Revolution at the seaside
For such a stereotypically sleepy seaside town, with its circling seagulls and air of contented decrepitude, Hove is an improbable hotbed of innovation. Quite apart from being the first county ground to erect permanent floodlights, it was also the scene, during the 1999 World Cup, of South Africa's short-lived attempt to mike up their captain and coach, American-football style. And yesterday evening they pushed the boat out one stage further, by playing host to the world's first Twenty20 international match.
England women v New Zealand was perhaps not the marketing men's first choice for such an epoch-making event, although ever since the announcement of next summer's Ashes warm-up against Australia, there has been a fair amount of jostling for the honour. Last month, New Zealand announced they would be taking on the Aussies in a Twenty20 international in February, so for the ECB, the brains behind the concept, it was nice to be able to take part in another world first - even if the result didn't quite go as planned.
In truth, it was a disappointingly low-key spectacle, although the smattering of spectators - totalling about 500 - were all determined to enjoy themselves. There was a posse of Father Christmases in front of the pavilion (perhaps there to put the "ho-ho-ho" back into Hove), while most of the seats behind the players' dugout seemed to have been taken over by a hen night. When NatWest's new mascot, Bosie the cricket ball, went wobbling round the outfield, he needed two minders to prop him up and prevent him toppling over the boundary boards and into the throng. If only Humpty Dumpty had had the same forethought.
Happily for the future of the format, this match did come down to the last three balls, although there was an element of chance about the shot-selection of both teams, and more often than not, an off-stump long-hop was the ideal line and length for the situation. Rather unfairly, it had been decided that the boundary ropes should not be brought in a touch, as they generally have been for the men's game, with the result that the bursts of Yazz and Robbie Williams that greeted each four were heard rather less frequently than usual.
Most of those musical interludes came while Rebecca Rolls was seeing off the seamers early in New Zealand's innings, and it was only when the pace was taken off the ball that England hauled themselves back into contention. Rosalie Birch, who gamely tossed up her offbreaks to invite the mistake, removed Nicola Browne and Haidee Tiffen in the space of three deliveries, both to whoops-a-daisy swishes that ended up with the batsmen on their backsides and the bails in the air.
It is hard to compare across the codes, but even allowing for the reduced power of the women's game, the bowling and batting on display was not especially impressive. England's fielding, on the other hand, was a revelation, and the one area that might eventually have won them the game, as New Zealand lost their heads and their wickets after a solid start to the innings.
In particular, England's use of the relay throw - an idea first pioneered by the New Zealand's men's team - was adept at cutting threes down to twos, and on two occasions, its non-use resulted in a run-out, as Lucy Pearson and Jenny Gunn both suckered the Kiwis with flat returns direct from the boundary's edge. Furthermore, Birch was well backed up by Laura Newton and Claire Taylor, who pocketed two well-judged catches in the deep.
Nicky Shaw, apparently billed as the Freddie Flintoff of the women's game, launched England's reply with some lusty intent, although it was the calmer approach of Taylor and Charlotte Edwards, who dabbed the ball expertly into the gaps, that gave England a fighting chance of saving the match. But once again, a spinner proved the downfall of the innings, as Aimee Mason forced England to go over the top in search of those elusive boundaries, and helped herself to three big wickets. Birch and Lydia Greenway kept up the hunt until the very end, but 16 runs from the final over proved just out of their reach.