2003 August 25, 2012

Crash, bang and Pandora's box is opened

The day the game of cricket was changed forever

So ubiquitous is Twenty20 cricket that it is hard to believe it is only nine years old, and so spectacularly has it been embraced by the public that there is a growing suspicion that, outside India where it's appeal continues to grow, cricket's movers and shakers risk its ongoing appeal by saturating an already choked marketplace. But Twenty20, the brainchild of ECB marketing manager Stuart Robertson, only made its first appearance on June 13, 2003.

Robertson came up with the idea after he commissioned an extensive survey of cricket followers which asked why they did not attend more - or any - county matches. The top response was that it took too much time, followed by lack of opportunity and a perception that it was "boring". Questioned about a shorter format, almost half were against it but of the 34% who expressed approval, most had never attended a county game. And for Robertson and the ECB it was the possibility of attracting new fans - and crucially families - that convinced them to press on.

"I just couldn't see how it wouldn't work," John Carr, the ECB's director of cricket operations at the time, said in 2004. "But it took a lot to convince the counties. Fair play to [Robertson]. It is one thing to have an idea like we did, but quite another to sell it. And that is what he did. And not only to the public, because I thought that one of the most important things was that it was sold to the players. It would only work if they took it seriously and did not dismiss it as 'hit-and-giggle' cricket."

The competition was approved by the ECB in April 2002 but it had been a close-run thing whether the counties would back it. "From the feeling there, we weren't going to win the votes," said Lord MacLaurin, the ECB chairman. "I had a list of chairmen and called them the night before. I said, 'All I ask is that you give it a chance. After three years we'll have a review. If it's not successful we'll pull the plug'."

"[We] knew it was going to be close," confirmed John Read, the ECB director of communications. "We'd done the numbers. The ECB executive had lobbied strongly but there was institutionalised resistance. The vote was pivotal. And we knew it was going to be bloody close. So, as we drove back to Lord's, we asked Lord MacLaurin to do something he'd never done before and get on the phone to the five or six county chairmen we thought might be swayed and flatter the f*** out of them. With no hesitation he began calling. Without that, I fear Twenty20 might've been lost for some years, if not for ever. It was a seminal moment in cricket history."

In the end the vote was 11 to 7. The counties who voted against were Middlesex, Sussex, Yorkshire, Warwickshire, Somerset, Glamorgan and Northamptonshire. It was unveiled in November although trial matches had taken place earlier in the year. In general, they had gone well, though early plans to incorporate a golden over, in which runs would count double, were quietly shelved.

Robertson then hosted a media group in Spain and asked them to come up with a name for the new shortened format. "People were scribbling down names on pieces of paper and in a room of 20 or 30 people came Twenty20 in various spellings about three or four times," he recalled. "That was the one we thought could really work. The vision and the snappiness. It does what it says on the tin."

The jury was very much out whether it would catch the public's imagination, so much so the ECB struggled to find a sponsor until late in the day. Sceptics were quick to point out that the launch was set to be on a Friday the 13th.

On the eve of the first batch of five matches, the media were unsure what to make of it. Most decided it would attract crowds, possibly only out of curiosity, although few believed it would turn out to be anything more than a bit of a giggle.

"The only way to approach the whole adventure is with an open mind," wrote Christopher Martin-Jenkins in the Times. "Like many a novelty, given fair weather, it will succeed at first. My guess, however, is that it will, in the end, have a negligible effect on crowds, finance, standards or interest. The general impression that these are 'fun' events will serve the purpose of attracting young people who are used to noise, spectacle and instant gratification; but the game's intrinsic qualities will remain its chief attraction."

Simon Barnes, also in the Times, was hardly any more enthusiastic, with the noise his main objection. "It's the trappings I can't stand. The garnish. The gimmicks. The wrapping, the ribbons, the packaging. The noise. Music should be banned from all sporting occasions, live and televised. Never mind keeping politics out of sport; if we can keep music out, I'll be happy."

In the Sun, John Ethridge had a warning. "The traditional cricket followers might be advised to stay away for fear of choking on their gin and tonics. But the new generations of children and families are welcome with open arms."

"If it does not come off, there is nowhere else to go," Mike Selvey wrote in the Guardian, before offering a prescient prediction. "When the idea was first floated, a natural response was to predict that star players, many of whom already complain of overwork, would take the opportunity to sit out the competition. That would be unforgivable. New heroes could be created here. Those who might dismiss the format as pot noodle cricket that will destroy techniques could be way off the mark. Two weeks or so is not going to do any lasting damage and, besides, this is a competition that can be utilised to improve one-day skills."

