Cricket needs more than a hybrid experiment

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The Independent Online

Whatever next? The perennially parlous state of English cricket has now had the sugar-coated pill of a 20-over competition, to be played for two weeks in midsummer, shoved down its throat by the gentlemen of the England and Wales Cricket Board from their lordly castle in St John's Wood. This, they fervently believe, will help bring the patient galloping back to health.

The best way to boost the popularity of cricket in this country is surely to produce an England side which is consistently successful. But for all the recent tweaking of the system which has brought us four-day county matches, two divisions in the Championship, central contracts and other bits and pieces, nothing much has changed. Perhaps in 33 years' time – 40-over cricket was introduced in 1970 – people will be girding their loins for the first 10-over bash-about.

The England side returned earlier this month after four months of modest success in India and New Zealand, who are far from being the hardest tasks in contemporary cricket. Some lamentable cricket in the end in Auckland left one wondering how much has been achieved by the highly-praised combination of Nasser Hussain and Duncan Fletcher.

How confident can we be that this summer will see Sri Lanka and India put in their places? Then five Test matches and innumerable one-day games will follow in Australia. That tour hardly bears thinking about. After that, in February and March, international cricket descends on South Africa for the World Cup. Only a rich and stupid man would want to wager much on England making a significant contribution there either.

But all is not lost. We have a 20-over competition to look forward to in two weeks of midsummer madness as June enters July. Of course, it will do nothing to help England's overall plight. In all fairness, that was never the intention. But will it really generate new enthusiasm and introduce the game to a whole new audience?

The ECB has gone into this boots and all, and its greatest hopes, which are that the most hybrid form of the game to be dreamed up so far will produce a new and vibrant audience, should not be laughed at – yet. No less than £200,000, in cricketing terms a fortune, has been spent on market research before the formula was devised. There are no half-measures here.

No fewer than 4,000 interviews have been conducted on the telephone; 30 focus groups were set up and consulted; ethnic minorities, women, people from inner-city areas and those whose interest in the game had lapsed, are among those who have been interrogated.

The main conclusion seems to have been that the public has not been attracted by domestic cricket because games go on for too long – it is worth remembering that domestic cricket over the world plays to empty houses. This 20-over competition is the ECB's radical attempt to rebuild its customer base. It hopes that, once grabbed by the 20-over game, it will be but a short step to the longer limited-overs competition and then, keeping our fingers crossed, will come the massive leap to four-day county cricket and beyond.

The competition will be played when the evenings are at their longest. There will be three divisions of six sides each and unless they are played under floodlights, which is optional, the games will start at 5.30 and end at about 8.15pm. Although an exact figure has still be decided upon, entrance will cost between £4 and £5 and crowds will be then be titillated by marketing ploys such as give-aways and some show-business dazzle, not to say the odd dancing girl or two. Frivolous and frenetic.

The winners of the three groups, together with the most successful of the runners-up, will contest the semi-finals and the final on the same day at Lord's. The first semi-final will be played in the morning, the second in the afternoon, followed by the final. With the supporters of four counties clamouring for seats, Lord's will surely be full, and it promises to be quite an occasion, although whether the crowd will consist of cricketing newcomers or the hardy annuals that always follow their counties to Lord's remains to be seen.

It is easy to deride all of this, which is not the purpose of this column, but it must all be put in perspective. A great deal of thought has gone into it all, and the considerable research has meant that it is by no means a leap into the dark. What will come of it all is anyone's guess. Will people combat the rush-hour traffic in their droves, and, most important of all, what will the players make of it? Maybe we should all give it a go, but at the end of the day England will still have to try and find some players capable of competing next winter in Australia and South Africa.

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