England v South Africa: The fast and furious revolution begins

So far the World Twenty20 has been joyous and captivating – and it could change the nature of the game for good
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The Independent Online

These are momentous times for cricket. There is the unmistakable sensation that the natureand course of the game are about to be changed forever.

No doubt big deals went down in the 1770s when Hambledon were strutting their stuff on Broadhalfpenny Down. The shift was pretty dramatic when Test cricket began a century later, and then a century after that when one-day cricket, with floodlights and fancy flannels, was born.

But the advent and significance of Twenty20 compares with and probably surpasses any of that. In the past few days it has been possible to believe that the shortest, brightest form of the game will shortly conquer the world. Something has started here and nothing will be the same again.

The inaugural World Twenty- 20 in South Africa has been captivating. It was heralded by a breathtaking hundred from Chris Gayle, and nothing could have been better designed to persuade people to sit up and take notice than 117 from 57 balls. The first week has been fast and furious, the joy enhanced bythe realisation that players are learning as they go. England have stumbled into the second stage and play the first of three Super8 matches tonight against South Africa.

It has became obvious that the advance of Twenty20 – invented in England four years ago – is unstoppable. The formation of a Champions League has been announced – initially, the finalists from the Twenty20 competitions in England, Australia, South Africa and India. It is being financed and marketed by India, will probably take place in Dubai and has a prize pot of £2.5m, of which £1m will go to the winners. That alone will have a huge bearing.

In England, for instance, this year's Championship winners will receive £100,000 for success over 64 days of cricket. If a similar number of hours can net you 10 times that, it does not take long to work out where you might put your resources.

The number of group games in the England and Wales Cricket Board's competition has been increased to 10, double that of the first year. There is a danger of killing the goose, and the showbiz adage of leaving 'em wanting more seems to have been forgotten. A pity, because Twenty- 20 is nothing if not showbiz.

All this has been accompanied by verbal appendices that Test cricket will be preserved. Maybe, but there are reasons to wonder. Test cricket is a wonderful spectacle, but crowds everywhere except England and places England are touring tend to be poor. That diminishes it as a television event.

Twenty20 is magnificent entertainment. Fans feel part of it. Television, especially in India, was wary awhile, because you can get fewer adverts in 40 overs – and therefore less income – than in 100, the span of the previously orthodox one-day game. But there are signs that telly is getting round that by wrapping adverts around the action or rolling them across the screen.

Nobody should doubt that the administrators have recognised Twenty20's value, and while they know it is beholden on them to protect Test sanctity, that will become increasingly difficult. At present the intention is to restrict the number of Twenty20 matches played by national sides each year to seven outside International Cricket Council events such as this. If sponsors and TV wish to be associated with Twenty20 the wind might be heading only in one direction.

It is a different game, but to a modern audience not a lesser one, and it would be wise not to be sniffy about it. England raised eyebrows by picking specialist players, those who had been successful in the domestic game. They have not been conspicuously successful so far but Ricky Ponting, Australia's captain, said on Friday that there would probably be an increasing role for specialist short-form players.

Yesterday, the England coach, Peter Moores, gave his backing to his specialists despite the crushing loss to Australia by eight wickets on Friday. "At Twenty20 you will fail. But what people won't see is their input on strategy because of all the cricket they have played. It's early days, but from what I've seen at this level there's no reason why a specialist can't go very well."

It is to be hoped that those words do not come back to haunt Moores, but Chris Schofield has looked the part and if Darren Maddy can stop his imitationof a rabbit in headlights he can be effective.

"People who play the game well manage to slow it down," Moores said. "That's the challenge. Everybody appears to be in a rush, but people who get the tempo and rhythm slow it down, and when people post high scores it looks like they were always going to because of the calmness with which they have gone about it. It will change over the next couple of years."

Of more pressing concern are two familiar refrains, Andrew Flintoff's ankle and Kevin Pietersen's position in the order. Flintoff was in obvious pain when he bowled on Friday, and the team doctor is examining the joint after every spell.

Moores said, to all-roundrelief: "If at any stage we thought we were damaging it and making it worse he wouldn't play."

Pietersen has been batting at four. The case for the side's best batsman to be in at least as early as No 3 looks unanswerable. Momentous times indeed.

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