<
>

T20: it's a gas, gas, gas

Monday evening, 8pm
I write this on the train from Cardiff, where England have just beaten Australia in a terrific T20 match. I am surrounded by men and boys dressed as bananas. Earlier, I saw most of the cast of Star Wars, various cartoon favourites and numerous animals. During the game, pop music played and gymnasts performed acrobatic tricks alongside the boundary. Flames burst from throwers at the strike of sixes and the fall of wickets. Immediately at the finish, fireworks celebrated England's success.

I have never warmed to T20. It is playing an old record to say that I believe it seriously threatens the future of Test match cricket. But I was looking forward to this contest and it did not disappoint. In fact, it was my favourite international match in this format. Skill levels were both high and low as occasional madness combined with extraordinary ball-striking, smart seam bowling and some wonderful fielding. I loved it and might be converted. The IPL has previously had me on the brink of crossing the great divide because it seems to know its place and its time. But England versus Australia has not been that place, until this evening.

There was next to nothing between the sides and both appeared eager to express themselves. Some unique talents stole the show and their free spirit gave as much joy to the audience as a performance by any of them might do in Test match cricket.

Nothing quite draws the breath of the crowd like an unforgettable catch. Ben Stokes took one on the first morning of the Trent Bridge Test and it will never, ever be forgotten. The same can be said for Andrew Strauss in Nottingham ten years earlier and Glenn McGrath on the Adelaide boundary in 2002. Today Stokes claimed another blinder, this time in the deep, as if it were completely normal to sprint 20 yards before throwing yourself sideways and plucking the ball out of mid-air with both hands. He also bowled a fine last over.

Moeen Ali batted as if in a fantastical dream, stroking the ball around the ground with ridiculous ease. Pat Cummins bowled a very full length at an eye-watering 94 miles per hour. Richie Benaud always said that Frank Tyson bowled like that and faster than anyone else he saw. With three dramatic balls, Cummins hit Alex Hales' pads twice for lbw shouts and then knocked over his castle. Eoin Morgan crunched the ball down the ground from a firm base and with a rock-steady head before freewheeling once set. Steven Smith batted with typical, but still uncanny, flair and nous. He will be kicking himself that he was not there at the end. Had he been, Australia would surely have won.

Afterwards the captains were relaxed and generous in their interviews. In some ways it was as if we were in a time warp. The early days of the Rothmans Cavaliers must have been like this, followed by the years of the John Player Sunday League when 40-over cricket suddenly became the zeitgeist: the players took it all seriously, but not too seriously.

"Sugar is great if part of a balanced diet but too much sugar is bad for you, very bad. Those who came to Cardiff will return because of the best of the cricket, not the worst"

There are whispers that the ECB management is behind a move to add a franchise-based T20 tournament to the summer calendar in England. Certainly there are plans to play fewer - 14 instead of 16, they say - four-day county games from next season. That move alone may be the thin end of a wedge. At the moment T20 is something of a cash cow. But the more you take advantage of the cow, the more likely it is to dry up.

The ECB has had a good summer. The new set - chairman, Colin Graves; CEO, Tom Harrison; and the Director of England Cricket, Andrew Strauss - have worked in splendid harmony. The New Zealand aperitif wet everyone's whistle and then an Ashes miracle occurred. The "new set" aim to grow the game, which is a fine ambition. But their ongoing duty is to pastoral care, and for this they will have to make some unpopular decisions within the county game, which simply cannot sustain itself. Ideally, they would establish where cricket needs to be in 20 years' time and chart the course upon that.

Nutritional science tells us that we are what we eat. An analogy can be applied to sportsmen, who become what they play. The 50-over game should be the equivalent of a first course in a restaurant and all international 50-over matches should relate to something bigger: ideally the World Cup, as proposed by the chairman of Cricket Australia, Wally Edwards. Context is more important than less enlightened administrators will accept.

Four- and five-day cricket should be the main course of any summer. There are two reasons for this. One is the urgent need to keep it relevant and the other is to sell its appeal to children. Hide it away, as it is already partially hidden by satellite television, and its future will he consigned to occasional marquee series and competitions. T20 should be the sweet course, the sugar hit that completes the experience. The ECB's "new set" should be very wary of T20 becoming "The Experience". I can hear the howls of derision but hear me out.

Sugar is great if part of a balanced diet but too much sugar is bad for you, very bad. Those who came to Cardiff today will return because of the best of the cricket, not the worst. The worst contained some comedy, like the clowns, but soon the clowns must make way for the other acts.

Moeen could not possibly bat like he did without a grounding in the basics. Nor could Smith. Glenn Maxwell played a smart, grounded innings, a feat many have thought beyond him. Cummins would not bowl at 94mph were he not looking to take wickets. Much of the pleasure in cricket comes from the interaction between bat and ball. When the odds are even, the game thrives with its myriad attractions - orthodox and inventive strokeplay; speed, swing and spin; close and far away catching; priceless head-to-heads; vignettes; collapses; fightbacks; inconceivable draws; impossible victories and so forth.

In T20, batsmen put little price on their wicket. Generally in cricket - and the all-out 60 at Trent Bridge was a freak - no team allows itself to be bowled out in less than 20 overs. Ten batsmen may get themselves out but all ten will not be bowled out by the opponent, as happened at Trent Bridge when the Australians were dismissed by Stuart Broad in just 18.3 overs.

"The ECB's ongoing duty is to pastoral care, and for this they will have to make some unpopular decisions within the county game, which simply cannot sustain itself"

Oddly, the freak is a good example of the point. Trent Bridge could never happen in the T20 game, and how we would miss such theatre!

Today's pitch had plenty in it for everyone except the spinners, whose problems were compounded by the short straight boundaries. Four overs of legspin cost 51 runs. Cameron Boyce and Adil Rashid had no chance. In fact, the only thing the game lacked was value for spin bowling.

Yes, it was a good day. The boys in the banana skins paid £10 for their tickets and their dads paid £25. Excellent value for money, as they pointed out themselves.

Tuesday morning, 10am
Having touched upon the restaurant analogy last night, it is only right to expand this morning. On Thursday, England begin a five-match 50-over series against Australia. The euphoria of the Ashes series lingers but no longer commands the back pages. These five matches to come have no context. The World Cup has been and gone and the World T20 is due in March. But England and Australia have played only one T20 match.

The best format for any tour is three 50-over games, both to stimulate public interest and allow the players a joust before the main event. It used to work, it would again. Then three Tests, or five in a marquee series such as the Ashes. Then three T20s. The venues can be shared around, with Tests the premier coup for the big cities and limited-overs cricket spreading the gospel of the game to wider communities. Board management might say that short formats should be played back to back to save the expense of flying players back and forth but the reality is that as many, or more, players overlap from one-day cricket into Tests as from the one-day game into T20. And anyway, if Boyce is to fly 10,000 miles to play one T20, who is worried about the money?

The structure of English cricket is the main challenge for the "new set". Slowly, almost imperceptibly, an elite division is forming. Six or seven counties are premiership level in every way, four or five float either side of the line and the others are clearly a division behind. Recently there was a story about Northamptonshire's battle to survive. The county's most exciting cricketer, David Willey, is leaving for Yorkshire at the end of the season. Is this not an indication of organic change?

Ideally there would be fewer first-class counties but since a reduction is such a monumental challenge for any leadership body - imagine the blood - the answer might be three divisions of seven. The premiership, the first division and the second division, which could be made up of four existing counties plus Ireland, Scotland and an MCC or ECB academy side from which the best players not required by the counties from whence they came are drafted into the next division up. Promotion and relegation ensures movement and opportunity; the three-tier system ensures viability for those less lucky and at a lower level of cost and responsibility.

The three competitions would stay much as they are. Twelve home and away Championship matches in each division. A one-day cup, preceded by a qualifying league in three groups with teams seeded and then drawn randomly. The top two in each group, along with the best third-placed team, make it to the quarter-finals. The final itself should be billed as a highlight of the summer, with England stars available, and played when a sell-out crowd and good viewing figures are guaranteed, i.e. in the summer, not the autumn. Royal London is not getting much of a deal with either the general exposure of their county competition or the scheduling of the final in late September. The 50-over cup should be completed before the T20 leagues get under way. Play the final on the last Saturday of June or the first in July, before the main Test series diverts attention from the county game.

There is no need to copy anyone else's T20 model. The northern hemisphere provides a rare opportunity for overseas cricketers in July and August. Open the doors to them and encourage private sponsorship of the biggest names. If a franchise-based top tier of T20 is workable then there may be something in pursuing it but only if the county game benefits from the income and if the more distanced communities see the big names up close. This is the cricket to play in the school holidays, between Test matches, at accessible venues.

This game, and that game last night, is for the new audience. Essentially it is for those children who like their sweets. And, yes, even the great history of battles between England and Australia can add a light-hearted angle to the narrative, especially if it helps the kids catch on. Just don't overdo it, that's all. It is bad for our health.