Twenty20 showdown at The Oval
The first domestic silverware of the English season is up for grabs at The Oval tomorrow as the Twenty20 Cup reaches its climax. The finals day may be sandwiched between the first two Ashes Tests - and plenty of time and space will still be taken over by debating England's second Test squad - but this all-in-one finals day is now a popular fixture in the calendar.
Heading south for the first time - last year the finals were at Edgbaston and the first year at Trent Bridge - The Oval is a sell-out showing that Twenty20 has lost none of its lustre third time around. Although the event does not carry the grandeur of a Lord's final, rest assured that the losing semi-finalists won't be doing a Ricky Ponting and laughing off the defeats.
There are some teams who have really cracked the art of Twenty20, shown by the fact that three of last year's semi-finalists are returning at The Oval. Leicestershire, the defending champions, have again shown their prowess by reaching the semi-finals and are joined by Lancashire and Surrey - who face each other in a re-run of the first 2004 semi, which Surrey won by one run. Somerset, making their first appearance on finals day, complete the quartet and face Leicestershire in the second semi-final.
Andrew Flintoff and Marcus Trescothick have been released by England for Lancashire and Somerset respectively and 10 overs of either of them will leave the bowlers nursing some painful figures. But Leicestershire, who have appeared at all three finals days, are the proof that Twenty20 is not necessarily won by a team of all stars and they will be confident on retaining their title. They have suffered a blow with John Sadler being ruled out with a fractured collarbone but still have Darren Maddy, the closest player to a Twenty20 specialist that there is.
However, Leicestershire face some stiff competition from the other three teams. Somerset have reached finals day on the back of the weighty bats of Graeme Smith and Ian Blackwell and the youthful enthusiasm of Matthew Wood and James Hildreth. They hold the record for the highest Twenty20 total - 228 for 5 against Gloucestershire. Add Trescothick to their top order and they have a batting line-up capable of setting, or chasing, considerable totals.
In the first semi-final Lancashire are determined to exact revenge for their narrow defeat to Surrey last season and can boast an in-form, and immensely powerful, batting line-up. Andrew Symonds has added some considerable might to the top order, while the opening pair of Stuart Law and Mal Loye have dispatched attacks to all parts of ground this season. In the bowling it is Gary Keedy's left-arm spin and Symonds's all round versatility which are their trump cards. Spin is still proving to be a huge success in Twenty20, as batsmen find it harder to put pace onto the ball.
Surrey, though, are the masters of the close finish. They only made it into finals day courtesy of their bowl-out victory against Warwickshire, which ended with Tim Murtagh sprinting around the outfield, flailing his shirt around his head. A reserve day has been allocated for the finals so a repeat of those scenes is unlikely, but that type of passion goes to further emphasise how much the players now value this competition.
The finals day is a marathon effort if it is watched from start to finish - the first match starts at 11.30am and the final is meant to finish at 10.30pm - and can feel especially long for the first losing semi-finalists. But, with entertainment from Girls Aloud and the hotly contested mascot race, there is plenty to keep the crowds occupied right through the day...and night.
Andrew McGlashan is editorial assistant of Cricinfo