Twenty20 clouds hang over rites of summer

As age-old MCC challenge the champions in season's pipe-opener, dressing rooms are full of talk about megabucks on subcontinent
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The season begins next Thursday. MCC will play the champion county, Sussex, at Lord's. How times change. One hundred years ago, the season started with a match at The Oval between Surrey and Gentlemen. The match between MCC and the champion county, Nottinghamshire, knew its place. It was not played until the following week.

It is both quaint and alarming that it should be thus. Thank heavens, you might say, that they got rid of Gentlemen (although they were led by W G Grace in 1908 and it was probably a real crowd-puller). And is it not somehow comforting that after a century has passed somethings can be relied on, that the champions should still have the honour of pitching up to the greatest ground in the world to play the oldest club?

All hell is being let loose out there. Every cricketer in England – and beyond – is talking about the advent of the Indian Premier League, how they might get a piece of the action and instructing their agent, if they have one, to check if there might be a contract available. There are millions of dollars swilling around the game and cricketers – some of them – will be rich beyond their dreams and perhaps be the objects of adulation not seen since, well, W G.

But MCC are still playing the champion county. Oh to be in England now that April's there. It is a safe bet, given the rapidity of events, that in 2108 the season's curtain-raiser willnot be a first-class match at Lord's between MCC and the champion county. MCC may still exist; not so the champion county. Doubtless Lord's will host some Twenty20 festival match for charity. It may not take a century, but more like a year.

If the fixture is an anachronism, we are at least being spared a curtain-raiser involving one of the university sides, whose status remains an affront to the description of matches as first-class. They start next Sunday.

MCC, as in 1908, have managed to assemble a strong XII, who should give Sussex a run for their money and therefore an advantage when they have to begin defending their title atthe Rose Bowl the following Wednesday, since they will be match-honed.

Ed Joyce, of Middlesex, will lead the home side and will have at his disposal a neatly balanced bowling attack that may include four seamers: the adroit veteran Alan Richardson, the Middlesex tiro Steve Finn, the promising Durham bowler Graham Onions and the sharp Gloucestershire paceman Steve Kirby. The spinners are Adil Rashid and James Tredwell. One of the six will probably be omitted.

The main subject of discussion in both dressing rooms, however, will not be the match, or how splendid Lord's is looking, or the impending domestic season. It will be of the IPL and where it is leading us.

The IPL is the talk of cricket. It has concentrated minds as never before. Because of it English cricket and the game everywhere faces dramatic change. When Giles Clarke, the out-spoken, hard-nosed and passionate chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, said that England players were not interested in the IPL, he was of course joking, or at least obfuscating.

England recognise that the IPL presents a threat and an opportunity. Like the players, they may want some of the action themselves. Twenty20 is the money-spinner of the millennium. It would not be entirely surprising if, as early as next year, the inaugural match of the season is still held at Lord's and still involves an MCC team, but that Twenty20 is the form of the game on view.

It would have the promise of excitement and a modicum of glamour. In the 1908 curtain-raiser, Surrey beat Gentlemen by an innings. A chap called Sid Busher was man of the match, scoring fifty and taking eight wickets. It was his only game for Surrey. So the fixture was as meaningless then as it is now.

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