NatWest T20 Blast countdown

Blast key to reigniting county scene

The new format for England's T20 competition represents an invaluable chance to inspire a new generation of supporters and players

George Dobell

May 15, 2014

Comments: 23 | Text size: A | A
The County Show: Prepare for Blast-off

"It's the economy, stupid." Bill Clinton was almost certainly not thinking about the re-launch of the English domestic T20 tournament when he adopted that slogan for the 1992 US presidential elections but it remains pertinent, nevertheless.

The launch of the NatWest T20 Blast on Friday provides counties with an opportunity not just to boost their finances in the short-term, but reassert their relevance to communities in the long. Which county wins is largely irrelevant. It is about the county game winning as a whole.

For many years the counties have been accused - unfairly, given the development role they fulfil - of surviving on hand-outs earned by the England side. While the launch of the original one-day competition, the Gillette Cup, in 1963 and the T20 Cup in 2003 provided welcome revenue, the value of such events has been diluted over the years. There have been times in the last few seasons when some of the T20 cricket seen in England - attritional, percentage cricket featuring flat spinners and begrudging medium-pacers on damp Tuesday afternoons in largely deserted stadiums - has been almost everything it was set-up to avoid.

Adil Rashid's three overs went for 39, Lancashire v Yorkshire, Friends Life t20, North Group, Old Trafford, July, 24, 2013
Packed out crowds and inspiration for the next generation: these are key ingredients for the NatWest T20 Blast © Getty Images

Now, with a regular, predictable place in the schedule, the casual cricket watcher - and that is exactly the sort this competition is designed to attract - can attend games without needing to check and double-check fixture lists. They can budget their finances and their time so they can attend a game every couple of weeks across the summer, rather than face a glut of three games in six days as has, at times, been the case in recent years.

It is essential the counties buy into the re-launch. It is essential that they understand the primary aim of the competition is to attract a new generation of supporters. So it is essential that tickets prices remain accessible to a mass-market audience that is just finding its feet after recession and that the visitor experience is, in every way, welcoming.

Players must sign autographs until their arms ache, the grim-faced stewards who have presided in some grounds for far too long must be banished. Members, too, must appreciate the requirement for some of the more populist marketing ploys - the cheerleaders, the music, the talk of Andrew Flintoff's return - that they might find trying. Cricket in England has to realise that it cannot afford to be exclusive.

And, crucially, it is vital the counties provide the appropriate pitches. Seasoned cricket lovers may celebrate the absorbing battle of low-scoring games; the uninitiated will not. This tournament requires good-paced pitches that encourage free hitting and fast bowling. Those counties that prepare slow, low surfaces they think will benefit their slow bowlers have to understand the long-term damage they will inflict on the game. This has been spelt out to them by the ECB.

Warwickshire's decision to rebrand themselves 'Birmingham Bears' has proved one of the more controversial marketing initiatives of the re-launch. But there is nothing to be feared by such an experiment. The club reasoned that its somewhat austere image - again, a largely outdated image - had failed to engage the inner-city spectators that live within easy reach of Edgbaston. Specifically, the club has failed to attract the Asian spectators that attend in such numbers when their favoured international teams play at the ground. Warwickshire's attempt to reach out to this audience is laudable and should not be mistaken for a move towards a city-based mentality.

A city-based franchise league in England would be a mistake. While such leagues may work in Australia or India, the landscape in the UK is vastly different. Cricket, in England, is a niche sport. It cannot rely on the passionate support that exists in India to draw people from the shires to the cities. It will always live in the shadow of football. If cricket does not go to the people, the people in market towns around the nation, it will be in danger of becoming irrelevant to vast swathes of the country.

The counties, especially in an era when cricket is so rarely seen on free-to-air television, do not exist simply to entertain their members or produce England cricketers - worthy aims though they are. They also exist to keep the game alive by inspiring, identifying and developing players. They offer, for many people, the only realistic chance to witness professional cricket and have a role to play in inspiring young people and then going into clubs and schools in their local community to develop their skills. The Blast is their shop window and their opportunity to earn the resources required to afford the development schemes and the wages demanded of the best players.

A city-based franchise league in England would be a mistake. While such leagues may work in Australia or India, the landscape in the UK is vastly different

And that must be the longer-term aim of this re-launch. It must engage and inspire a new generation of players. For as the identity of the next generation of England's Test team has taken shape over recent weeks, it has become apparent that, once again, a disproportionate number of the new members - the likes of Sam Robson, Chris Jordan and Gary Ballance - will have been, to a greater or lesser extent, products of foreign systems.

To a large extent, that is to be celebrated. Not only does it reaffirm the attraction of county cricket to aspiring young players across the world, but it helps England field a team that reflects the mobile, multicultural society that it represents; a team that reflects a nation with a unique history of commonwealth and empire.