Derek Pringle in the Daily Telegraph was not so sure. "Like baseball, a game lasts three hours, which should not tax the modern attention span too much. Slotting in mostly after-work hours during the week, the competition at least gives itself a chance, though rival events such as television soaps, homework and dinner may prove beyond sacrifice for some."

Andrew Miller, at the time working for Cricinfo, was upbeat but not without a note of caution. "Unless the teams themselves can put aside the razzmatazz, and knuckle down for some hard-fought competition, the whole fortnight will have the glib sterility of a graduate-recruitment fair."

Paul Dews in the Yorkshire Evening Post was the most positive of them all, railing against those pouring scorn on Twenty20 before it had even started. "Quite why so many people are waiting to destroy a competition that hasn't even started remains a mystery, because the ECB should be applauded for breaking with tradition and giving something new a go. Twenty20 certainly isn't the future of cricket, but it could help the long-term planning of the game and should be judged on its crowd-pulling merits."

Nottinghamshire got their more toned players to pose topless on posters as they billed games as Girls' Nights Out. Worcestershire placed a Jacuzzi on the boundary edge; Gloucestershire warned their committee that if any of them turned up wearing a tie they would be kicked out; Yorkshire sold tickets at £2; Glamorgan asked fans to turn up in pyjamas

Most of the counties joined in the fun. Nottinghamshire, tongue firmly in cheek, got their more toned players to pose topless on posters as they billed games as Girls' Nights Out. The models were Kevin Pietersen, Chris Cairns, Paul Franks and Gareth Clough (not a regular but he sneaked in by virtue of having the chest most admired by the female marketing staff). Worcestershire placed a Jacuzzi on the boundary edge; Gloucestershire warned their committee that if any of them turned up wearing a tie they would be kicked out; Yorkshire sold tickets at £2; Glamorgan asked fans to turn up in pyjamas.

There were a few glitches. Middlesex abandoned Lord's for more rural settings after the local council stuffily rejected requests for music to be allowed, while Derbyshire's forward-thinking plan to involve cheerleaders fell foul of the political-correctness lobby who ensured that there were no IPL-style youngsters but a more middle-aged selection.

The first uncontrollable obstacle - the weather - was superb for the opening round of games. The Sky TV cameras were at The Rose Bowl along with 9000 spectators, Hampshire's second largest crowd at that time. Viewers at home enjoyed a more relaxed style, commentators in the players' dugouts, and interaction with fielders via microphones taped uncomfortably to their ears.

Around 10,000 flocked to The Oval, twice the expected gate, which caused long queues at the bars. Durham, Taunton and Worcester also reported excellent sales. In all, 30,050 turned up for the arrival of a new era.

"Anything less would have been a failure given the novelty of the matches and the intensive marketing effort that has gone into them," noted Martin-Jenkins. The ECB had ploughed more than £200,000 into market research to, as Etheridge observed, "come up with the unbelievable revelation that cricket is watched mainly by white, middle-class, middle-aged men".

"Welcome to Cricket Like You've Never Seen It," Selvey quipped. "Well, not since a National League match reduced under the Duckworth-Lewis method anyway."

The demographic surprised many. "There were children yesterday - lots of them," reported Tanya Aldred at Southampton. "There were toddlers. And there were women. It was no revolution but, compared to the average four-day county match, it was the Clothes Show Live at the NEC. The Guinness van was selling glasses of Pernod and Martini, the beer tent offered a special offer on Bacardi Breezers."

The Mirror touched on the same theme. "The traditionalists stayed away, the kids came out to play, and maybe, just maybe, cricket took a genuine step towards reversing its dwindling popularity."

If the public and media didn't know what to expect, neither did the players. "We're going to bowl first," explained Surrey captain Adam Hollioake on winning the toss against Middlesex, "because I haven't got a clue what's going to happen".

Fears it would be a flash in the pan, a decent turn-out from the curious before a return to the more usual smattering of spectators, proved unfounded. The following night the crowds were as good. The weather remained glorious throughout, and the Twenty20 Cup was a hit. Even so, few had any inkling of quite what an impact Robertson's idea was going to have.

The final word should go to Robertson himself. "It's brought a bit of attention to me and my name is sometimes mentioned when people talk about how Twenty20 cricket happened," he told the Daily Mail in 2008. "But I can tell you one thing. It never made me any money!"

What happened next?

  • The inaugural competition was watched by 257,759 spectators, and the competition was expanded in 2004 with games relocated to the bigger grounds
  • Robertson left the ECB at the end of 2003 to join Warwickshire

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Martin Williamson is executive editor of ESPNcricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa

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