For two weeks every summer county cricket becomes trendy, exciting and native as the Eagles, Foxes, Hawks, Sharks and Bears slug it out in front of large crowds for a place in the quarter-finals of the Twenty20 Cup. I am yet to see an eagle soar over Chelmsford, a shark swim past Brighton pier or a bear roam the streets of Birmingham but the marketing of cricket's newest product has been a huge success. When Twenty20 was launched on a roof garden in Kensington in May 2003 nobody would have predicted that this helter-skelter form of the game would have such a huge impact on cricket in England.
But as Twenty20 fever takes hold for a fifth time and England prepare for back-to-back matches against the West Indies tomorrow and on Friday, it is worth assessing what it has brought to the game. Twenty20 was introduced to add vibrancy and interest to domestic one-day cricket, which was dying on its feet. Crowds were dwindling and interest was low - not even the showpiece final at Lord's was a sell-out. England were the only side in the land that played in front of full houses.
The results of a survey by the England and Wales Cricket Board suggested that there was actually sizeable latent interest in cricket, but families and people with jobs would only come to watch if it was short, sharp and fitted around their everyday lives. It was on the back of this that 20-over matches starting at 5.30pm and lasting no more than two and three quarter hours were formed. The ECB believed that larger crowds would attend and hoped that the income generated would allow the counties to be financially more self-sufficient.
To the counties Twenty20 cricket has been a godsend, and the players continue to enjoy the benefits of it too. Clubs turn over more money than they have ever had and the dosh, in most cases, has made its way down to the cricketers who are now better paid than ever before. Whether the money is being well spent by the counties is another matter. The salaries offered by some clubs are high enough to tempt international cricketers to turn their backs on Test and one-day cricket to play for them, even though they have no desire to represent England.
The players love the fortnight too because it gives them the chance to play in front of big crowds and take part in what appears to be a special event. Teams bought into the concept straight away. They knew they had to entertain and they treated it as fun, without ever allowing games to degenerate into farce. The balance has been handled perfectly.
The tournament has been covered superbly by Sky. At times the hype - Nasser Hussain once described 12 balls bowled by a bowler as "a great spell of bowling' - is overdone but the commentators have created the positive and light-hearted environment in which the games have been played. David Lloyd is magnificent, especially when he is on with Paul Allott.
But like every event or new concept this has not been enough. Twenty20 has demanded to be taken seriously too and this is where I believe it has let itself down. The promoters of Twenty20 and the players were not content with it providing excellent entertainment to tens of thousands of new fans and providing the game with much needed revenue. They claimed it would drastically improve the quality of the cricketers and the cricket being played. If these ill-considered comments were to be believed Australia would have been comfortably beaten by England in last winter's Ashes and at the 2007 World Cup.
But, sadly, this is not the case. England's one-day cricket has gone nowhere in the four years since Twenty20 was born. It has not produced bowlers that can adapt their game at the wink of a captain's eye, batsmen with the range of stroke to score runs in every corner of the ground or players who can handle the pressure of a tight finish.
At the World Cup English cricket could not find a player to fill the role of Marcus Trescothick, whose job was to be positive from the outset and to make the most of the fielding restrictions at the start of a game. Mal Loye is regarded as one of county cricket's most destructive top-order batsmen but he failed to impress during a one-day tournament in Australia, where he was seen as a one-trick pony.
And if the cricket is as serious as the promoters and players claim it to be then why are two members of each team miked up in every televised game? Hearing the views of the players when they are out in the middle adds to the coverage but don't try and tell me it is not a distraction, an interference that can only have a negative affect on the performance of a player. If this is not the case why isn't Wayne Rooney miked up when he plays for Manchester United? I can only imagine the language if Martin Tyler went to him a minute after he had missed a golden opportunity to score a goal in front of The Kop at Anfield.
The reaction of Nic Pothas, the Hampshire captain, to events that took place during Monday's Twenty20 match against Middlesex at Southgate suggest that cricket's desire to attract a new audience has sadly led to an undesirable faction, dare I say football fans, attending games. "There is a different element that comes to watch Twenty20 cricket and it's very unfortunate," said Pothas, after a thrown stone had smashed a window on the Hampshire team coach.
"Last year we had an unsavoury incident when Dom Thornley was spat at by a spectator. People can take the micky out of the way we play cricket or the way we look but when they start telling you what they would like to do to your mother it has gone too far. It is why we refuse to sign autographs at some grounds." There have been many more examples of boorish behaviour too, one of which resulted in the umpires being given a police escort off the field at Canterbury on Saturday because of the reaction of the crowd to their handling of the game.
The good things that have come out of Twenty20 far outweigh the bad, but cricket needs to be careful. The number of Twenty20 internationals is only set to increase and that will eventually affect the numbers attending domestic matches, and the family face of the game is in danger of turning nasty. English cricket currently has a wonderful product but don't take it too seriously, take it for what it is - a bit of fun.
Middlesex chief defends 'family orientated atmosphere'
Security arrangements are to be reviewed at Middlesex's Southgate ground after valuables were stolen from the changing rooms during the Twenty20 match against Hampshire last week. However, the home club yesterday sought to play down the incidents of vandalism and abuse reported by the visitors.
"Firstly, an individual from outside the ground and over the perimeter fence threw a rock at the Hampshire bus and broke two windows," said Vinny Codrington, the Middlesex chief executive. "The coach was stationery and empty. A steward was nearby and the police were called. It is now a police matter. Secondly, the dressing room was broken into and several wallets and some playing kit were stolen from five of the playing staff. This, again, is now a police matter.
"I heard Nic Pothas' [the Hampshire captain] comments and they were not targeted at Southgate but were over Twenty20 crowds generally. I am surprised to hear the suggestion that there was any verbal abuse or unruly behaviour at the game. No such incidents were reported either to, or by, the stewards. The atmosphere was friendly, family orientated and positive. It is a shame that two unrelated incidents by different individuals have been blown out of proportion."Reuse content