Surrey's eyes turn to the big prize
And to think the format started out as a gimmick. When Surrey won the inaugural Twenty20 Cup in the summer of 2003, they did so as reigning County Champions, and though they enjoyed their big day out at Trent Bridge, there was no question that the four-day format was their over-riding priority. Now, however, things are not so clear-cut. After a seismic six months, in which Twenty20 cricket has taken over as the driving force of the world game, the 2008 tournament could quite possibly turn out to be the most important competition in England this summer.
That was already set to be the case, but now that the £2.5 million Champions League has been dangled in front of the counties' eyes, the stakes have got even higher. "I know it's going to change the whole landscape of how people look at Twenty20 cricket, and indeed the way we react to it," Surrey's chief executive, Paul Sheldon, told Cricinfo. "I just hope very much it doesn't change the variety of cricket and the whole issue of County Championship and Test cricket that the ECB have rightly set out to protect."
On Sunday, the ECB moved quickly to buttress the pre-eminence of England's Test team - and appease those players whose Twenty20 opportunities have been limited by international appearances - by announcing a £2 million performance-related bonus pool. But to judge by the reactions of the Surrey players who gathered at The Oval on Monday for the launch of their 2008 campaign, it's going to be hard to halt the momentum of the newest form of the game.
"I think it's fantastic and it's what cricketers need," said the former England Test batsman, Usman Afzaal, who joined Surrey from Northamptonshire at the end of 2007. "We're a sport that gives a hell of a lot, for six months we work from eight in the morning to seven in the evening, and it's great to see cricketers getting the recognition they are deserving. That's what the entertainment business does to you. If you start filling seats you have a serious business, and it's nice to see that cricket is starting to do that."
Afzaal has been a professional cricketer since his Nottinghamshire debut in 1995, and his attitude to Twenty20 cricket has moved with the times. "When it first started I also thought it was a bit of fun, but the most important thing was all the kids around the grounds," he said. "It was like carnival cricket for three weeks, but then when we went back to the 40 and 50-over games, and the crowds vanished. It was clear we had hit on something special, so it's nice to see we are now being recognised as entertainers."
For the players at the beginning of their careers, the possibilities currently seem endless. "It is scary yet exciting at the same time," said Jade Dernbach, who - at the age of 22 - has just been awarded a three-year extension to his Surrey contract. "Just think where cricket might be in four or five years' time. This is a shop window for everything that's out there, so all I'm looking to do is do as well as possible. If I do well for Surrey it opens a lot of doors."
At Whitgift School last week, Dernbach broke into Surrey's Championship side for the first time this season, although it is his limited-overs form that earned him his new contract. For all the determination of the ECB to preserve the pre-eminence of first-class cricket, Dernbach speaks for a new breed of cricketer who sense a shifting of priorities.
"There is a very real possibility of that," said Dernbach, when asked if Twenty20 cricket would eclipse the four-day game. "It's a massive competition now, with all the publicity around it, and I think everything is just being geared around Twenty20. When you see the amount of money going into it, the danger is the kids of 12 or 13 years old, when they go to the nets are they going to practice technique, or are they going to see how far they want to hit the ball? I think through the younger levels, there needs to be an understanding that four-day cricket is the top of the game. We mustn't lose sight of that."
All of which adds up to something of a headache for Surrey's director of cricket, Alan Butcher, whose task it is to weigh up the competing priorities in this most seismic of seasons. "Twenty20 cricket has taken off incredibly after the initial scepticism in the first year," said Butcher. "The players like it, the public like it and the finance people certainly like it. It's been the flavour of the last six months, and it's very apparent it's not going to go away."
Butcher's problems have been exacerbated by the row over the participation of ICL players, which could force Surrey to make do without the services of their star spinner, Saqlain Mushtaq. But, he insisted, such political issues would be as far as possible from his squad's thoughts. "The danger is that people will start looking for the pot of gold before they've spotted the rainbow," said Butcher. "We've got to pick the best side to win each game and then we see what happens. You can think as far ahead as you like, but if you don't win those initial games, you aren't going to get to the Champions League."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo