Shaun of the Stanford
"This time last year, I was going to be going up and down the motorway selling helmets and cricket kit. To be captain of the side to go to the inaugural Stanford 20/20 competition is, well, unbelievable. It's astonishing, really."
Those were the words of a perplexed, head-shaking Shaun Udal, the Middlesex captain, speaking last week in anticipation of the forthcoming Stanford 20/20. It is hard not to share in Udal's baffled excitement. After all, before John Emburey used all his Peckham persuasiveness to lure Udal out of retirement last December, he really was going to be selling helmets and hurtling up and down the M3.
There is an everyman appeal about Udal. To see him lead Middlesex in the glittering Stanford 20/20 is rather like witnessing Simon Pegg become the latest English darling of Hollywood. You share his pride and appreciate his fortune, but can't help thinking "that could be me. I could do that", however misplaced that ambition might be.
"I was working for Sky on the last day of last season. Middlesex were playing Northants in a Pro40 play-off in Southgate. Emburey came along and said 'God. What are you doing retiring?'" Never a man for subtlety, Emburey. "'You shouldn't retire. You're too young' he told me. I insisted I'd already made my decision, but he was persistent. Within a couple of hours I signed. I spoke to Hampshire first to tell them I was coming out of retirement - I had to do the right thing by them - and the rest is history."
Udal has more history to create: namely, beating the Stanford 20/20 champions Trinidad & Tobago on October 27. It will net him and his side a small fortune of US$180,000, on top of the $US100,000 participators' fee. That's the equivalent of selling roughly 180 helmets in these hardened economic times, all for a few hours hitting a ball with a bat.
Although he welcomed coming out of retirement (Middlesex poached him from mighty Berkshire), at 39 he is very much in the autumn of his career, and he's not alone. Twenty20 was branded as a young man's game, one in which only the double-jointed, Red-Bull-swigging bucks could succeed. Yet this hasn't been the case at all, particularly in the Twenty20 Cup, and Middlesex's line-up proved that experience was a fair match for youthful exuberance in their Cup-winning campaign this year.
"Experienced guys help an enormous amount in that format. I mean, it's no coincidence. Dirk Nannes is 32, Tyron Henderson 34. Murali Kartik is a year younger at 33... and I'm 39. Tim Murtagh's 26 and has taken 50-odd wickets in Twenty20; Henderson is the world's leading wicket-taker; Nannes had a great winter with Victoria. As a unit, we were excellent."
It was a surprise to many to see Middlesex dominate the Twenty20, but Udal is refreshingly immodest about their summer, and of their ability in the shortest format.
"We've got it all covered," he said. "Everyone that has played Twenty20 for Middlesex is included in the squad, so no one's missing out. The signing of Neil Carter is good - a straight swap for Nannes - and he gives an option for batting at the top of the order as a dynamic pinch-hitter. I'm really excited about the whole squad: we have a strong batting line-up and a lot of bowling options too."
Despite the presence of wizened sages like Udal, Twenty20 is the perfect venue in which to showcase youthful talent. Dawid Malan is one such man. Only 21 years old, he announced himself with a Twenty20 hundred of rare class and elegance against Lancashire this year.
"He could be outstanding. He really could be. It's up to him how good he wants to be," Udal said. "Obviously he has a long way to go; he is still young and has to find consistency. That hundred at The Oval, though, was the innings of the year in Twenty20s. An incredible knock for a 21-year-old to play against Andrew Flintoff, Saj Mahmood, Dominic Cork and Glen Chapple. Astonishing. He now needs consistency. He's very solid upstairs too; he has that selfish streak, which you need, and we just want him to convert that into heavy runs."
Udal is wearing a hoodie, dressed in jeans and trainers - not unlike his 16-year-old daughter who, sat on his left and engrossed in a stray Hello magazine, is utterly bored by her dad. She shouldn't be, though; for such a mild-mannered man, Udal is openly opinionated. The name of Murtagh provokes him into life all of a sudden.
"He's up there with the best, easily - one of the best signings Middlesex have made in the past 10, 15 years. It's an absolute joke that he's not included in any of the development squads in the winter. He's taken 105 wickets in all cricket - the leading wicket-taker in domestic cricket, in all forms. And for him to not even get a sniff of an A tour... there are guys included who haven't got half the wickets he's got. Some of them didn't even play in half the Championship."
Murtagh is one of those characters who often slip by unnoticed. Far greater an asset than a plodding medium-pacer, but not yet an out-and-out demon. And, perhaps tellingly, he is the wrong side of 25. Murtagh didn't enjoy Surrey (his brother Chris still plays there), but Lord's has been the making of him, not that he has undoubted ability has yet been recognised by England.
"He swings the ball, he's the right age, and has good pace and excellent control. The biggest thing he's got are his nerves. He absolutely loves being part of the big-pressure situations, and that's a good sign, if you've got someone who wants to be involved.
"He's in my team every time. No worries about that. He was knackered at the end of the season and I said 'Yeah, well you're still playing mate. I don't care how knackered you are.'"
For cricketers like Murtagh, whose only big-time exposure has been a packed final for the Twenty20 Cup, the Stanford 20/20 offers something entirely new: the chance to play against England on Sunday, and earn a packet for a brief jamboree. Understandably, given his side's current position, Udal is a total convert to Twenty20, which he "absolutely loves". He is equally positive about its future, too.
"It started out as a marketing man's dream, really, a way to get the public in. And it worked really well. I remember playing the first game at the Rose Bowl against Sussex in 2003, and everyone thought it'd be a bit of a laugh but it would disappear within a few years. It's turned into this incredible animal, revolutionising the whole game. I think it's a fantastic format, and I absolutely love it. Everyone does. We all love playing in front of massive, packed stands, under floodlights. The TV all over it - the world is watching - and it's developed into an amazing, successful game that has brought a lot of money into it.
"It's definitely the future and it will take the place of one-day internationals very soon."
It's a bold statement, if a smidgen idealistic. 50-over ODIs are dependable engines of income for boards and TV companies, and their short-term future is probably safe. Udal's advice to anyone approaching retirement like he was last year, however, is rather more straightforward. "Hang on in there. Turn yourself into a Twenty20 cricketer!"
For all the format's detractors, it beats flogging helmets for a living.
Will Luke is a staff writer at Cricinfo