Moment of truth for English game
These are expectant times in English cricket. A revamped T20 tournament rolls into town on Friday with a new name and schedule, a potential saviour for a county game struggling to attract attention and saddled with £90m of debt. The importance of the NatWest Blast for the domestic game can hardly be overstated.
It passed unnoticed that last year's tournament was modestly successful as a sizzling summer helped boost attendances by 70 per cent, suggesting that more than a decade after it was first introduced T20 could still be the financial yellow brick road to county redemption.
The 550,000 who attended are similar numbers to the successful Australian Big Bash, although as the BBL plays around one third of the games it can claim to have had the greater impact. It is vital that progress is maintained. It is football World Cup year, which does not help, but then the county game is always overshadowed by something.
The ECB is making much of a switch predominantly to Friday nights," Gordon Hollins, the ECB's chief operating officer, believes: "T20 is a format which the public like and enjoy but supporters are crying out for a predictability of schedule. We must provide supporters with what they want - particularly the younger generation. If we don't do this there won't be a future game."
Nobody can say the new schedule has not been properly researched. Populus, the market research company, polled 25,000 people and discovered the cricketing public want a regular and similar time of viewing. Four focus groups then concluded Friday evenings were the best choice which is why 87 of the 126 T20 group stage games will be played on this day.
"There has been a fantastic response from the counties to the Friday slot," said Hollins. "The new format will remain until 2017. We must give it time to build and settle. We believe we can increase the attendance figures from last season. And we believe we can improve on this year by year."
So hopeful this new schedule will work, the ECB has increased its annual investment in the tournament by a further £1m, where two-thirds goes to the counties to help with local marketing and the remaining third to the Board for general promotion.
Those counties that get their marketing right, achieve regular sell-outs and use the additional income to either pay off debt and strengthen their financial position will, alongside successful off-field commercial developments, become the most powerful of the county clubs.
The gap between the haves and the have-nots could grow, but if that means more counties are put on a secure financial footing, and once again strengthen ties with their communities, then many will judge that a price worth paying.
Advance ticket sales have been patchy, not helped by unsettled weather in the past fortnight. Unless and until grounds are regularly sold out even early-bird offers do not entirely persuade people to buy early - and Friday finishes after 10pm are not going to delight the traditional media. The success of this tournament is far from certain.
The extended nature of the tournament has also made it harder to attract the most eye-catching overseas stars, although Yorkshire have acquired Aaron Finch and Hampshire pulled off a deal with Glenn Maxwell. With England players also absent, the counties will also have to make their own stars and supporters will have to prove they are responsive to such attempts.
One club delighted with the new schedule is Yorkshire who presently groan under £24m debt. Mark Arthur, their chief executive, said: "Friday night is a superb idea. The ECB must be applauded."
Yorkshire already have proof that a Friday evening works. Last season, their T20 home game against Lancashire attracted a sell-out 17,000 crowd and made more money than all their home Championship games at Headingley.
Arthur is so excited by this regular Friday slot that he predicts an initial average crowd of 10,000, up from 6,500, and an additional £200,000 revenue. In fact, he expects the club to earn over three times more from their seven home games than all eight Championship matches.
"We want people to know that Friday nights are Headingley cricket nights, where we can attract and build a new audience. It may take time but I'm certain the counties can turn this new T20 Blast into a much needed lucrative tournament."
Familiar critics remain, now wedded to the view that Friday evening may create a booze-fest where the cricket is secondary and families will be put off from coming due to rowdy behaviour. The counties are aware of this possibility and state that they have planned accordingly.
Sussex CEO, Zac Toumazi, says: "Counties measure their commercial success on the number of pints sold and the revenue generated. But we must not lose sight of the bigger picture. When a family attends with young kids and their first experience is of a threatening loutish environment that isn't helping anybody as they are less likely to return. Clubs must take responsibility and find that balance."
Drink and food sales can contribute 30 per cent of match revenue. During their home match against Surrey, Sussex expect to sell 6,400 pints at £4 each. But they will only allow the sale of four pints at any one transaction, are increasing their stewarding, have an alcohol-free family area, and a zero tolerance policy towards drunkenness, promising to eject fans if necessary. Last season several spectators were banned.
"We will not shirk our responsibility, especially when we're known as a family club," said Toumazi. "So long as the rowdiness is in control and people are not upsetting others, that's fine, because T20 is all about having fun."
Essex are also sensitive to uncouth behaviour. They suffered pitch invasions and souvenir stealing of stumps and a Sky wicket mic in the early T20 years. With the Chelmsford crowd renowned for boos and hostile chants if the home side are not playing well - a strange phenomenon in county cricket - the club have gone one step further.
Stadium Manager Graham Childs said: "We have opted for all seating and a reduced capacity, where alcohol outlets are sited well away from the pitch along with a specially trained 'Steward Response Team' for any disorder."
Yet, in Arthur's view: "If you create the right environment people will treat it with respect. They can have a good time but without getting out of hand."
The public are to be welcomed by volunteers; stewards will wear Yorkshire club blazers; and flowers will adorn the ground. Segregation remains a key aspect of their plan. The White Rose Stand, for example, will have four distinct sections. 3,500 seats are allocated for 'drink and be merry'; another for limited liquor intake and most importantly 2,200 seats are alcohol-free for families and teetotal Muslims.
Meanwhile, the razzmatazz will include music concerts, summer anthems, pyrotechnics, dancers and red devils parachute displays. Middlesex are scheduled for a T20 double header at Lord's next Saturday, great for TV, but physically demanding for the players.
Nothing is certain. But the whole of English cricket, whether or not T20 is their thing, should be desperate for this tournament to succeed. If it fails, the damage could be considerable.