Flintoff adds glamour to Finals Day
Twenty20 has come a long way in five years and in a little over a month's time the first World Championship will take place in South Africa. However, the game at international level is still struggling for allround acclaim, with captains concerned about workload and debating its value, and this English season has also proved to be the toughest for the domestic tournament that had, until this year, enjoyed a virtually faultless run.
The qualifying stage was savaged by the weather and a number of counties will be reporting losses but the four semi-finalists - Lancashire, Gloucestershire, Kent and Sussex - are at least in a position to boost the coffers. The rain, though, has been out of anyone's control and the more concerning issue has been a rise in poor behaviour at grounds. Middlesex players had belongings stolen from the Uxbridge dressing room, Hampshire's team coach was pelted with gravel and there have been reports of a general increase in unruly scenes.
Now's the time for Finals Day to arrest any slide in the image of Twenty20. And Edgbaston's second chance of staging the event has all the ingredients to be a classic day. Andrew Flintoff's availability has added an extra touch of spice and strengthens a formidable-looking Lancashire side. They have been to this stage twice before, losing in the semi-final against Surrey in 2004 and the final against Somerset in 2005.
As is often the case with Lancashire, on paper they seem to have everything. Never mind Flintoff, there's also Muttiah Muralitharan, Brad Hodge, Stuart Law and Mal Loye. But they keep failing to win trophies. Their Championship campaign took a major hit with the 108-run defeat against Sussex, who they could meet again in the final on Saturday evening, and it is shaping as a make-or-break weekend for Mark Chilton's team.
Sussex are one of the new success stories in Twenty20 this season. Not that they are new to success. Last year there was the Championship and C&G double and with them back on top in the four-day competition another double is still on the cards. Luke Wright has been the catalyst for their strong campaign and he leads the run-scoring table with 343 at a strike-rate of 184. In terms of his scoring rate he is second only behind Andrew Symonds among batsmen worldwide. One more strong outing could propel him from England's preliminary 30-man squad to the final 15 for South Africa. But even in Twenty20 you can't beat seasoned match-winning quality and Mushtaq Ahmed remains a trump card.
Kent have also rejuvenated their one-day cricket this season after an admission from Robert Key that it sometimes took a back-seat to Championship ambitions. Their strength is a long batting order and occasionally James Tredwell has been going in at No.11. Now, though, that spot is reserved for new signing Lasith Malinga, who has joined to replace Andrew Hall, and is a player capable - as he showed at the World Cup - of changing a match in one over. With Key and Joe Denly also firing in the top order they can certainly take on Sussex's big-hitters head-to-head.
Gloucestershire, who play the first semi against Lancashire, are beginning to rekindle memories of their one-day glory years under Mark Alleyne and John Bracewell. Alex Gidman is maturing into an impressive allrounder - he was unlucky not to make the England 30 - while in Hamish Marshall they have a destructive batsman. The return of Jon Lewis from injury provides the bowling attack with a steady influence and they are always sharp in the field.
Off the field, too, there will be the usual entertainment including the mascot race (where Chris Lewis and Jason Gallian will don the sponsors' costumes) and the musical star is former Sugerbabe, Mutya. However, increasingly Twenty20 is moving away from the sideshow attractions and standing alone through the quality of play. On cricket's longest day, there should be more than enough on offer.
Andrew McGlashan is a staff writer on Cricinfo