Ever since they let the genie out of the bottle English cricket has had a problem controlling the Twenty20 format just like a certain Dr Frankenstein did with his very own creation. They have struggled to handle the beast like an unbroken colt. Some countries have reluctantly followed the fashion whereas India simply said “there’s gold in them there hills, and I’m gonna git me sum”. BCCI makes no apologies for the razzmatazz, celebrity and sheer licentiousness of their product and no matter what some might want, the IPL shows no signs of slinking off any time soon.
In England we have toyed with various formats for the competition. Once the authorities saw the public interest you could tell the smell of lucre was much too enticing for them to resist. Some counties voiced caution, while others saw the whole weight of overheads being carried by this tournament alone and have pushed for expansion beyond breaking point.
The inaugural Twenty20 Cup in 2003 consisted of three groups of six counties just playing each other in their group once. The three group winners and the best runner-up then contested the amazingly successful Finals Day. Twenty20 just lends itself to giving the public more than one match in a day and for the Finals crowd they get to see three matches. A year later the format saw the addition of a Quarter-Final stage before Finals Day, giving more counties a chance of progression but still they only had five group matches. In 2005 the competition was expanded with eight group matches for each county, leading to ten by 2008.
2010 saw a major shake-up as three groups were reduced to two with each county playing sixteen games in the group stage. But by 2012 there was a return to the three groups format with counties going back to playing ten matches each, before another change in 2014 and two groups with fourteen matches each. This always seems an odd structure as you’re competing with eight other teams yet one of them you are only going to play once.
Up until 2013 the competition had existed in a block from around the end of June throughout July and there was little doubt it was a success. But many counties pointed to no increase in attendance figures just the same overall stretched over more matches. The argument was that if a county had three home matches in a week the public would still only choose one to go to on account of cost. Of course this presents a problem for the county who has to staff and promote an event, knowing the income may struggle to cover it. So when Nat West took over the sponsorship last year it was decided the tournament would be played throughout the season mainly on Friday nights.
Personally, I like this format as the groups are split geographically so you have many ‘local derbies’ and you can plan your week to include Friday night at the T20. For a tv viewer you have the added advantage of up to ten matches being played on the same night. When some counties have taken these games out to venues other than their main one, this has enabled a canny spectator to go to one game in the afternoon and then onto another one in the evening.
But the players don’t like it. They prefer a block format as it gives them time to focus on skills particular to T20. This is a format which has demanded a change in thinking and preparation probably more than any other. Bowlers have developed more deliveries to bamboozle batsmen in a desire to bowl the ultimate T20 delivery – the dot ball. Batsmen can concentrate on being able to hit any delivery out of the ground to give the crowd the one thing they’ve turned up for – the six. Fielding skills are concentrated in T20 as the shorter format means saving one run during an innings could be the difference between victory and defeat.
Most of the other T20 tournaments throughout the world are all played in a block format. This has enabled players to play in more than one tournament, well unless you’re English of course, and this feeds straight into the marketing plans of many a chairman and bean-counter. This is where the ECB and the counties need to make a decision and is probably at the heart of a battle many a ‘secondary’ sport has to contend with. Rugby has taken to showing its wares on a Friday night and that seems to work pretty well. But cricket has a finite window and a fanbase which is forever being accused of fickality. Some counties fortunate enough to host Test matches recoup the necessary cash to continue and those without Test grounds, have to feed off the scraps of what remains. T20 provided those counties with the opportunity to compete financially and so you cannot blame them for wanting to showcase their product at a time when the consumer is shopping for it.
But for the players, the actors in this play, the singers in this opera, they would prefer a block and stuff the audience. Their argument is that if the consumer demands a quality product then the players need to be at their peak to provide it. Venues, dancing girls, mascots just cannot do it alone, you need to have these actors in order for the performance to be a success. If the actors fluff their lines the will the people come to watch?
I guess this is the constant argument you get in many art forms and a battle similar to musicians and the record company, or writers and a website like fansite. This website is nothing without content, but then some writers just don’t have a platform without a site such as this.
Anyway, what prompted this article was a tweet discussion I was following started by Alex Hales.Alex Hales tweeted relating to Notts being knocked out in T20
Of course it wouldn’t be twitter if there weren’t the odd “get on with it” or “you’re being paid to play, what’s not to like” comments from the keyboard warriors as they picked a piece of their third pizza of the day out of their chins. This attitude is all very well, but when a player struggles to maintain form he gets slated too.
BBC’s Pat Murphy then pitched in with
Hales final comment was to prove his point about the schedule not allowing time for preparation.
“agree. I reckon I’ve had 3 practice sessions in T20 the whole year because of the schedule. How are you supposed to improve?”The ECB and the counties could argue the competition is fine as it is as it attracted players such as Brendan McCullum, Chris Gayle, Glenn Maxwell, Hashim Amla, Tillakaratne Dilshan, Wayne Parnell, James Faulkner, Mahela Jayawardene, Aaron Finch, Wahab Riaz and Cheteshwar Pujara. Not all of them have played the whole tournament, but many of them have certainly made an impact when they have. Gayle particularly burst onto proceedings with some stunning hitting but then left almost as soon as he’d arrived to go off and play in the West Indies T20 tournament.
It seems we are heading towards an inevitable conclusion and one which many a purist dreads – fewer counties. Of course this could also send us down the franchise road, but certainly with fewer teams competing would mean fewer matches, but perhaps less choice would engender bigger crowds, and more time for practice. Supporters of the franchise idea would point to an incident such as last night when many matches were called off through rain, and they would say if we had a franchise format then just one game would’ve been called off. The converse is such that at least somewhere in the country there was cricket played as not all matches succumbed to the weather yet if the one planned match was smack-bang under the rain cloud all those travelling would have to find alternative entertainment for the night. The ‘for’ camp argue this would only be for the T20 competition but what can almost be guaranteed is that we’d never go back to the current format and therefore the concern is this would eventually result in a reduction of the counties in other competitions. Whether that is a good thing or not is certainly one for debate but not one for this piece.
So should the players get their way and have the tournament in a block in the middle of the summer, something which may coax some big names to compete, or should the counties get their way and stretch it out over the first three months of the season in the hope they persuade more punters through the turnstiles?