New Zealand tour: Hit and giggle is a serious business

As Twenty20's influence spreads over the globe, England must learn to master it in their bid for long-overdue trophy
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The Independent Online

Twenty20 is cricket's poor little rich kid. It is fascinating to observe the attitude to its presence. Grudging acceptance is given, but only because of the deep pockets.

It will become, sooner rather than later, the game's commercial driver, but the feeling persists that nobody really wants it around. Nobody, that is, except for the fans who turn up. More than 85,000 were at Melbourne on Friday for the match between Australia and India.

That is 17,000 more than the attendance for the first day of the Boxing Day Test, one of the greatest of Australian sporting institutions. A full house of 42,000, or thereabouts, is confidently expected at Eden Park, Auckland, on Tuesday when England and New Zealand play the first of two T20 matches.

This enthusiasm is matched by the size of television audiences and the amount television may be willing to pay for screening rights. The most enthralling and eventually most gripping cricket experience of last year was to be had in South Africa, venue for the inaugural ICC World Twenty20 tournament. Once started it was unputdownable, and the clever plotting continued throughout, culminating in a riproaring climax which went down to the last sentence on the last page.

It is different cricket all right, but it is proper cricket. And yet it appears to be with us under sufferance. The underlying air of snobbishness among those who consider themselves to be purists is inescapable. Thereare those who refuse to admit the allure of T20 and otherswho concede their liking but consider it a guilty pleasure.

India of all teams made it plain that they were using the one-off T20 match against Australia as a warm-up for the triangular one-day series to come. This from the world champions, whose arrival back in Mumbai after their triumph in Johannesburg last September brought the city to a standstill.

But in April and May there will be further evidence, perhaps the most telling testimony so far, when the Indian Premier League begins. It will feature all the world's best players except those from England, who have matters at home to attend to.

Only in England, to a slightly lesser extent in India, and to a lesser extent still in Australia, is Test cricket still watched by what could be classified as a crowd. In every other country, except when England are touring, attendances amount to a man and a dog, at least until the second day, when the dog has gone home, or the third, when the man has followed him.

Eden Park, New Zealand's biggest stadium in the country's biggest city, had its Test matches unceremoniously removed last year, as did Christchurch. Both staged matches in New Zealand's first Test series in 1930 but there was no room for sentiment. Justin Vaughan, the chief executive of New Zealand Cricket, said: "We would prefer Tests to be at the right sorts of venues where there is some atmosphere, not just an empty cauldron."

If the World Twenty20 is any guideline, the Kiwis should win both matches in a cakewalk. England optimistically filled their squad with domestic T20 specialists in South Africa. It was a bold strategy doomed to failure and showed what the selectors should have known: a good county player is just that, no matter how many overs are involved.

England's surprisingly good recent one-day form suggests that they can match the Kiwis, although they messed up the only previous T20 match between the sides, in Durban. Having reduced the Kiwis to 31 for 4 in the sixth over they botched it twice. New Zealand recovered to 164 for 9 but England got off to a flier – 62 in the eighth over – only to implode.

Paul Collingwood, England's one-day captain, has learned much since. His mind was in a bit of a pickle then. Not only had it probably dawned on him that he had the wrong men at his disposal but he was reeling from revelations that he had visited a Cape Town lap-dancing club. Utterly unshocking though this turned out to be, he took his eye off the ball for a while.

It was noticeable in Sri Lanka shortly afterwards, however, how much this has become Collingwood's team. He was visibly more comfortable with the authentic one-day squad back together. He was calmer, too, calmer after they had lost the opening match and calmer under pressure.

Maybe he still seems to lack what it takes as a Test captain, but Collingwood has defied so many prognostications over the past seven years that anything is possible. His first task, aided and abetted by the coach, Peter Moores, will be to persuade his troops of T20's place in the scheme of things.

England have spent more than a decade paying lip service to the longer version of one-day cricket and have been largely dreadful as a result. It is the declared aim of the England and Wales Cricket Board to win a one-day tournament (presumably in existing players' lifetimes) and if it cannot be the Champions Trophy later this year then the World Twenty20 in England next year will do nicely.

Collingwood may help himself by cajoling his best batsman into action. Kevin Pietersen has tended to disparage the shortened format. It is unlike him to miss the point. He could be one of its grandest exponents.

New Zealand have effectivelyended the international career of Shane Bond, their best bowler, for joining the Indian Cricket League. Since beating England they have lost their past four T20 matches and they have recentlybeen hammered by both South Africa and Australia in one-day international series.

The Twenty20 is a perfect way to start the tour, much better at least than putting it at the fag end. Not that 85,000 in Melbourne means it is quite overwhelming in its preaching of a new gospel. Almost 50 years ago, Billy Graham brought in 130,000 to the ground. Now that's proper evangelism.

England's itinerary

Today: v Canterbury, Christchurch

5 Feb: 1st Twenty20, Auckland

7 Feb: 2nd Twenty20, Christchurch

9 Feb: 1st one-day international, Wellington

12 Feb: 2nd ODI, Hamilton

15 Feb: 3rd ODI, Auckland

20 Feb: 4th ODI, Napier

23 Feb: 5th ODI, Christchurch

25-26 Feb: Warm-up match v Otago, Dunedin

28 Feb-1 March: Warm-up match v Otago, Dunedin

5-9 March: First Test, Hamilton

13-17 March: Second Test, Wellington

22-26 March: Third Test, Napier