Lure of £2.5m raises stakes for Twenty20

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The Independent Online

Test cricket's troubles, brought on largely by the huge success of Twenty20 cricket, continue to be well documented but domestic Twenty20 cricket in England, on the eve of this summer's tournament, has reached a crossroads, too.

When the Twenty20 Cup was launched six years ago by the England and Wales Cricket Board it was sold on the premise it would be exciting, light-hearted, consumer-friendly fun that would, hopefully, attract a new audience. Over the past five summers it has lived up to its billing, filling grounds with younger, more family-oriented spectators.

The players bought into the concept too, promoting it superbly and allowing the media to get closer to the action. Fielders and captains were quite happy to communicate via mini microphones to commentators in the stands, and welcomed their presence in dugouts positioned on the boundary edge.

In the last nine months the Twenty20 landscape has changed seismically. Hundreds of millions of pounds have been invested in tournaments elsewhere in the world and players now have the opportunity to earn previously unimaginable sums of money. In England the tournament has doubled in size, rising from 48 matches in 2003 to 97 this summer.

The players competing over the next 16 days have a huge amount to play for. For this season's finalists there is the lure of a potential £2.5m jackpot at the Champions League; for players there is the chance to impress and get a contract with a franchise in the lucrative Indian Premier League, or gain selection for England in the Sir Allen Stanford £10m "winner takes all" game, details of which will be announced at Lord's today.

It is to be hoped the players continue to radiate goodwill. It will be fascinating to see whether a batsman will be keen to chat to Sky's Charles Coleville straight after he has played a dreadful shot that potentially cost his side £2.5m. How players interact with the crowd will be telling too. Last summer there were complaints about the behaviour of crowds, which on a few occasions had become abusive and threatening.

"I don't think the money available will put players under too much pressure," said Robert Key, captain of Kent, the reigning champions. "I think the only way to look at the tournament is still as fun. If you start really thinking about £2.5m your performance as a player will suffer.

"I will be telling my players to go about it in the same way as last year. There is more money on it but we still have to enjoy it. We enjoyed playing in it last year and it took the pressure off us. As a captain you are trying to find any way you can to relax people. Problems will come if a bowler runs up to bowl thinking it could cost the team £2.5m. He is putting serious pressure on himself. It would be wrong too because, at this moment in time, it is so far away. Only when you get to the Champions League will you start thinking about it."

Matches will continue to be dominated by power batsmen like Sussex's Luke Wright and Northamptonshire's Lance Klusener, although there is also a role for skilful willow wielders such as Murray Goodwin and Key. Spin bowlers and canny medium pacers will provide batsmen with the biggest problems.

Ticket sales have been affected by lousy early-season weather but if the sun shines and the players continue to play with smiles on their faces Twenty20 will continue to thrive.