Free hits and proper cricket grip public's imagination

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The Independent Online

Like everyone else, they were ecstatic at the end but after two overs the uncommitted were bemused and confused. This was not as advertised. Nor did it make sense. Promised, by a partner or a parent, that this was "fun" cricket, a boundary-laden riot of savage slogging, they had seen just two scoring strokes, one of which left them more perplexed than thrilled.

Like everyone else, they were ecstatic at the end but after two overs the uncommitted were bemused and confused. This was not as advertised. Nor did it make sense. Promised, by a partner or a parent, that this was "fun" cricket, a boundary-laden riot of savage slogging, they had seen just two scoring strokes, one of which left them more perplexed than thrilled.

The cricket aficionado, however, was relieved. Contrary to expectation this was "proper cricket". Brett Lee had quickly worked up to 94mph and his contest with Marcus Trescothick, one of the pivotal conflicts of the Ashes series to come, already gripped the imagination. But the aficionado was also confused. The seventh ball took some explaining to the football fan who had been talked into coming along.

Briefly, Lee bowled a no-ball. The umpire then imitated a helicopter, Lee bowled again, and Geraint Jones was caught slogging a skier to mid-wicket. But Jones was still there with two runs to his name. After studying the laws it transpired a no-ball brings a free hit, from which a batsman still scores if caught.

This is one of the ways Twenty20 has been spiced up to make it more appealing to the sort of people who equate cricket with John Major's vision of Olde England. The free hit may be an innovation too far but there is no denying that the rest of the Twenty20 experience works, even without England demolishing the Aussies. The acid test was to be seen in the hospitality marquees. During play there was not a canapé being swallowed or glass of Pimm's drunk. Everyone was outside, watching the cricket.

That was because after the initial two overs this match did deliver on the brochure. The third over went for 14 with Jones almost decapitating Lee with a straight drive. Boundaries and wickets continued to flow with Jason Gillespie brutally treated. The first one-day international was an afterthought.

After the opening four days of the Melbourne Test in the 1970-71 Ashes series were washed out, both sides agreed to play a one-day match. A large crowd turned up to see Doug Walters lead Australia to victory (G Boycott eight from 37 balls).

A phenomenon was born, but the baby took a while to walk. It was 18 months before the next international was staged, England defeating Australia at Manchester. The breakthrough came with the World Cup in 1975. At that stage there had been 18 internationals in four-and-a-half years. In the last four-and-a-half years there have been 571 one-day internationals.

And now there is a new infant on the popping crease and not before time. The surfeit of one-day matches has begun to affect its popularity, despite continued experimentation in form and laws. In the domestic game the Sunday League is now a shapeless any-day-of-the-week competition and the Benson & Hedges Cup ran out of puff. With the old cash cows losing their power, the game needed a saviour. Enter Twenty20. Since its introduction here in 2003 similar competitions have been staged in Sri Lanka and South Africa and, in February, Australia beat New Zealand in the first men's international (England's women lost to New Zealand at Hove last August). It may not please purists but the 20-over game has been the staple of evening league and schools cricket for decades. Michael Vaughan admitted last night that is where he last played it. Vaughan added: "It's here to stay. It's been great for county cricket and the atmosphere today was similar to a football-style atmosphere."

Ricky Ponting was similarly enthused. "It's got a role in cricket," said the Australian captain. "It attracts a different audience."

Neither man was convinced a Twenty20 World Cup was the way to go, Ponting preferring to keep it light-hearted but the financial success means expansion is inevitable. The most likely step is to turn the ICC Trophy into a Twenty20 competition. But will the one-day international then wither, as the Test game has done in some countries? And at what stage does it shrink to Ten10 so Australia can make a game of it?

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