The man behind Twenty20
The first ICC World Twenty20 is a satisfying time for Stuart Robertson. Back in 2000, as the head marketing man at the ECB, Robertson was set the daunting task of trying to bring more people through the gates to watch English domestic cricket. Test matches and one-day internationals were routinely sold out, even when England weren't winning, but county matches really were for one man and his dog.
The idea he came up with is what we now know as the Twenty20 game. Seven years and 9000 km later, the Wanderers, Newlands and Kingsmead are guaranteed sell-outs to watch some of the biggest names in cricket at the first world championship in the new format.
"The key is, it's such a simple format," Robertson, who now works for Hampshire, told Cricinfo. "It's not rocket science and that's the beauty of it. I wasn't surprised how quickly the game took off in England, but the international growth was a bit more unexpected, especially the pace at which other countries introduced it into their fixtures."
Twenty20 made its debut in the 2003 English season, and that winter South Africa introduced Pro20. Two years later Australia, Pakistan and Sri Lanka all made room in their domestic calendars for a competition. Since then, New Zealand have also joined in, while Stanford 20/20 sparked popular interest in the Caribbean and has now been incorporated into the official WICB season. Even India, who have a stubborn love-affair with the 50-over game, yielded to pressure and played a domestic Twenty20 tournament last year, although the reception was lukewarm. Cracking that market remains the game's major challenge.
"The data we had was fairly black and white," said Robertson. "Across the board, attendances were down 20 per cent over five years when the project began in 2000-01. My job was to put together a report, looking in detail at how to bring people back through the gates, but importantly, doing it from a consumer perspective. There had been plenty of committees set up to look at the issue in the past, but they'd involved former players and county chairmen whose findings were not always in the spectators' interests.
In England I certainly think there is scope for a tournament to run throughout the season, maybe on Friday nights, rather than just the two-week period in midsummer
"We looked at why people weren't coming to the games and there was a key theme: accessibility. This was a physical reason - the timings of the matches; people at work couldn't get to the games during the day. But there was a cultural, social aspect as well. A lot of people said: 'I thought you had to be a member to go a game.'"
Robertson and his team identified key groups of people who were barely registering in the county game; women, the 16-35 age group, and young families with children. "We needed a product that would be attractive to them, and asked if there was a game that took less than three hours, would they come to that? The overwhelming response was that they would, so we went back to the counties and in 2001 it went to a vote of the First Class Forum. It was passed 11-7 in favour and that was the start of Twenty20."
It wasn't a faultless progression from idea to inception. As the voting suggests, the format didn't gain wholehearted support, although Robertson was confident from the outset that the early misgivings could be overcome. "There was scepticism before and after the start of the tournament, but the great thing was that once it got off the ground, everyone got behind it. Even those who voted against the proposal initially didn't stand back and say they wouldn't embrace it.
"The advantage was that virtually all the commercial and marketing men could see the potential that Twenty20 had, but it was the chairmen - brought up in slightly different eras - who offered the early obstacles. Once Twenty20 was voted in, the marketing men could hardly wait to get working on it."
It wasn't only off the field that Twenty20 found itself struggling for recognition. During its first season, players didn't quite know what to make of it, having been brought up on a diet of 50-over and four-day cricket. "From the playing side there was certainly a feeling in the first year that it was a bit of hit-and-giggle, and a few teams didn't take it seriously," said Robertson. "I spent a lot of time speaking and giving presentations on it through the PCA [Professional Cricketers' Association] and slowly the mood changed.
"Sometimes the early misgivings actually came from the international players who were used to playing in front of full houses and weren't sure it could be replicated on the domestic level. But for the young, upcoming players performing in front of six or seven thousand people it was a totally new experience. It's what being a professional sportsman was all about."
The question now is, how far can Twenty20 go? The ICC has put a limit on the number of international matches in a year and Robertson agrees the current level "is just about right" with a match or two against each touring side, and the World Cup. But he doesn't support the view that there's a danger of overload, especially at domestic level. "It's been such a success. Why shouldn't there be more of it? In England I certainly think there is scope for a tournament to run throughout the season, maybe on Friday nights, rather than just the two-week period in midsummer."
One enticing prospect is the idea of a Champions League-style Twenty20 league where the top domestic teams from each country play each other. "It certainly would be interesting," said Robertson. It might sound slightly far-fetched at the moment, but so did the ICC World Twenty20 five years ago.
Andrew McGlashan is a staff writer on Cricinfo