South Africa hosts inaugural championship: How Twenty20 vision inspired global celebration and the next generation

Created to boost dwindling crowds, cricket's short form is here long-term. Stephen Brenkley reports from Cape Town
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Twenty20 cricket was dreamt up on the back of a fag packet at a golf resort in southern Spain. Five years on, it has not only rescued the domestic professional game in England from a life of dreary anonymity but is now also threatening to dominate the sport around the globe. None of those sitting in the Valderrama complex could have foretold the consequences of their gathering. The inaugural World Twenty20 began in Johannesburg last night with a match between the host nation, South Africa, and the West Indies.

England tomorrow enter the fray – and fray of the politest sort is what Twenty20 gloriously resembles – with a match against Zimbabwe and can probably anticipate a more exacting encounter with Australia on Friday. In a mere fortnight's time it will all be over, after 27 quick-fire matches involving 12 countries, almost all the players who matter and, crucially, substantial audiences.

It is confidently expected that it will be a ball. It can also be fairly reasonably predicted that England, despite their custom-built team and optimistic soundbites, will not feature in the closing stages if only on the grounds that it is part of England's lot to invent games for the world and watch the world become better at them. Twenty20 is simply the 21st-century example.

All over, maybe, with the first world champions decided on 24 September, but far from finished for cricket's shortest, brightest form. So obviously appealing is it, both as live and televised entertainment, that plans are already afoot for more competitions. The Indian Cricket League, a private venture offering huge rewards to players but lacking any official backing, is due to start next month. It claims to have signed sufficient players to form six ad hoc teams.

The biggest names to have been announced so far are Brian Lara and Inzamam-ul-Haq, recent former captains respectively of the West Indies and Pakistan. Mohammad Yousuf, the disaffected Pakistan batsman who was named Test player of the year on Monday night, has also enlisted. The rest of the cast is less illustrious, consisting of veteran internationals who have either finished or been finished by national selectors, and see the chance of a big pay day, and Indian domestic cricketers ranging from has-beens to never-weres. The ICL breakaway is being backed by Subhash Chandra, who just happens to own Zee TV and is desperate in cricket-mad India to have some cricket to put on it.

Acrimony is inevitable. The Board of Control for Cricket in India has reacted to the breakaway with a threat of life bans and, in turn, is being scrutinised by the country's Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Commission. But it is also being whispered – with increasing loudness – that the BCCI and other world cricketing bodies are on the verge of announcing their own plans for a Twenty20 competition based on the winners and runners-up in domestic leagues round the world.

This would be a kind of Champions League, with Kent, the 2007 winners in the original (and best) Twenty20 league, representing England, though no Kent player has found a place in the England squad for the first World tournament.

But India's board, in any case, has a paradoxical approach. It is anxious to protect 50-over cricket, not because it sees it as a purer sort of limited-overs but for the hard-nosed commercial reason that television audiences in India remain enormous for one-day internationals and you can get much more advertising in 50 overs than in 20. That is chiefly why India regularly decline to play international Twenty20.

The International Cricket Council, which is not slow in recognising a cash cow when it sees one, is also cautious. Its chief executives' committee met in Johannesburg yesterday to discuss a limit of seven Twenty20 matches a year for all countries. But it also needs to protect Test cricket, truly the purest form of the professional game.

Anybody who knows anything about anything will be aware of the virtues of Test cricket, a skilful game of shifts, balances and endless nuances, played out over five days. But in all places except England and places where England tour, taking their hordes of fans, crowds for Tests are poor, although Tests are much more gripping than ever. An argument about attention spans in the modern man, anybody?

The hope is that Twenty20 audiences, lured by the obvious excitement, will eventually realise the more profound qualities of the longer game, but there are precious few signs and if they do not there may one day be a limit to how long television companies will continue to stump up for events few watch and which therefore lack a sense of spectacle in the living room. The top professional player, too, thrives on big audiences.

How far Twenty20 has come. Or T20 as the abbreviation of abbreviated cricket has it. Or "Twennytwenny" as it is in the mouths of many who watch: estuary English, it could be said, for an estuary form of the sport. But it is so innocently, undemandingly attractive and it lasts three hours from start to finish. It is Ken Dodd to Test cricket's Laurence Olivier, opined one essayist the other day. The analogy was slightly unfortunate, since Dodd is still packing them in while Olivier has been dead these past 18 years.

When in spring 2002, courtesy of its then chairman, Lord MacLaurin, the England and Wales Cricket Board held a weekend conference at Valderrama it was with a mild sense of desperation. Domestically, the game was suffering: attendances had declined 17 per cent in five years. Nobody under the age of about 65 knew or cared and it is not ageism to say that something had to be done. What emerged was a new, much shorter game than anything played professionally before.

It was not quite designed at Valderrama because the research had been done over many months. "What we did that was different was have a chat with the customer for once," said Stuart Robertson, now commercial director at Hampshire but then in the marketing department of the ECB. "It was not just about cricketers deciding what was best for cricketers and journey times and game formats but going and asking the customers."

The customers they wanted – women and 16- to 34-year-olds – all read from the same scorecard. If they were going to watch, they wanted something shorter and they wanted it when they were available to watch it. Simple but elusive until then.

In pitching up in southern Spain to give a presentation to writers and broadcasters, the ECB wanted its plans scrutinised by an audience that was bound to be sceptical and it needed a name. If the handle on the new form of the game were hopeless, then nobody would watch it, no matter how fast and hard-hitting.

The audience, won over by the quality of the research, was asked to come up with a brand name. "We opened it to the floor and asked them to write a name down on the back of anything," said Robertson. "There were literally some cigarette packets around. Three of them said it should be called Twenty20." The rest, as we shall see this next fortnight, is history.

Flintoff 'will have to change bowling action' says Donald

England arrived on the Western Cape yesterday to find the weather as capricious as Andrew Flintoff's ankle. All England team announcements should routinely be accompanied by a medical bulletin and probably will be since there is no indication of a return to full, uninterrupted mobility.

Yesterday Flintoff evaded the question of whether he would be fit to play against Zimbabwe tomorrow, but there remains the sense that his future is still at stake.

"I had an injection last week, not just to get me back on the field but also as treatment, trying to settle it down," he said. "Hopefully, it will go some way in getting to the root of the problem. But we will see how I practise today and tomorrow."

Allan Donald, the team bowling coach, thinks a change of action is necessary. "It has to happen," he said. "We need to take this step by step. When you change something it is hard work, but he is a high-class cricketer and he can do it."

Flintoff was not so sure. "I think tinkering with my bowling action is going to be pretty difficult," he said. "You can do it in the nets but as soon as you're in a pressure situation you go back to what you know best."

Stephen Brenkley