Pietersen duck deepens Twenty20 gloom
Hampshire 63 for 0 beat Surrey 84 for 4 (Dawson 2-10) by 19 runs (D/L method)
If anything could sum up the struggles of this season's Friends Life t20 to achieve lift-off, it was surely Kevin Pietersen's first-ball duck against Hampshire.
Following his abrupt retirement from limited-overs internationals - and a three-week break from cricket in all its forms - England's most marketable player and one of the world's most destructive batsmen in the format strode out to open the batting in his third Twenty20 appearance in two years with Surrey, only to depart immediately, caught at cover off the left-arm spin of Liam Dawson.
To compound the sense of anti-climax, Surrey were beaten on Duckworth-Lewis, without taking a wicket, in a match when less than 16 overs were possible. On a wet Monday night more suited to umbrellas than cheerleaders, the IPL, cricket's premier short-form bonanza, cannot have seemed further away.
This has been a summer of discontents for the domestic game, from the failure of the Morgan Review to the job lot of poor weather that has submerged much of the season so far. Finances, as ever, are tight yet ennui threatens the money-spinning FLt20, with Eoin Morgan the latest to advocate changes to the competition.
The possibility of securing a window for England players to appear in domestic T20 has support in some quarters as a method of piquing public interest. Could Pietersen, unexpectedly available, confirm that he provides box office from Delhi to Derby by rallying the county game with an injection of flair and celebrity, reinvigorating the hardened fan and casual consumer alike?
The short answer was 'no'. Although it would have been an irony not lost on many had Pietersen fulfilled his brief as the saviour of a domestic game he has rarely professed an affinity for, an immediate spike in attendances was not expected by Surrey.
Despite the newspaper adverts warning "BOWLER'S BEWARE ... KP'S BACK", Surrey's chief executive, Richard Gould, believes that a focus on "scheduling and local heroes" would be more successful than attempting to balance on the shoulders of the game's giants.
"Ticket sales for Twenty20 are largely determined by the day on which games are played," Gould says. "A game on a Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday doesn't sell very well anyway, irrespective of who's playing."
While Surrey had expected up to 6,000 for the visit of Hampshire - a fixture that had been postponed in the wake of Tom Maynard's death - the numbers will swell to around 15,000 later in the week, for games against Kent and Middlesex. Surrey also host Sussex on Tuesday and Gould described the original decision to hand them three home games in four days as "pretty disastrous". Spectators are unlikely to want to pay to see cricket on three or four nights of the same week, even if Pietersen is around to switch-hit them senseless.
"There is a huge demand to watch Twenty20 and that is proven by the two games we've got on Thursday and Friday," Gould says. "Across those two days, within a 26-hour period, we will have 30,000 people coming to watch. What we want is for cricket to become habit forming. We want them to come on the Thursday or Friday of one week and then have the ability to come back a week or two weeks later."
A big crowd at The Oval for a T20 match can bring in around a third of the income an ODI generates, without the need to pay the ECB a hosting fee. A successful T20 tournament could therefore make a real difference to county finances as well as promote the game to a wider audience. Gould suggests that spreading the tournament out would allow games to be scheduled in more regular and attractive blocks and would help convert occasional watchers into regulars.
David Leatherdale, Worcestershire's chief executive, is also open to the idea of a more spaced-out fixture list, though others responsible for the game fear that such a move would dilute the tournament's impact. Leatherdale and Lancashire chief executive Jim Cumbes, meanwhile, are among those who think that star names can help promote the game.
"I think if England players were available it would help to attract new audiences," Leatherdale says. "It's something quite a few county chief executives have said for a while, finding a window that would allow them to take part. If you had a month's programme, similar to what we've got at the moment, and you could guarantee for the first two weeks of it that all your England players would be available, I think that would help no end."
It is not only England internationals who have been absent from the FLt20, with several counties losing out on overseas signings due to problems with the new visa system. Changes made by the UK Border Agency earlier this year meant that counties had to obtain a new licence - Tier Five rather than Tier Two, as was previously the case - in order to apply for international visas, leading to delays in the process that denied Worcestershire the services of Sohail Tanvir and Hampshire Shahid Afridi.
While that problem should not recur next season, Leatherdale says the crowded international calendar means bringing in marquee signings has become harder, despite the concentrated nature of the group stage, reduced to 10 games per county from 16 last year. Next year will bring the added problem of England hosting the Champions Trophy, scheduled for two weeks in June.
Cumbes, who saw gates increase on the occasional days that Andrew Flintoff was available for Lancashire, concedes that the drop in attendances this year has been disappointing and that the weather has only been part of the problem. "Maybe we're a little bit stuck with a competition we started with eight or nine years ago and people have got used to it," he says.
Franchise cricket has been touted as another method of spicing up a tournament that introduced the 20-over format to the world in 2003. But it is worth noting that for Worcestershire and Lancashire, the biggest attendances are for the visits of local rivals, Warwickshire and Yorkshire.
Among the varying and diverse theories, Gould, Leatherdale and Cumbes were united by the idea that English domestic cricket should listen to what it is that supporters want. Judging by the boos from the crowd as the rain closed in at the end of a desultory evening at The Oval, this is not it.
Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo