The real showpiece

Tradition be damned. Traditionally, in Pakistan, fewer fans than players turn up to watch domestic cricket. Traditionally, domestic players with little hope of breaking into the national set-up garner little acclaim and less financial security. Traditionally, national-team stars don't turn up for domestic matches. Tradition also says the Twenty20 format is frivolous and trivialises cricket. Last Saturday night, 30,000 people inside Lahore's Gaddafi Stadium, around 5000 to 10,000 outside it and many, many more in front of their televisions spat at tradition.

If Lord's is the spiritual home of traditional cricket, then in Pakistan Twenty20 has found a spiritual home. Millions of youngsters play eight-over, ten-over games throughout the country on roads, gallis, apartment complexes, on the beaches. Pakistan has traditionally excelled in six-a-side and double-wicket tournaments. This is the format in which Pakistani players are bred - a quick smash-and-grab and on with your life. Nobody, players or fans, have time for anything more. Shahid Afridi, despite playing a solitary group game, is Twenty20. Four overs here, a couple of wickets and catches there and an obnoxious 30 off 10 balls to finish; short, simple and effective. Just like the format.

So should such a big turnout have been a surprise? Yes, considering there were only three players involved in the final who had played for Pakistan, and that Lahore weren't playing. And yes, given the Pakistani fan. Nobody is sure why attendances are so low in Pakistan. But at least we now know if you keep it short enough and make enough noise about it - the tournament was preceded by a marketing blitz with ads in newspapers, on radio and even on billboards - then you might get somewhere.

During the final, there was chaos; clearly no-one had expected so many people to turn up, and the police could do little against so many. As it is the 3000 or so policemen only turned up as late reinforcements; after 15,000 people had turned up on Friday, the city administration had to make hasty arrangements for the final.

But the chaos was of a heartening sort, the kind nobody, certainly in the PCB, would have minded too much. Chairs were ripped out, small bonfires were lit and a mild pitch invasion followed the final ball - but hey, this was domestic cricket. Having not had anyone occupy seats for an eternity, just having them ripped out by over-enthusiastic supporters is a perverse blessing. The organisers had to cancel a concert by local popster Abrar-ul-Haq - not exactly Atomic Kitten - immediately after the final because they feared a stampede by those waiting outside. But as Faisalabad Wolves bullied, retreated, panicked and finally scraped through against the Karachi Dolphins by two wickets off the penultimate delivery of the tournament, the crowd had already been thoroughly entertained over six days.

Even though the final may have lacked stars, plenty had already turned out, which like the crowds, just doesn't happen. Shoaib Akhtar, captain at last, if, alas, only of the Rawalpindi Rams, began proceedings by taking more wickets (five) than he bowled overs (four). Umar Gul, three stress fractures of the back behind him, returned looking fit and dangerous, and picked up four against the Hawks of Hyderabad. Shabbir Ahmed also reappeared, although not half as incisively. Salman Butt, Yasir Hameed, Taufeeq Umar, Yousuf Youhana, Abdul Razzaq, Kamran Akmal all played. Even the commentators, usually ex-cricketers as incoherent as they are excitable, were stars - Rameez Raja, Sanjay Manjrekar, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis comprising a veritable who's who of subcontinental broadcasting.

And precisely because the format is so intrinsically Pakistani, it wouldn't have been right had there not been some controversy. So Shoaib Malik duly obliged with a protest gesture to match any. One ex-cricketer asked, meekly, why he couldn't have used a banner. But as much as the stars, it was also an opportunity for lesser-known players to bask and introduce themselves to the public.

Saeed Ajmal, player of the match in the final for his three wickets, said Faisalabad were visibly nervous during the climax of their run-chase because they had never played in front of such a big crowd before. Stocky, powerful and with minimal care for reputations, Asif Hussein, also of Faisalabad, was adjudged best batsman of the tournament. Few who saw his outrageous 49-ball, 83-run dismissal of the Akhtar-led Rams bowling attack would argue, and fewer still who saw his 57 off 40 balls against the Lahore Eagles two days later. Just to make sure, he made a sedate 36-ball 37 in the final.

Unknown spinners, who were generally successful, bizarrely resembled Saqlain Mushtaq, none more so than Karachi Dolphins' Haaris Ayaz, who so nearly bowled the perfect final over of the tournament. And they not only tasted the limelight, they tasted moolah too. The player award in the final was Rs 50,000 (nearly US$1000) - the highest ever in Pakistan - and the team award Rs 300,000. Additionally, players got money for sixes, wickets and even maidens. Even the head curator, Mohammad Bashir, was financially recognised for his services.

The PCB is keen to make this a permanent fixture in the domestic calendar, with ABN-AMRO committed to at least three years. And with TV in place, this could become the holiest of cash cows and the greatest PR tool for the local game. Next year, Karachi has been suggested tentatively as a venue, although the PCB may have to tinker logistically. The entire tournament was played in one city and all but three matches on one pitch, with three matches taking place on one pitch in one day regularly.

As part of the PCB's broader vision to revamp the domestic game then, there is no arguing the success of the tournament. By finding a long-term sponsor, a willing broadcaster, some aggressive marketing and lots of fans, the PCB has already broken an unhealthy tradition of many years. Even the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy final - the four-day showpiece for traditionalists and purists - attracted its largest crowd in years this season. But in a season of breaking tradition, it is only fitting that Twenty20 should become the real showpiece.