But it does beg the question: how good could England be if they utilised the hugely untapped pool of talent that must exist in their own backyard? With competitive cricket now hardly played in state schools, England is obliged to draw its side largely from those who attended private school and those who were given their first exposure to the sport abroad. Those breeding grounds will always be valuable, but it makes sense to also try to utilise the vast, underdeveloped resources of the state system. T20 offers a chance to reach that resource.

In the long-term, the ECB may well decide that the benefit of returning some cricket to free-to-air TV outweighs any relatively short-term financial gain. Just as the Sunday League proved the 'gateway drug' to several generations of cricket lovers, so could a knockout T20 event incorporating, perhaps, the minor counties. With a little imagination, this free-to-air coverage could be provided by Sky. No amount of coaching clinics, Chance to Shine visits, inner city facilities or autograph sessions - excellent though all those things may be - can replace the simple thrill of stumbling upon the sport on TV and falling in love with it.

There will always be challenges. Not least, there is the suspicion that the competition's success hinges to a large extent on a factor beyond the control of governing bodies or marketing companies: the weather. Several counties are concerned that the tournament begins a week or two early and that a later start might provide a better chance of good weather and increase the chances of the event building early momentum.

The Caribbean Premier League offers further competition for players and attention from the cricket-watching public. While the county game has long since grown resigned to losing players to the IPL, the likes of Shahid Afridi (who declined an approach from Warwickshire in the hope of securing a deal in the Caribbean) and Kevin Pietersen plans to commute between Blast and CPL commitments. Various football tournaments and the Olympics will compete for attention, too.

So it is into a crowded marketplace that the NatWest Blast must venture. But with a sensible schedule, a few more appearances from the England players and some good weather, it has at least given itself a chance to prosper. County cricket is always involved in a fight for its survival; the T20 Blast represents a significant battleground.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

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© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Posted by BlackCountryCricket on (May 17, 2014, 1:15 GMT)

30 overs is the way forward. It would be more technical than T20 but you would have the time to travel to the ground, watch the entire match and have dinner when you get home if it was played in the middle of Saturday/Sunday. People are disappearing off before the end of games because they want to get to bed at a decent time, particularly if the closest county ground is an hour's travel from your front door like me.

If you want hack and slash cricket in the evenings, introduce Arena cricket as T20 still does not tick all the right boxes. It's still long for a casual audience

George writes for our local paper in Wolverhampton, and I can see his point when he says that there is no state school cricket most of my school peers did not understand the game let alone play at a decent level in our cricketing backwater. I agree with him, the ECB selling out to Sky has stunted the game at many levels; we need a regular free to air game and meritocracy introduced into the first class system.

Posted by R_U_4_REAL_NICK on (May 16, 2014, 18:35 GMT)

Yeah sure - the crowds are gonna rush from all corners of the U.K. to see Freddie Flintoff play...

Posted by   on (May 16, 2014, 15:08 GMT)

I, like SirWilliam am not a fan of the 20 over hit & hope game. But to say it's not cricket is wrong. It's another form of the game. I was weaned on to the game by the shortened game of my youth. The dear old Sunday League. But these days I prefer to watch white ball cricket only. I'm not wiser now, but definitely older. And would rather leave the Razzmatazz,music & mascots to the kids/families, and I'll be supporting my County from home. Just because I'm not a fan of the game, doesn't mean I don't care about the County scene. So I hope Zummerset win these two 20 Over games. we're apparently pretty darned good. And I'll see you Monday when we take on Durham.

Posted by   on (May 16, 2014, 8:51 GMT)

Part of the problem for Saturday league clubs with kids not coming through is that they are engaged elsewhere. Far more youth coaching and leagues have sprung up that play and train midweek and the kids then don't play on a Saturday. Now with T20 being pushed as the means of bringing in the next generation, what parent is going to drive kids to training on Tuesday, drive them to their midweek game on Wednesday, drive them to a T20 game on Friday evening, and then potentially to a league match on Saturday?

League cricket in my area tried to bring the kids through but did it in a very haphazard way. Filling the 3rd and 4th XI with kids was a failure as they didn't learn and many dropped off the radar. I'd say primarily bowlers departed the scene as many young ones found they'd get to bowl a pitiful number of overs on a Saturday over the course of a season and were happier playing a lower standard of cricket. 50 over games with bowling restrictions suck.

Posted by SirWilliam on (May 16, 2014, 7:27 GMT)

T20 is a game that was invented for people who don't like cricket. Backing should instead be given to the game that cricket-lovers enjoy.

Posted by GeoffreysMother on (May 16, 2014, 6:28 GMT)

Nice article George but ,certainly in the north it is the club system not private schools that has produced the bulk of players. The money that went to them, and the school sport coordinators in state schools who identified talent and linked them to clubs was an excellent initiative. People like Root, Ballance and Jordan are only picked up by private schools once their talent is established ( in order that they can win a few matches).

