The county ground at Bristol was packed yesterday on a glorious morning, as were five other grounds on Friday evening, as a lost generation of cricket supporters gave a wholehearted thumbs-up to the new Twenty20 Cup. It is early days yet, but the signs are good: the first five Twenty20 games attracted 30,050 supporters compared to 6,295 for the corresponding Benson and Hedges games in 2001.
The ECB’s marketing department recognised cricket’s profile – white, middle-class and old – to be disastrous for the sport. Apparently, any committee man seen wearing a tie to the game between Gloucestershire and Worcestershire was liable to be ejected from the ground, and this deterrent seemed enough: for the most part, the crowd was young and family orientated. As for middle-class and white, well, one step at a time has always been cricket’s way.
The atmosphere at Bristol was slightly more low-key than had been apparent for the opening match at Hampshire. This reflected a Saturday morning start rather than the Friday evening opening extravaganza when spectators were treated to the talents of Alesha, Sabrina and Su-Elise – not Hampshire’s new overseas players but the band Mis-Teeq – along with D’Side and the United Colours of Sound.
There were no such musical accoutrements to entice the spectators to Nevil Road, but the spectators seemed happy enough to rely on the talents of the cricketers on display. Ultimately, it is the cricket that has to win them over. To their credit, the players threw themselves about with total commitment. Matt Windows said he’d never been so exhausted, but then he’s not often batted at the other end from cricket’s Peter Pan, Jonty Rhodes.
Eventually, the cricket will have to stand on its own two feet, once the novelty and the razzmatazz has worn off. But there is every chance it will, because finally the game is being played at a time when people can actually watch (i.e. after work) and in a way that more accurately reflects the times that we live in. You can be in and out in three hours and still be home for Eastenders or Corrie. As for the cricket itself, there is no reason why it should be detrimental to the development of our game and our players. The fielding throughout the three frenetic hours was outstanding. Jack Russell took to the new game, as does a dog to a bone. He stood up to the bowlers from virtually the first ball – scurrying, scampering, snarling and generally at his irritating best. His wicket-keeping wasn’t bad either.
All eyes were on Jonty Rhodes, still the world’s best fielder, at backward point. He even agreed to wear a microphone, so that he could relay his thoughts to the television commentators. But, by the halfway stage he had touched the ball only three times and was reduced to shouting encouragement to the bowlers, and badgering Dermot Reeve to shut up when he was asked a question as the bowler was running in to bowl.
The bowlers, themselves, must have feared for their futures when this competition was announced in mid-winter. But in this low-scoring match they found that, by using their brains, they could keep one step ahead of the enemy. Gloucestershire decided that slower balls were the way to go. Mark Alleyne led the way with a variety, front of the hand and back of the hand, getting slower and slower and loopier and loopier.
David Taylor, Worcestershire’s new recruit from league cricket, looked bemused as Alleyne’s deliveries crept past his bat at a slower pace than he would find at his club, High Wycombe, on a Saturday afternoon. He found Mike Smith a tougher proposition at the other end and was soon gone, but any game that promotes a closer association between the recreational game and the professional game must be a good thing. There will be more league players getting a go in this competition.
Although this game was a bit of a canter for Gloucester, there is every chance that Twenty20 matches will, as a rule, be closer than one-day games of late. In the World Cup, I reckoned there to be only one game in ten that was a tight match. A shorter game means less of a chance for star players to turn a match, to play the match- winning innings or bowl a devastating spell. The opening set of matches on Friday confirmed this trend.
Players, then, will be constantly playing in matches where the winning margins are small. Consequently, they will be learning continually how to play under pressure; how to bowl at the ‘death’; how to finish a game with the bat and how crucial one piece of brilliance in the field can be.
All in all, Twenty20 should produce more innovative bowling, better fielding, batsmen who can score quicker and off every ball, and captains who can make decisions on the hoof rather than sticking to pre-determined plans. All that, and played in front of good crowds, too, in a cracking atmosphere – I almost wish I’d have played it myself.
The initial buzz surrounding Twenty20 cricket is vindication for those of us who argued for change, and to English cricket’s much-criticised administrators we must doff our caps. In the long run, Twenty20 cricket might not work, but at least they have tried to shake county cricket out of its undeniable decline – it’s just a pity it’s taken them so long. Oh, and Gloucester won by six wickets.