Counties count the cash as crowds embrace Twenty20's instant drama

Jon Culley sees the brash appeal of the compact form of the game bring much-needed rewards at the box office
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The Independent Online

Six o'clock on a Monday evening in Leicester is not normally a moment in provincial city life to set pulses racing. Usually, the only crowds would be sitting in cars, jamming the exit routes. If a cricket match were taking place, even one to decide a Championship, it would probably unfold before a sad and soulless backdrop of empty plastic seats.

Six o'clock on a Monday evening in Leicester is not normally a moment in provincial city life to set pulses racing. Usually, the only crowds would be sitting in cars, jamming the exit routes. If a cricket match were taking place, even one to decide a Championship, it would probably unfold before a sad and soulless backdrop of empty plastic seats.

So this is very different. There is a cricket match taking place tonight, featuring the same players who might be in action on any Monday, but there are queues in the streets outside the Grace Road ground and the turnstile operators are struggling to cope.

By the time they can at last pause for breath, Leicestershire's county cricket ground has around 5,000 people inside, not many by the standards of top-level football, certainly, but for the summer game an extraordinary figure.

Should the inventors of Twenty20 cricket need evidence of its success, they could pick Grace Road as a vibrant example. But then they could go anywhere in the country. Despite poor weather, the aggregate of attendances at this year's competition is expected to be around 286,000, up from 255,000 last year.

When Middlesex met Surrey in the final round of zonal games, some wandered into Lord's simply to see the crowd, which was a phenomenon in itself. Close to 28,000 by some estimates, it was the largest audience for a county match, cup finals apart, since 1953.

The players cannot get enough of it. They have swapped the remoteness of the dressing-room for baseball-style benches at the side of the field. This is partly out of practicality, since the speed of the short-format game requires an "out" batsman to be replaced at the crease within 90 seconds, but partly to bring the players close to their public.

Grace Road cannot claim to have a proper dug-out but has a fenced-off rectangle next to the sightscreen. With four borrowed bench seats from the members' area and a manicured flower bed dangerously close to where the players plonk their size 12s, it is not exactly Wrigley Field, but it serves the purpose.

Behind the benches, the overspill from the bar leans on the back rail, offering raucous support, of which the players, it seems, universally approve.

"This is great," says Jon Dakin, the Leicestershire all-rounder, who is waiting to see if the tail-enders are likely to be required to bat. "You want crowds like this. Compared with the small numbers who turn up for four-day games it is very different. It is high-intensity cricket, physically demanding for the players, but there is a real buzz with this many people here. It is the kind of atmosphere that makes you want to go out there and do well."

Every few minutes, a beer seller will pass, laden down with a bucket of iced bottles. It is another nod towards the way America watches its sports, although the burgers on sale at half a dozen vans are definitely of the English football ground variety. Other attractions include a face-painter and the ubiquitous Vodafone cricket roadshow. Sadly, after his appearance at the Wild West themed zone game against Nottinghamshire Outlaws, the bucking bronco is absent.

Meanwhile, "out there", Darren Maddy is doing very well indeed. Strong-shouldered and broad-hipped, Maddy's 5ft 9in frame is packed with power and he is taking the Essex bowlers apart. Paul Nixon, Leicestershire's wicketkeeper and cheerleader-in-chief, shouts loud encouragement after every brilliantly executed strike.

"Shot Dazza! Great cricket!" he bellows, hands clapping above his head. It seems a pointless exercise, given the level of background din, but Nixon insists otherwise. "He can hear me all right, even on a night like this," he says. "You recognise the voice. And it does make a difference to know the lads are behind you, pushing you to keep going."

Nixon, a 33-year-old Cumbrian who has been with Leicestershire for 15 years bar three summers with Kent, is one of the characters of the team. His eyes dart around constantly and he fidgets endlessly, picking up his bats (he has three to choose from), putting them down again, fiddling with his pad straps, jumping to his feet for a quick stretch or two. "I like to keep supple," he says, excusing his sudden movement.

And while some players prefer to sit alone with their thoughts as their turn in the middle looms, Nixon chatters continually, one moment remarking on someone he has spotted in the crowd, the next describing why, with helpful hand movements, a particular shot was so well performed.

Of Twenty20 cricket, condensed into a handy two and three-quarter hours of fast-moving spectacle, he is a committed fan and sees it becoming firmly established in the cricket calendar. "I think the way it fits into the county programme, as a midsummer tournament, is about right," he says. "You don't want to overdo it but I think there will be a Twenty20 World Cup in time."

But does it spell the end of county cricket as it is known, struggling to survive on attendances that barely fund a single player's salary, let alone a team? "I don't think it does," Dakin adds. "This brings in money, which every county clearly needs, but Test cricket will remain the pinnacle and if you are going to develop Test players you have to keep the four-day game.

"In any case, Twenty20 can have benefits for other forms of cricket, particularly for bowlers. When you have a batsman who is intent on smashing you out of the ground you quickly learn that you cannot afford to bowl a bad ball. You have to think hard and quickly about every delivery and learn to bowl it in the right place consistently, which can only make you a better bowler."

After a dozen fours and three sixes, Maddy falls eventually. He is out 16 short of his second century in the competition, having faced a mere 48 balls. Breathing hard from the physical and mental intensity of his 49 minutes in the middle, he leaves the field to a sustained ovation, and at a time when he would usually be feeling intense disappointment he can barely suppress a smile.

"It is fantastic to get that kind of reception," Maddy says. "It doesn't happen very often and you have to savour those moments. You get a great feeling of pride and fulfilment because, so often in cricket, you can put in a special performance and there is hardly anyone to see it. For me it has put a lot of enjoyment back into playing."

Maddy's efforts have set up Leicestershire for a commanding score of 180 for 7, which they defend successfully to claim a place at the finals day at Edgbaston. In the club offices, they begin to tot up the fiscal rewards which, once Essex, their beaten opponents, have been paid their cut, add up to around £30,000.

Like others around the country, they can scarcely believe their good fortune. Little wonder that Gus Mackay, Leicestershire's chief operating officer, has a grin almost as wide as Maddy's. How good a night has it been, he is asked. "Put it this way, we've taken in one night today as much as we would make from the National League in a whole season."

TWENTY20 CUP EDGBASTON FINALS DAY

SATURDAY

Lancashire v Surrey

First semi-final 11.30

Glamorgan v Leicestershire

Second semi-final 15.00

Final: 21.00

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