This season has been a great one for the Twenty20 Cup. The competition is now in its third year: the hoopla has simmered down, most of the boundary-edge Jacuzzis have been drained and cricket-ground speed-dating has been abandoned. One of the men who spent last season in Warwickshire's comedy bear suit is now playing for them. Now we can start to judge whether the game stands on its own feet.
And it is not just standing but trotting at a healthy lick. If leafy Richmond, where Middlesex played Hampshire last night, is anything to go by, Twenty20 sounds like excited children, smells like a barbecue and looks like a big, happy bunch of people crowded round a boundary rope, drinking in wine and sunshine.
The crowds seem to be growing still. Average attendances in 2004 were up by around 1,000 on the first year, at 5,800. The final figures are not yet in for this season's group games. But on the drizzly Friday night of July 1, 20,500 Londoners knocked off work early to watch Surrey and Kent play a not-particularly-crucial match. Last night, the newly expanded Oval was almost full, despite Surrey having already reached the quarter-finals. The extra 27 group games this year do not seem to have watered down enthusiasm.
What keeps people coming? It is no longer a fresh experience for most, but it still appears to be an enjoyable one. Young audiences quickly tire of gimmicks, but they have not tired of Twenty20.
Is that because they are pinned to their seats by enthralling finishes? No. Some rough research reveals that only a third (33.3%) of this year's Twenty20 group matches ended in a "close" finish ("close" being defined as a defending team holding on to win by fewer than 10 runs, or a chasing team scraping home to win in the last over, or with two or fewer wickets in hand.) Compare this year's totesport first division, where about a quarter of games (22.2%) have been close. Fifty-over county cricket is only a little less exciting but a lot less well-attended.
Nor does it seem to be the big hits that encourage the punters to turn out in droves. In the first season spectators thrilled to sixes; now there are conversations along the lines of "Another six? Oh was it? I can't find the chicken drumsticks anywhere in here." However, there is enough interest - in the rapid evolution of new and exotic ploys like the batsman's "ramp" shot over the keeper's head - to keep serious cricket followers interested.
For everyone else there is the atmosphere. Some doubters ask why people - wives, casual sports fans, auntie Jean who's staying over for the week - go to an event they have only a cursory interest in? That seems a bit like asking why Italians go to the piazza in the evening when they're not interested in the architecture. They go, it seems, because it's fun and because it's easy.
At last there is cricket on at a time that suits working people. It eats a smaller chunk out of the spectators' time so it attracts the casual viewer. In the time invested (three hours) it's about the equivalent of a few post-work pints in the pub (and probably cheaper: £10 for adults and free for under-17s at Richmond). It is also a half-plausible excuse to bunk off work a little early. And everyone enjoys that.