Counties call for extended midsummer festivities

Success of inaugural Twenty20 Cup among fans has left players' paymasters craving lucrative home matches
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The Independent Online

The England and Wales Cricket Board need not fear that Saturday's inaugural Twenty20 Cup Final between Surrey and Warwickshire was an anti-climax. That the Surrey Lions ruthlessly defeated the Warwickshire Bears by nine wickets with 9.1 overs remaining did not appear to worry the 15,000 who filled Trent Bridge.

The fact that almost every seat was occupied when Mark Ramprakash hit the winning runs gave a clear indication that the fans had enjoyed their 11 hours of entertainment and the finalists, along with Gloucestershire, Leicestershire and Atomic Kitten, had done their job. Twenty20 cricket may not be everyone's chicken tikka masala but its success suggests this condensed and frantic form of the game is here to stay.

Nobody could have forecast the success of Twenty20 cricket but now it has an important role to play. The ECB must feel like a vagrant who has found a £50 note outside a betting shop. Having had this slice of fortune, the quandary is deciding what to do with it. Do they go inside and really test their luck or do they walk away and sit on it?

No decision will be made on the format of the 2004 competition until August but after watching more than a quarter of a million spectators bring welcome money into the game, the ECB is under pressure from the counties to expand the tournament.

When the matches are played could depend on the qualification of the England football team for the 2004 European Championships but there are several proposals being considered.

The favourite is that the current set-up of three zonal groups containing six sides, is altered to two divisions of nine. This alteration will increase the number of Twenty20 matches each county plays from five to eight but, more importantly, it will give sides four lucrative home matches each season rather than the two or three they have under the current schedule.

The counties, who are generally strapped for cash, cannot be blamed for this attitude - Warwickshire made £30,000 from their two home fixtures - but it is also in their interest to make sure Twenty20 is still being played by 2005.

It has not just been the new playing conditions that have made this tournament a success. Good marketing and the willingness of television companies, radio stations, newspapers and the players to buy into the concept has helped.

The novelty value of a sexy young approach to a traditional game created interest but one of the most influential factors - and one that not even the ECB can claim credit for - has been the weather. Remarkably, not one of this year's 48 matches was affected by rain.

I would like to see the format stay as it is for at least another season, with the only alteration being that the Finals Day moves closer to the zonal matches. Ticketing is the ECB's reason for the delay but a month's wait allowed the tournament to lose some of the momentum it gained from the zonal matches.

Two real strengths of Twenty20 have been the regionalisation of the groups and the fact that the 45 matches were organised over a 12-day period. That Middlesex played Surrey, Sussex, Essex, Kent and Hampshire, all their local rivals, automatically added interest as well as numbers to the gate, as did the intense nature of the fixture list between 13 and 24 June. Because of this the competition felt like a midsummer festival. Everybody seemed aware that during this period a Twenty20 cricket game was being played at a ground near you. One danger in increasing the number of games is that they will then be played once or twice a week over a six to eight-week period. If this happens, they could become lost in the fixture list.

The players have also enjoyed the fact that these games have been concentrated in an allocated period of the summer. Such scheduling allows them to focus fully on a certain format of the game rather than constantly chop and change between four-day, 50-over, 45-over and 20-over cricket.

Of the three matches on Saturday, only the semi-final between the Lions and the Gloucestershire Gladiators produced a tight finish. The Bears' victory over the Leicestershire Foxes in the morning looks close on paper - it went to the last over - but it was achieved with relative comfort. Chasing 162, the Bears were taken home by an unbroken partnership of 67 between Trevor Penney and Jim Troughton.

After watching this match from the pavilion, England's two best one-day teams took the field at 2.45pm with the advantage of knowing what a competitive score was on this pitch. At the halfway stage few would have expected the Lions to defend successfully the 147 they posted against a team containing three of the most dangerous batsmen in the tournament. Within four overs, however, Surrey had taken the prize scalps of Ian Harvey, Craig Spearman and Jonty Rhodes and reduced Gloucestershire to 17 for 3.

Brave hitting from the promising Alex Gidman, a 21-year-old who is on the shortlist for the National Academy next winter, kept the Gladiators in the match but they never fully recovered from their poor start.

In a game where an innovative approach is felt to be paramount it was reassuring to see the basic principles of bowling still having a role to play. This proved the case in the final when the Surrey seamer Jimmy Ormond won the match with a four-over opening burst in which he took 4 for 11. The approach of the former England paceman was simple rather than funky. All Ormond did was aggressively hit a good line and length and make the most of a deteriorating pitch which was beginning to show the effects of having a third game of cricket on it.

Ian Ward and Alistair Brown, with half-centuries off 26 and 32 balls respectively, wasted little time taking the Lions towards the 116 they required, and few would bet against this being the last time that Adam Hollioake lifts a trophy this season.