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England's Twenty20 competition is ten years old but there is limited cause for celebration of a competition still punching below its weight
June 26, 2013
The English counties fight out a final season of Twenty20 under the current format, beginning on Wednesday night, as debate still sounds behind the scenes about how to give the competition the status it richly deserves.
It is not that there is much wrong with the competition. Shaun Tait, a familiar presence at T20 leagues around the world, said at the launch by Tower Bridge in London on Tuesday that, while the popularity and the glamour of the IPL was unmatched, the quality of the FLt20 was second to none. In some counties, that will be enough to draw in the crowds.
It is simply that the competition is not given a chance. Squeezed in amid rival attractions, games are scheduled for every day of the week, with a dozen different start times. Even the launch was scheduled for the same day as an international match, while two of the quarterfinals take place the day after an Ashes Test and one the day before. Even finals day will struggle for attention as it is appears between two Ashes Tests.
While other T20 leagues around the world attempt to attract the most eye-catching players, here a plethora of regulations and restrictions minimise their involvement while most of the top England players will also be absent for the entire event.
As a result, the tournament lacks glamour, character, relevance and charm. It has become just another step on the treadmill. Domestic T20 has become the antitheses of everything it was devised to be. It does well to draw in as many people as it does.
That is a shame. As the final of the ICC Champions Trophy and first T20I against New Zealand showed, the format can produce thrilling cricket and could still play a huge role in invigorating the county game. There will be some excellent cricket played in FLt20; it's just that far fewer people will see it than it deserves.
We know already that the competition will be restructured in 2014. It will, at long last, have a regular Friday night spot in the schedule which will allow spectators to predict when games occur and plan their trips accordingly.
But that leaves much to discuss. Andy Nash, the chairman of Somerset CCC, is leading a working party to investigate other potential initiatives and will report back to the ECB over the next few months.
T20 does not require gimmicks. It requires good pitches, predictable scheduling and a bit of luck with the weather. The last few seasons have seen the quality of entertainment compromised by clubs who have worked out, logically enough, that their best method of success is to produce slow, low wickets with long boundaries and concentrate on slow bowling and medium pace. As ever, winning has become more important than entertainment.
They cannot be blamed for such a tactic. This is professional sport, after all. The lure - or mirage - of Champions League riches also focused the mind of some counties.
But the priority of domestic T20 cricket is not trophies, it is to attract people to county cricket grounds. And if the counties do not buy into that, they must have centrally-contracted groundsmen imposed upon them with orders from the ECB to prepare the wickets most likely to produce attractive entertaining cricket.
For the same reason, any move to franchise cricket is likely to be resisted. As Essex, Somerset and Sussex have shown, attractive T20 sides can fill county grounds and provide a boost to revenue. A successful T20 campaign can also increase the relevance of a county club to its local community and should be the aim of all 18 sides.
While a competition based around six or eight city teams may earn more revenue - though it has worked only in India where each conurbation involved has a population bigger than everywhere in the UK other than London - it would come at the expense of further marginalising many county sides. It is essential they regain their relevance to their local community and there is no better way to do that than attracting people to their grounds by providing exciting, good quality cricket on a regular, predictable basis.
There is some sympathy at the ECB for the idea of an FA Cup style T20 knockout, too. This could incorporate the minor counties and would help take professional cricket to counties and towns from which it has been absent and increasingly irrelevant for many years.
The problem, as ever, is the schedule. There is barely enough time for the current competitions, so the chances of adding another one - albeit one that would take only a few days - is limited.
That is why some at the ECB are considering more radical ideas such as playing the first couple of rounds of the County Championship overseas. That idea, though seemingly unpopular with many county members, is aimed at retaining the integrity of county competitions by ensuring that there would be time to schedule more carefully.
That, in turn, might avoid situations where there are mass withdrawals from county games for players to participate in Lions fixtures and might allow time for a knockout T20 competition that could, in time, be broadcast on free-to-air television. It might also allow the counties to compete in the Champions League; an event they have shunned this year as it necessitated ending the season early.
But for this season, the FLt20 will remain something of a hidden gem. Those who know and value county cricket, will see some excellent teams - the likes of Nottinghamshire, Essex, Somerset and Sussex - attempt to end Hampshire's domination (they won in 2010 and 2012) of the format.
Perhaps Kent and Northants might surprise a few, too. But for the many who might be attracted to such games by a more sympathetic schedule, it will happen beneath a surface dominated by the Ashes and in such haphazard fashion that only the most diehard supporters can keep track.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfoFeeds: George Dobell
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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