A format to be proud of
This wasn't merely the culmination of a domestic tournament but the dawn of unprecedented riches for English cricket. For a competition which appeared out of nowhere six years ago, jutting out uncomfortably between the dusty but familiar Championship, today's thrilling Twenty20 final between Kent and Middlesex was something of a landmark.
A landmark for Middlesex, of course, who ended 15 years of back-room squabbling to lift their first trophy since the 1993 County Championship. But it was equally momentous for the format itself which, in spite of all money thrown at its feet, is maturing before our eyes. It has changed out of all recognition from the "hit and giggle" fest which made its debut here, at The Rose Bowl, six years ago. Then, it was lacking identity. Nobody knew how long it would endure, and most didn't really care. The cricket itself was at times shambolic, with batsmen choosing the unconventional route when, in fact, convention would have done just fine.
That is much less so the case these days, and today's standout innings were each models in orthodoxy. Ravi Bopara's 29 in Essex's losing semi-final contained deft glances down to third man and audacious flicks through midwicket, all with a straight bat. Owais Shah, a model of Asian-influenced wristiness but who is mostly a mainstream batsman, threaded the gaps in the field with unerring accuracy time and again. When he hit over the top, as he did five times, they were clean and savage blows that belied the timing he found. And Rob Key was at his uncomplicated best, cover-driving and back-cutting in his breathless 52. England are often chastised for not nurturing the next Ajantha Mendis or Muttiah Muralitharn But they do do orthodoxy rather well, and as Shah's exquisite 75 demonstrated, that's no bad thing at all.
There was a danger that Lalit Modi and Allen Stanford's interest in the English game might sway the players' focus or detract from their performance in this year's Twenty20 Cup. In reaching the final, both Middlesex and Kent can play in October's Champions League - if a date is ever agreed upon - while the victors, Middlesex, head to Antigua in October to take on England at the invitation of Stanford. Cricket has pined for financial investment, all the while resembling an impoverished cousin in the shadow of football. To judge by each of today's fascinating duels - culminating in a final that surpassed any in its six-year history - Twenty20 is no longer a sideshow or a frivolous, passing shower. It deserves these riches thrown at it. The players certainly do.
"Twenty20 is getting bigger and bigger, and today would've done it no harm," Key, the disconsolate Kent captain, said after play. "It might harm a few other forms of the game, because for me that must have been brilliant to watch."
It was undoubtedly memorable. With Kent chasing 188, Justin Kemp had plinked his way to a typically muscular (but, oddly, all too rare) 24 before cracking one straight into Ed Joyce's midriff, only for Middlesex's captain to fluff it. It appeared to be the defining moment, leaving Kent a very gettable 16 from the final over from Tyron Henderson. Dawid Malan's embarrassingly panicky throw from third man gave them four runs, reducing the equation to an easy six from three balls. After a clubbed two, a dot ball punctured the atmosphere before Henderson found a last-ball yorker to end Kent's hopes, and realise Middlesex's dream. On a perfect June evening, only a handful of the 20,000 capacity crowd had fled following the semi-finals. Key was right. This was the perfect advert for the game.
It is quite a tale for Middlesex. So long the hapless bystanders in Twenty20, they have stormed through this year's competition with their blend of youth, Irishmen and South Africans. There are more talented sides in the tournament - Durham possess seven internationals - but it was their belief that saw Middlesex through.
"Today, we sat down and just tried to play fearless cricket," said Joyce, Middlesex's vice-captain who led the side in the absence of the injured Ed Smith. "If we thought of taking a shot on, or bowling a certain ball, we were just going to do it and have no regrets. And that showed in the way we played in both games. Owais Shah and Tyron Henderson both played fantastic knocks, and everyone chipped in around them. We bowled and fielded very well as well."
Although Kent are through to the Champions League, there is still the possibility they won't be allowed to play, since some of their squad have represented the unofficial Indian Cricket League. Middlesex, however, have no such concerns, and Joyce was understandably bullish about their chances.
"I think we have a great template, and we have two of the best spinners in Twenty20 [Murali Kartik and Shaun Udal]. These guys just don't get hit that much," he said. "When you look at our batting, we have a lot of young guys like Morgan and Malan who are unorthodox, and then we have Henderson and Shah to back them up. I think we have a good formula, and whoever we potentially play against in the future, we should [be competitive]."
With each year, Twenty20 is growing and maturing. Few would have given Middlesex much hope of reaching Finals Day before the season began, yet it is a testament to their own confidence that they could shine when the pressure was at its greatest. And the drama seen today is tribute to the scrawny little format which was born six years ago, one that has given cricket an identity to be proud of.
Will Luke is a staff writer at Cricinfo