Posted by   on (May 16, 2014, 5:30 GMT)

Like a lot of people I know and used to go to T20 matches to with, I have to admit we have been treated down the years at the Rose Bowl with some super International T20 players the likes of Afridi, Maxwell to name a few but I do believe the league has missed a trick with this comp, would really love to see the comp packaged into a small window of a 3-4 weeks where the top England International available to play in as well as the International limit raised to 3 and with it being compacted the counties would find it easier to bring in top International players.

Hard pitches, small boundaries & big hitting is great, but also through the years Rose bowl has had some cracking matches, most of the best ones have been on big turners to help are spin attack and the different pitches everywhere you go is what makes the T20 the fact you never know what pitches are going to be produced and teams/counties should be making there pitches more and more to suit there teams.

Posted by geoffboyc on (May 15, 2014, 22:34 GMT)

The role of 20 over cricket in financing the County game generally can't be denied even if many cricket followers like me wish it were not so. The notion of "free to air" televising of cricket generally is something ECB should have considered before selling off the Test game lock stock and barrel to Sky. The fact remains that, for all the hype, 20/20 games are far less exciting than everyone supposes, with the number of genuinely close finishes in a small minority. Of the four I have personally attended the result was a forgone conclusion well before the final overs of the game and many spectators were on the way home by then.

Posted by Lymebayrobin on (May 15, 2014, 22:20 GMT)

George an interesting article. A couple of thoughts: As a primary school teacher I organised a Kwik cricket tournament children from schools in our local area tonight. There were teams from 14 schools in a Y5 (9-10yrs) and Girls tournaments - over 100 children children took part. The Y6 tournament next week has similar numbers. It becomes depressing to read continually that " competitive cricket is hardly played in state schools" when I have been involved in popular and successful primary school cricket in London and Somerset for the past 20 years. My son played for his secondary school regularly in U13 and U15 - again a state school. I think you underestimate the cricket that is happening in state schools.

As for the T20 blast - well as you have pointed out it's not designed for the purist but 5 30 on Friday as most of Somerset's matches are is not a timeslot I can make so looking forward to the one Sunday fixture against Surrey this weekend.

Really though I preferred the 40 over!

Posted by jackiethepen on (May 15, 2014, 21:15 GMT)

I think the Counties have made a mistake in downgrading one day cricket. The 40 over game offered a lot more for the fan and was capable of having real cricket struggles in the game which make for tension as much as hitting all the time. Not sure what is tense about that actually.

Posted by mrlemon on (May 15, 2014, 20:25 GMT)

I come from a poor background (I sound like the Month Python sketch). But when I grew up in the 80's/90's we played cricket at school and watched tests, and day games, the county Benson and Hedges Cup etc live on free tv so lots of people were obsessed with cricket.

If you put all cricket behind the Sky paywall then you will get lots of money (the ECB must have tons of money through Sky and the recent ICC stitch up) but lose the fanbase.

Some of the domestic T20 should be on free to air tv; there isn't even a highlights programme! How about a highlights show of the finals day on channel 5?

Posted by CodandChips on (May 15, 2014, 19:40 GMT)

I don't get why people are so anti towards certain formats. Cricket is cricket. All formats are brilliant for their own reasons as well. So love them all.

T20 is a vital source of revenue. It is also a way for players to develop skills to play other formats. It is also an exciting and important format in its own right.

I'm a big fan of Friday nights. Children can go without having to do homework, like on other weekdays, and the majority of adults can enjoy themselves knowing they won't have work the next day. It also helps the busy person who can't watch cricket at weekends, such as those who want to spend time with family that don't like cricket, or the humble village cricketer who doesn't want to let the side down by not turning up, or those who work. Also afternoon weekend matches seem to consume all your afternoon, whereas Friday night matches seem to consume just an evening. Essentially Friday nights seem the time when most are likely to be able to go.

Come on Hampshire

Posted by Nutcutlet on (May 15, 2014, 19:36 GMT)

An article that takes the business (and I'm happier thinking of it as a business) of the T20 Blast as it should be taken -- very seriously. It's not my type of cricket, but if it achieves its ends (bringing in much needed dosh and, let's hope, introducing the more discriminating people to the real game) then it will all be worth it. The importance of having reasonably priced tickets and a friendly, welcoming atmosphere cannot be overstated. The first experience of 'going to the cricket' has to be positive, has to be worth repeating. In all of this, it's the youngsters that are most important; they are all our futures in all respects. I don't know how much county players are doing in primary schools, but whatever it is, it can never be enough. Sportsmen and women are revered as much as ever and a few words of encouragement, a shared joke, a simple tip on playing the game -- these things make all the difference. As one who's taught all my working life, believe me. Now where's that sun?

