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Middlesex experience sharpens the T20 debate

Dawid Malan was none too enamoured with outgrounds after a heavy defeat Getty Images

The contrast was unmistakable. While Surrey welcomed over 25,500 on a boisterous Friday night of the sort that has become an Oval trademark, a few thousand crammed into Old Deer Park, in Richmond, to see Middlesex's T20.

Middlesex's skipper was left feeling distinctly unimpressed. "Personally I don't think professional cricketers should play at club grounds, you never know what wicket you will get," Dawid Malan said. "Hopefully they get to the stage where we never play Twenty20 at club grounds again."

On one level this was simply the frustration of a skipper whose team had been well-beaten. Middlesex chief executive Richard Goatley explains that Malan's "comments were out of proportion to how he and the club feel about playing at our outgrounds."

And yet there was a deeper significance nestled in Malan's words. While Middlesex did a sterling job to get 4,000 people through the gates at Richmond, who palpably had a cracking time in spite of their team's defeat, should they not have been altogether more ambitions, for themselves and for domestic T20 cricket?

Brendon McCullum is one of very few overseas players with the razzmatazz to attract casual cricket fans to English domestic T20 matches. His signing for Middlesex was hyped up for months. After all the excitement, McCullum's T20 debut came not in front of a packed Lord's crowd but in front of a couple of thousand at Merchant Taylor's School.

When Richard Scudamore, the chief executive of the Premier League, speaks of the league's remarkable global success, he emphasises the need to create the best possible spectacle for TV: this is done not merely by packing teams with talent, but also by ensuring those watching see packed out grounds.

That's why some senior figures in county cricket are privately concerned that playing matches at outgrounds sends an unflattering message about the quality of English domestic T20 to supporters, broadcasters and players alike. For all the charms of Old Deer Park or Merchant Taylor's School, it is impossible to imagine the Big Bash or Indian Premier League ever considering playing matches at such bucolic venues.

County cricket is in an age when it needs to justify itself by generating as much money as possible: many might not like this reality, but they cannot deny it. A sold-out Middlesex T20 at Lord's generates around £700,000; a sold-out Middlesex game at an outground garners about one-tenth as much. Over three games, the difference amounts to nearly £2 million: money that county cricket is not in a position to be rejecting, and could be used to sign better overseas players and invest in the grassroots game.

That a contest as enthralling as Shaun Tait unfurling his slingshot action to Eoin Morgan is played in front of 4,000, with no TV cameras in view, is emblematic of the compromises inherent in English domestic T20.

These are particularly acute for Middlesex, given their unusual lodger arrangement with Lord's, the restrictions on the number of floodlit matches at Lord's to appease the moneyed residents of St John's Wood, and the heavy demands on the ground, which is currently being prepared for the opening Test against Pakistan.

Under current arrangements, Middlesex receive a lump sum from the MCC for all the games they play at Lord's. It is reasonable to assume that another couple of T20s with crowds in excess of 20,000 would be likely to increase the fee they receive. The question nobody wants to discuss in detail is quite who that switch from the outgrounds would benefit.

"The volume of cricket played at Lord's means that a level of cricket at outgrounds is necessary and provides a great benefit to the club in terms of reaching a wider audience and getting our supporters closer to the action," says Goatley. The upshot is to drive Middlesex to schedule their home T20s across four different venues.

Middlesex forever seek to maintain a mutually beneficial relationship with Lord's, but just occasionally tensions emerge. "Lord's never really felt like home," former Middlesex captain Neil Dexter said recently. "When you don't own your own ground, you can't ever really call it home."

The MCC has encouraged the ECB to review the best structure for domestic T20 cricket and is open to hosting more Middlesex T20s, unsurprisingly given the huge financial success they have made of the games. Thursday nights in high summer are the most lucrative matches for Lord's, but whether they can host more matches then is dependent on devising a schedule that better balances the ground's hosting of Middlesex with Test matches and other marquee fixtures.

Middlesex maintain they are happy with the current situation - they could hardly do otherwise - and see playing three of their seven home T20s away from Lord's, as they have done in the past two seasons, as reflecting their commitment to cricket in the whole county. And yet to play so many matches away from Lord's seems somehow to settle for second best from English T20 when it is palpable there is a huge market for domestic T20 games in the capital.

Surrey abandoned playing T20s away from The Oval five years ago, recognising that demand was simply too great to justify taking games to venues where they could only be seen by one-fifth as many people. Their philosophy is simple: they want the biggest audience possible. It is a striking contrast that Middlesex evidently do not - or cannot - take the same view. And while counties acknowledging their responsibility to spread the game beyond their main home ground is admirable, it would surely be more prudent for counties to focus on developing the best possible product in T20 cricket, and bring four-day and 50-over cricket to outgrounds.

If Malan's comments were a fit of pique - Richmond had worked admirably to produce a wicket that was good enough for Glamorgan to waltz to their target of 145 with over three overs to spare - they were also a window into something much more. Not merely the parochial concerns of Middlesex, but more fundamental questions for English domestic T20 cricket.

In many ways the competition is a startling success - nearly 1m people could well attend games in 2016 - and yet at times it still seems unsure exactly what it is, or wants to be: one of the leading T20 leagues in the world, or merely a jumped-up version of the old 40-over league, existing for the pleasure of existing fans rather than to engage new ones.