Back to the drawing board as Twenty20 attraction fades

Franchise cricket returns to the agenda after crowds hit by bloated fixture list, high prices and lack of star names
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When Surrey's chief executive Paul Sheldon floated the idea of franchise cricket two years ago, there was a certain amount of sniggering.

Sheldon's suggestion that crowds could one day flock to see a team called "Vodafone London" seemed far-fetched: Twenty20 cricket was going great guns in England and even with the advent of the Indian Premier League, there did not seem any great cause for change.

No one is laughing now. The IPL's success has surprised even some of its acolytes and English cricket's own model is beginning to look distinctly tired. As this year's Twenty20 competition reaches the end of an extended group stage (the final group games are tomorrow), there is disquiet in the shires.

And for good reason, too. There may have been more games this season, but that hasn't necessarily translated into more spectators. Take Surrey, Sheldon's own county. In past seasons they have sold out home games for fun, but this time only the London derby with Middlesex attracted what they might consider a decent crowd.

Derbyshire, meanwhile, drew more to their game with the Australians (3,000) than came to any of their previous six home Twenty20 matches. "I don't think we will make any more money from having eight home games this year than we did from having five last year," said the chief executive Keith Loring.

It would be easy to blame the World Cup, but there are other more awkward reasons why this season's competition has flopped, even while much of the country enjoyed superb weather (before last night's matches, not a single match in the South Group had been a no-result).

The key one is price. Some clubs have been sensible: Lancashire are charging the same admission price as last season (£12 in advance, £17 on the gate) and their crowds have held up: 13,000 saw their match against Yorkshire. By contrast, Kent, a club admittedly in serious financial strife, have been charging £25, while others are asking for £20. It is too much and gates have slumped.

Another problem is the players, or the lack of them – England ones in particular. One of the counties who has done reasonably well with ticket sales, Essex, has been able to call on Alastair Cook and Ravi Bopara. The message is clear: England players sell tickets, but many of them simply have not been available. Ludicrously, some of the country's top cricketers were called away from their counties for England Lions duty halfway through the tournament.

The scene is set for revolution, or what passes for revolution in the county game. Sheldon recently reiterated his desire for change. "We have evidence that the number of matches in this year's competition has not increased interest," he said.

"We are strongly in favour of creating an enhanced competition, in a concentrated period of three to four weeks, involving both England and overseas players. As finances come under further pressure, this is an opportunity we have to grasp. We simply have to find solutions to the problems which are preventing it happening."

Franchise cricket seems closer than ever. A recent match at The Oval demonstrated why: playing at the London venue as a one-off in order to take advantage of the capital's population, Kent drew their best crowd of the season to their game against Essex. In so doing, they demonstrated perfectly why so many believe Twenty20 should be concentrated at the big urban grounds.

Amid the discontent, there is still a competition going on. Those clubs with more money – Surrey, for example, who were able to recruit Andrew Symonds for this year's competition – might have been expected to dominate but it has not really worked out that way.

Some familiar names from last season – champions Sussex and runners-up Somerset – are in the mix in the South Group (from which the last three champions have emerged) but it is Essex, for whom Bopara has been outstanding, who look the form side. In the north Warwickshire have shone in recent weeks.

Both sides will be eyeing a place at finals day at the Rose Bowl on Saturday 14 August. That, at least, appears guaranteed to draw a big crowd.

Four stars of the Twenty20

James Adams (Hampshire)

One century in Twenty20 is unusual; two in one season suggests a batsman in rare form. Adams has been crucial to a moderate Hampshire side this season, although his form has dipped from those giddy heights in recent weeks.

David Hussey (Nottinghamshire)

The brother of Michael has been just about the pick of a Nottinghamshire side in which virtually every player contributes. An aggressive batsman who looks to dominate bowlers, he could be the man to watch in the quarter-finals.

Ravi Bopara (Essex)

Bopara may have found the Australian attack too hot to handle last summer but county bowlers are much more to his liking. He has formed a fine opening partnership with Alastair Cook – and has taken 13 wickets too.

Stephen Parry (Lancashire)

He doesn't play Championship cricket, but Parry's efforts for the Red Rose county in this season's T20 earned him an England Lions call-up. A slow left-armer, Parry has been described as "a young Daniel Vettori" by the Lancashire coach Stephen Moore. No pressure, then.