first Ashes clash next summer. Heady days indeed for 'short-form' cricket.

For that is how it was termed when it was first mooted among the counties as far back as 1999. But who was it who first suggested it? One cannot call him the 'inventor' because 20-overs-per-side cricket has been played from the year dot by clubs and schools. Indeed, most professionals would have been exposed to it at some stage in their formative years. I know, I had my fill of it in the Forest of Dean Midweek League. But somebody had the courage of his convictions to keep telling the counties that it was viable at the professional level.

That man is John Carr, the former Middlesex batsman, now the England and Wales Cricket Board's director of cricket operations. English cricket owes him a debt. As it does David Acfield, who chaired the Domestic Structure Review Group (DSRG) in 2002, which recommended 'short-form' cricket to the First Class Forum.

It is pertinent that we recognise the work of these two men at a time when their latest DSRG offerings have been summarily dismissed by the counties, especially their intended fusion of the Championship and National League into one entity, which - and this seems to have been conveniently ignored - was only one part of a proposal to produce a more workable schedule for the county season.

Carr is a modest chap who reckons he would not have been very good at Twenty20. He would have been. And anyway, crowds would have come just to witness his quirky batting stance - completely chest-on down the wicket, very much like former England batsman-turned-umpire Peter Willey. But Carr says: "I pushed very hard for a number of years for the introduction of 'short-form' into the county program, beginning with a recommendation for it to be introduced in 2000."

The instinctive feel of Carr led to research being conducted in 2001 by Stuart Robertson, then the ECB Marketing Manager and now at Warwickshire in a similar capacity. Robertson conducted a survey in which respondents, when asked to list reasons why they did not attend domestic cricket matches, or did not attend more often, put 'It takes up too much time' at the top of the list. Second in the list was the lack of county cricket locally and third was a perception that the game is boring. It also showed an interesting response to the idea of 20 overs; 49 per cent were against it, 34 were for it and 14 were there to be convinced. Importantly, of those who were for it, most had never attended matches before.

And as a result the recommendations of the DSRG concluded that 'short-form' cricket was unashamedly commercially driven at a new audience, believing its introduction would make the game more available to the masses and alter the perception that it is slow and tedious.

It was prescient stuff. And what's more the players reckon it has opened their eyes to what is achievable in one-day cricket. Robertson seems to have collected most of the credit for the success of this competition but it is for Carr that the most lavish praise should be reserved.

"I just couldn't see how it wouldn't work. But it took a lot to convince the counties," Carr says before predictably wanting to redirect the focus upon Robertson. "Fair play to him. It is one thing to have an idea like we did, but quite another to sell it. And that is what he did. And not only to the public because I thought that one of the most important things was that it was sold to the players. It would only work if they took it seriously and did not dismiss it as 'hit-and-giggle' cricket. Stuart and Alan Fordham (ECB's cricket operations manager) spent a lot of time in conjunction with the Professional Cricketers' Association talking to the players."

Indeed, at one stage, Middlesex were talking of fielding a side of club players in the competition. So it became imperative that the prize money was also a sufficient lure. And Carr was at pains to ensure that, despite many gimmicky ideas from the marketeers, the actual cricket remained simple, just a condensed form of the existing one-day game. Having a 'golden over' where runs would have counted double was mooted but the relative failure of Cricket Max in New Zealand was instructive and it was thought such novelties might alienate the existing cricket follower. The gimmicks have been confined to off-field activities. So this year we have Warwickshire conducting a speed-dating competition and Hampshire going for an Australian theme by creating a 'Bondi-on-the-Boundary' feature.

But it is the cricket that will ensure the longevity of Twenty20 and demand for tickets suggests that last year's overall total of 250,000 spectators might be surpassed. The game at the Oval between Surrey and Kent on July 9 (on which a new Derby Day will be launched), has already sold out, - although capacity has been reduced to 6,000 due to reconstruction work. And Lord's will host its first game of this kind, with more than 10,000 tickets sold.

A quarter-final stage has been introduced and umpires as well as players will be wired up to explain to television viewers what is happening. And still Carr has plans for expansion.

"It will be interesting to see where it goes from here. We've written to the ICC suggesting they use the Twenty20 format for the Champions Trophy once current sponsorship ends. We cannot justify having more of it here unless it's played regularly at international level." That wait should not be too long.

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