Twenty20 reaches adulthood
Twenty20, once the tacky nephew of English cricket, has grown up. After three years, during which time it has received an equal share of praise and ridicule - and, in fairness, it has often deserved both - there is a growing maturity to the format. The teenager has entered adulthood and is starting to flex its muscles.
When Surrey won the inaugural title in 2003, beating Warwickshire, few gave them much credit. "It's new, it's loud, it's brazen and short-lived" were the general opinions. Rather like England and their indifferent, blasé attitude to one-day cricket, the Championship remained the zenith of a county's aspirations. Now, however, the younger sibling has broken free; shoulder-barging the traditionalists out of the way, it has stamped its mark on the English summer so much so that an August without finals day would feel rather dull. Twenty20 is arguably now the most important domestic competition in the country.
Dull it is not. Hours before the scheduled start time of 11.30 at Trent Bridge today, throngs of fans burst out of the trains to make the 20-minute trek to the ground. With the crowd snaking around the ground, almost overlapping itself, it was hard to believe they were here for a domestic one-day competition. Taxis were few and far between; the atmosphere was jovial, electric even, and Nottingham was bursting at the seams all due to a day of cricket.
During its inception, the cricket almost felt like a bit-part to the day's attractions, all that has since changed. Indeed, after the Sugababes had strut their stuff in the dying light and shaken their booty - or whatever inappropriate phrase you wish to use - the PA boomed across the outfield. "Well, I hope you enjoyed that," he proffered, in his best Pathe News voice. "The news is that Leicestershire have won the toss and will bat."
No sooner had the Babes slunk into the waiting arms of half-a-dozen bodyguards and policemen than the crowd were cheering and jeering foxes of a different nature entirely: the Leicestershire team. This isn't to say the Sugar Babes weren't warmly applauded - a little too warmly in one instance, as the police evacuated one excitable fan - more that the public were here for the cricket, and they wanted to see a contest.
Doubts inevitably remain. With ever-spiralling run-rates in the four-day game at domestic level, not to mention Test cricket, can cricket sustain this adrenaline rush? Test sides are now considered to meander, even drift, at three-runs-per-over where once such a rate was regarded as fairly skipping along. Twenty20 can only fuel the public's insatiable appetite for speed; for three-day Test matches; for fours and big sixes.
In the Wisden Cricketers' Almanack of 1986, Don Bradman wrote of one-day cricket that "it rids the game of the unutterable bore who thinks occupancy of the crease and his own personal aggrandisement are all that matter". Such batsmen have all but disappeared, and would not survive in the tip-and-run nature of Twenty20. That, in itself, is an achievement for the game; cricket's ability to shoot itself in the foot remains unchallenged, yet Twenty20 has broken free of the traditionalists' musty embrace and proved all its early critics, myself included, wrong.
It took me nearly two hours to find a hotel with a room for this match. All 14 hoteliers turned me down, and the reason was both obvious and disappointing but undeniably revealing and welcoming. Twenty20 isn't yet entirely settled, nor has it matured enough to produce one-day players for England (although Mal Loye is perhaps the first to have benefited from the competition). It won't be long though and, in the meantime, the fans are lapping it up.
Will Luke is editorial assistant of Cricinfo