Short-term fix that has brought long-term gains

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The Independent Online

It was born out of desperation; another attempt to prevent county cricket, the vital bedrock of the professional game but financially unsustainable, from dying on its feet. Players greeted it with amusement. Scandalised traditionalists vowed never to go near it.

Yet Twenty20 cricket has swept like a storm into every cricket nation. Next month, the inaugural world championship takes place in South Africa. Today, Edgbaston hosts the climax to the fifth county Twenty20 Cup in front of an expected crowd of 21,000.

The short game's success has exceeded even the predictions of its original, ground-breaking inventors, the marketing men at the England and Wales Cricket Board who collated evidence gleaned from exhaustive surveys and came up with their unique distillation. They looked at what was then the average turn-out for the Benson and Hedges Cup – around 1,200 – and modestly hoped to double it.

Instead, they watched in astonishment as cricket supporters embraced the concept of a 5.30pm start and an 8.15pm finish with extraordinary enthusiasm. In the second year, when Middlesex and Surrey met at Lord's, misty memories of cricket's post-War boom were evoked as 27,500 turned up.

When the format was quickly expanded to create 72 group games instead of 45, plus a quarter-final round, the harbingers of doom forecast a greed-induced demise but still the people came. The first year average crowd was 5,000; last year it topped 7,000.

This year's figures may not look so good. But the event is big enough now to withstand one bad summer. It is big enough, too, to have dispensed with many of the more irritating side-shows of the first couple of years, when nervous counties ringed the boundaries with barbecues, bouncy castles and bucking broncos. Today's entertainment will still feature a concert performed by ex-Sugababe Mutya Bueno, but given that finals day spans a testing 10 and a half hours, organisers have a reasonable excuse.

Yet, potentially, the cricket may be gripping enough on its own. Like the gate receipts, the quality of cricket has risen, year on year. Those contributing have increasingly been recognised batsmen playing proper cricket shots. Instinct and innovation remain key, but batsmen with nimble minds and a full range of strokes tend to prosper. Even the classical Mark Ramprakash, a self-confessed sceptic in Twenty20's first season, has adapted. His short-game average, 21 when Surrey became the first winners in 2003, soared this season to 44.16.

Surrey are missing today, however, when the presence of Lancashire, Sussex, Gloucestershire and Kent at Edgbaston ensures a new name on the trophy.

England's Andrew Flintoff and James Anderson are in Lancashire's squad, as is Muttiah Muralitharan, whose billing as a potential match-winner reflects the growing influence of bowlers in Twenty20. It was originally suspected that their role would be little more than supplying ammunition for greedy batsmen but as players have warmed to the format and devised serious game plans, bowlers with variety and imagination, particularly spinners such as Muralitharan and Sussex's Mushtaq Ahmed, have become as important as aggressive, quick-thinking batsmen.

Sussex, champions of the four-day game, are favourites to prove their versatility, boasting a line-up, in addition to the wily Mushtaq, in which Murray Goodwin, captain Chris Adams and the prolific Luke Wright each have aggregates above 200 runs. Lancashire, whom they beat in the Championship this week, are fancied to meet Sussex in the final, where a headline-stealing performance from Flintoff might just be in the script.

But Kent, bolstered by the signing of Sri Lanka's round-armed fast bowler Lasith Malinga, will insist that their prospects are good, especially if Joe Denly and Rob Key are in form, while outsiders Gloucestershire, who meet Lancashire in the first semi-final at 11.30am, will hope their opponents find the weight of expectation a little too heavy.

Four to watch Match-winners who could light up finals day

* LUKE WRIGHT

(Sussex)

Plucked out of Leicestershire's second XI to join Sussex in 2004, the 22-year-old right-hand batsman has been something of a revelation in Chris Adams's Twenty20 team, amassing 343 runs including 19 sixes, a century against Kent and 98 against Hampshire.

* JOE DENLY

(Kent)

One of this season's big finds, the 21-year-old batsman is Kent's leading Twenty20 run-scorer with 220, including an unbeaten 63 to help his side past erstwhile tournament favourites Nottinghamshire in the quarter-finals. He and opening partner Rob Key will be key men in Kent's challenge.

* MUTTIAH MURALITHARAN

(Lancs)

With Mal Loye, Andrew Flintoff and Stuart Law in their ranks, Lancashire will not expect to be short of runs but their Sri Lankan spin wizard may be their trump card, especially if he can repeat his quarter-final brilliance against Warwickshire when he took 4 for 18 in four overs.* HAMISH MARSHALL

(Gloucestershire)

The 28-year-old New Zealander, who turned down a central contract this season in order to pursue a county career, revealed his destructive side with a 53-ball century against Worcestershire in a group game. Outsiders Gloucestershire may need something similar today.

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