Posted by Bamber on (May 15, 2014, 18:43 GMT)

@AshesErnie, A few years ago I would have agreed with your 'fleeting nature' comment but I now beg to differ through personal experience. I introduced my somewhat reluctant wife to the game in 2005 and we've been lucky with the games we've seen -Scott Styris' 100 at Hove; Eoin Morgan's at Malahide for example but my wife is now the Game's strongest advocate and has converted innumerable friends and family to, at the least, 'fleeting' spectators and several to county membership. T20 should not be seen as the nadir of Cricket, rather see it as a game of Crazy Golf, played by Tiger Woods, Lee West wood etal. Personally I'd rather watch the Masters but Hey, it's certainly fun..!! PS the triumphant return of Eoin Morgan (Local lad returns as England captain, scoring a superb 100..! - in any other sport and virtually any other country, that would be a Hollywood/Bollywood movie by now)

Posted by TimWalton on (May 15, 2014, 17:36 GMT)

Of course County Members want this to be successful, BUT it is not good enough just to concentrate on New younger members and at the same time complete ignore the current older members

There is not a single daytime One day match at Edgbaston this year.

Pensioners like me, who don't drive, do not want to have to queue for long periods of time late at night for a very limited bus service in order to get home.

I only have one bus to catch and that is bad enough. Some of my friends have to take 2 or 3 buses to get home.

There should be a balance not all one way like it is this year at Edgbaston.

Posted by ajg1 on (May 15, 2014, 15:41 GMT)

Very good article and lets hope that the sun shines, and that the footyworld cup doesn't take all the limelight. One issue that I do have that you brought up? is the part where you mention, overseas players qualifying for England - 'robson, ballance and jordan' and that this should be a "celebration of our 'multi-culturalness' and of a nation reflecting, its empire, commonwealth and history". In terms of overseas players: I believe that the average cricket fan when supporting an England cricket team wants to support an 'English' cricket team. The ICC must look at the four year qualification rule it's becoming ridiculous and at least double it to 8 years. (Rugby's even worse, three years I believe). Of course great to see overseas players in the T20 competition but nothing worse to break the integrity that a sports fan basis his elegence than hearing 'ahh such and such has just qualified to play for England'. What becomes the point in the end!!!!!!!!

Posted by AshesErnie on (May 15, 2014, 15:05 GMT)

George, you omit to mention the root of all this; for years the ECB and the counties have done one thing better than all others - putting cricket lovers off the game by making it inaccessible and / or pointless. Would there be a need to attract a new audience had they not ground the previously dedicated audience into the dirt? Ever-changing one day formats and comps, atrocious scheduling of the Championship mostly to April and September, preventing England players from appearing for their counties and the move away from terrestrial TV have all been nails in crickets coffin, smugly hammered in by Giles Clarke. Now they seek to reverse the trend by attracting people whose interest in cricket is fleeting, and will pass after one cold, windy evening of being cynically fleeced at the bars of county grounds while deafened by 'razzmataz' artificial noise. Every time I've been to a T20 game, I have regretted it.

Posted by Montlaur on (May 15, 2014, 14:10 GMT)


I would agree that T20 is valuable as a source of income but what Cricketing purists don't get is that this money has a knock-on effect on what counties can do in the longer format. And saying that most people find it hard to then make the transition to an interest in CC is the kind of attitude that turns a lot of people away from this traditionally eliteist sport. The hope is that like encouraging a child to read, they will be encouraged to try it out more. And if they don't well-surely nothing has been lost?

Posted by   on (May 15, 2014, 14:06 GMT)

Having been based in Oxford and Cambridge for a number of years I can't help but feel that professional T20 cricket in The Parks or at Fenners (two of the nicest grounds in the country) is a must. I'm sure there are multiple other outgrounds in non-major counties that would also welcome cricket with large crowds and great enthusiasm. Whether it is in the form of minor-counties once again playing a knock-out against the counties, a city-based franchise or a wider range of outgrounds used by the major counties, I think the ECB should take note.

Posted by Montlaur on (May 15, 2014, 13:52 GMT)

It might surprise rich people to know that actually some poor people DO follow cricket. The problem is that often they have neither the means nor the opportunity to actually get involved. Good article though and i especially agree about free-to-air television. I suspect the IPL would die a quick death if the masses were denied access.

Posted by YorkshirePudding on (May 15, 2014, 13:34 GMT)

I would disagree that T20 gets more people interested in cricket, especially the longer formats as they 99% cannot make the adjustment to slower scoring rates, associated with Test cricket.

At the end of the day T20 is simply there to give the counties an income. mainly from beer and food sales.

Posted by Yevghenny on (May 15, 2014, 13:34 GMT)

fingers crossed we get a good summer, not much better ways to spend an English summers day than down at the cricket for the day

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