Henry Blofeld: Gamble pays off as sun shines on a break from tradition

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The Independent Online

English cricket is on the move in all sorts of directions. The much derided England and Wales Cricket Board - they do have a bit to answer for - appear on first evidence to have got their newest invention right and to an extent which has probably exceeded even their fondest expectations. Twenty20 cricket looks to be a hit.

The early gate figures have been helped by the novelty value of it all and will fall back a little. The opening salvoes were also blessed with one important piece of good luck, for the sun shone down from cloudless blue skies with temperatures to match.

The ECB spent £200,000 on market research in order to identify the need for this most hybrid form of the game yet to be thrust upon our first-class cricketers. Even if it is the peripheral showbiz histrionics that have grabbed much of the early attention, it does look as though Twenty20 presents the family with a fun half-day or evening out that its inventors were hoping for.

It is a breeding ground for fertile imaginations to build upon. I am sure more sideshows will be produced and greater extravagances indulged in, certainly as the years and, maybe, as the next two weeks go by. The instinctively squeamish should take a deep breath, bite the bullet and go and have a look. It must be good for the general health of the game.

One should not forget that however absurd this new form of the game may seem to some - and does it seem any more absurd than the introduction of a 65-over knock-out tournament did to the old farts in 1963? - it is a part of the game's evolutionary process. Look what limited-over cricket has done to the game at large over the last 40 years.

The players will now work out a number of inventions of their own to cope with the problems posed by this new form of cricket. We may not get the double reverse sweep or the two-bouncing googly, but you may be sure that something new and exciting will come along. And, after all, not one single brick of the Lord's Pavilion has begun to crumble nor, to date, has an old fart committed suicide.

Once the batsmen or bowlers come up with something new in the Twenty20 game, it will soon be carried forward to 50-over cricket and then to the two-innings game and on into Test cricket. A total of £200,000 was a lot of money for a permanently cash-strapped game to fork out on speculation like this, but the people the ECB employed look as if they have come up with the goods.

At the other end of the scale, the county and Test cricket we have had so far this summer has spoken volumes for the benefits of the English Academy. So far, it has been run from Adelaide under the expert tutelage of the former Australian wicketkeeper, Rod Marsh. He was a brilliant player, with gloves and bat. He was the toughest of competitors, and the nicest of men who has been blessed with a marvellous sense of humour and a fund of common sense.

He has become the most successful and shrewdest of tutors. Anyone who performed as he did in 96 matches for Australia knows exactly what is required. Of course, technical accomplishment is important, but it is not everything. Character is crucial too, and Marsh knows full well how important it is for youngsters to have their characters moulded in the right way at this stage of their development.

The Academy has not only been about improving cricketing skills. Those lucky enough to have been chosen have also had a fair amount of instruction to help them learn important life skills, which will have turned them into better balanced, more rounded individuals. They have had instruction about how to manage their finances; there has been IT training; instruction in public speaking and in media relations and a number of other aspects of life.

Marsh has expected nothing less than 100 per cent from his charges and he has ensured that it has been fun for them as well as hard work. He has no time for slackers and the signs are that all those who were under him last winter are showing the benefit, and that their example is beginning to rub off on those around them, which is not the least significant part of it all.

The result is that when the England selectors, of whom Marsh is happily one, meet, there are now many more names that merit discussion than in the recent past. James Anderson has already taken his chance while the batsmen Rikki Clarke and Jim Troughton, the wicketkeeper Chris Read, and the bowlers, Kabir Ali and Gareth Batty and several others are all poised on the brink.

English cricket is unquestionably moving onwards and upwards. The other piece of good news is that the Academy being built at Loughborough that will take the place of Adelaide should be up and running later in the year. Its proximity will mean that all these resources will be available to many more.