Francis Wheen at Chelmsford
Is it a fun run, a charity football match, a school sports day, a village picnic? It looks like any or all of them, but is in fact the county ground at Chelmsford an hour before the start of a Twenty20 Cup game between the Essex Eagles and the Sussex Sharks, one Sunday lunchtime last June.
Scores of children play on the outfield, while parents graze on beer and Scotch eggs. Cheerleaders in tiny white skirts sashay through the crowd, selling match programmes at £2 a time. The Tannoy blasts out old Abba hits, interrupted occasionally for an important announcement: "Don't forget, ladies and gentlemen, you can meet the mascots at the River End of the ground if you want to have your picture taken with them."
Apart from Eddie the Eagle and Sid the Shark, most of these mascots represent football teams - Arsenal, Wycombe Wanderers, Yeovil Town. Fitting enough, since many of the children wear football shirts adorned with the name of Wayne Rooney or Thierry Henry. Adding to the incongruity, Essex have decided that today is an "Ascot-style Ladies' Day", with Graham Gooch judging a prize for the best headgear. Alas, the ladies haven't risen to the challenge. My own hat is probably the most unusual in the stadium, a lone panama amid a throng of baseball caps.
Phil Tufnell, looking roguish in black suit and shades, has turned up to start the mascots' three-legged race. Afterwards the mascots leap on to one of the mini-skirted cheerleaders, a spectacle which my children (Bertie, ten, and Archie, eight) consider the highlight of the day so far. But now, after two hours of foreplay, some actual cricket is about to begin. We know this because the outfield is cleared and the PA system gives us an earful of "Let Me Entertain You".
The game itself is so short - two and a half hours - that any report must be correspondingly brisk. The Eagles overcome the early mishap of Ronnie Irani's golden duck (I half expect a man in a duck costume to invade the pitch and wrestle poor Ronnie to the ground) to reach 151 for five after 20 overs.
The Sharks' reply starts solidly enough - so solidly that attention begins to wane. "Come on Chelmsford!" the PA urges us. "It's time for the first Mexican wave of the afternoon. Going clockwise, starting from the scoreboard... now!" An officially choreographed Mexican wave seems as oxymoronic as an officially sanctioned pitch invasion (which is indeed what happens at the end of Twenty20 games), and in a fine display of civil disobedience the Chelmsfordians produce a wilfully feeble wave which dribbles round the ground with all the tidal force of a garden sprinkler.
But wait - something's happening! Grant Flower takes three wickets in five balls, and James Middlebrook's off-spin defeats the tailenders. The visitors are all out for 108. Bertie, Archie and several hundred other children race on to the field brandishing autograph books, while I brood on why I found the afternoon - though enjoyable enough - so uninvolving.
I don't mind the razzmatazz: I even learned to tolerate the musical ejaculations marking every wicket, every boundary and indeed the end of every over - though the choice of songs (mostly from the 1970s) seems rather strange if the purpose is to excite youngsters. There was plenty to admire on the pitch: tight spin bowling, sixes hit out of the ground, and above all the astonishingly high standard of fielding. A boundary-saving dive followed by a stump-hitting throw now seems almost routine.
The problem is the brevity: what makes a Twenty20 game so popular as a family outing is also what makes it so curiously unengaging as a spectator sport. There are no ebbs and flows, no changes of gear, no second and third acts. It is a mass-produced Scotch egg washed down with canned lager - something one consumes almost without noticing. It leaves no glow of pleasure, no memories to be savoured.
Even so, for a snack-addicted generation it clearly has huge appeal: these games at Chelmsford draw crowds of 6,000 or more. My children's only complaint was that, with no TV cameras present, "they don't have a replay screen". So what did they like most about their first Twenty20 jaunt? The perfect length of Grant Flower's left-arm orthodox bowling, or perhaps an immaculate sweep shot from his brother? "The best thing," Bertie replied without hesitation, "is that they let you run on the ground at the end and get autographs." Archie agreed: "Can we go again next week?"
Francis Wheen is a journalist and author whose works include How Mumbo- Jumbo Conquered the World and a biography of Karl Marx