Twenty20 is fast-food cricket served with relish, but is it good for the health?

Purists are cast aside as spectators and players embrace the shortest form of the game, writes Matt Gatward
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The Independent Online

The never-ending feast of international cricket means that even the most ravenous member of the Barmy Army must have the constitution of David Boon to avoid a nasty case of indigestion. But events at Eden Park yesterday suggest that far from being stuffed to bursting, cricket is more than willing to force down one more bite-sized helping.

The never-ending feast of international cricket means that even the most ravenous member of the Barmy Army must have the constitution of David Boon to avoid a nasty case of indigestion. But events at Eden Park yesterday suggest that far from being stuffed to bursting, cricket is more than willing to force down one more bite-sized helping.

Some 30,000 squeezed into Auckland's Test ground to watch Australia prove their pre-eminence in all forms of the game by beating New Zealand in the carnival atmosphere of the first international Twenty20 match. The slog-fest went with such a swing that the International Cricket Council will surely struggle to ignore its flamboyant appeal much longer.

The 20-over-a-side game has already proved a roaring, scoring success at domestic level. While English county grounds can be cold and miserable places during domestic one-dayers they have been feverish and joyous during Twenty20 games since its inception in 2003. Last July, Lord's attracted the highest crowd, 26,500, for a county match - with the exception of a one-day tournament final - in over 50 years, when Middlesex met Surrey. Crowds in 2004 were also up 12 per cent on 2003, rubbishing the notion that the competition is a passing fad. England play Australia at the Rose Bowl in the summer in their first Twenty20 match and tickets will surely be snapped up.

In Australia supporters have not so much warmly embraced the phenomenon as hugged it to bits. Last month the Waca, in Perth, sold out for the first time in 24 years as 20,071 fans poured in to watch Western Australia play Victoria. The doors had to be shut 30 minutes before the first ball was served up. The following evening in Adelaide more than 21,000 watched the country's A team play Pakistan. Cricket Australia has acted with more haste and intent than a Brett Lee bouncer and added an interstate competition to next summer's itinerary.

In South Africa attendances for domestic matches have quadrupled for Twenty20 compared to the 50-over format. In 2004, attendances averaged 9,000 per match, crowds South Africa has not pulled since night cricket was introduced in the 1980s. In an increasingly time-poor, cash-rich society the three-hour swinger-parties are refreshing compared to the stale 50-over games where, after the initial 15-over flurry, batsmen are content to nudge singles, bowlers are content to concede singles and spectators are content to doze, until the end-of-innings assault.

Australia's captain, Ricky Ponting, is convinced of the appeal after yesterday's game. "From the players' point of view, the game was exciting to play. Hopefully it's here to stay," he said.

Inzamam-ul-Haq agrees. "Now Twenty20 is very popular. After one or two years it will be the most popular game compared to 50-over and Tests," the Pakistan captain said. "People have no time to see the five-day game, when there are soccer games that are one-and-a-half hours. People like it and the players also enjoy it."

"It's a happening game," said Ponting's team-mate Darren Lehmann. "It's the way of the future and we're all excited about it."

All, that is, except the cricketing authorities. Perversely, the advent of Twenty20 was not supposed to replace one-day cricket as we know it, but to attract a new crowd and serve as a taster for the real thing. Stuart Robertson, the man who invented the format when marketing manager of the England and Wales Cricket Board, said: "We didn't want the rules to be radically different, because it was intended to be a stepping stone for people to watch the longer versions of cricket. It was more a means to an end than an end itself. It was your fun-size Mars Bar that, hopefully, would get people who merely tolerated cricket to upgrade to one-day and maybe four- and five-day cricket."

Despite Twenty20's blindingly obvious attraction the ICC as yet refuses to fall for its charms and no plans have been made for its addition to the international calendar. "I don't want Twenty20 to endanger current Test and one-day formats,' said Malcolm Speed, the chief executive of the ICC. "It is yet to be unanimously accepted by all the cricketing nations. It is early days."

Those will be sweet words to two West Indian greats who find Twenty20 distasteful. Michael Holding is so revulsed he is even refusing to commentate on the game. "It saddens me to hear people say that it is a real contest between bat and ball," the former fast bowler said. "How can simple slogging be good cricket? It might have a place in domestic cricket but should never be introduced as an international competition. What is the point of telling youngsters to watch the game but not to copy the players' techniques? There is nothing good about Twenty20 cricket. People who disagree don't know what they are talking about."

Sir Viv Richards, while less forthright, also has his doubts. "I hope it doesn't take the place of 50-over cricket," he said. "It is just in its baby stages. It shouldn't take away from one-day cricket. That should always remain."

Despite these justifiable reservations, bums on seats generate income and new bums on seats are good for the game's future. When England host Australia a healthy and young turn-out can be expected. Can the ICC really afford to remain so sniffy in the face of such popularity? With accountants to be satisfied and sponsors to be wooed, almost certainly not. And if the craze continues then cricket's brash kid brother will have to be invited to sit at the international table sooner rather than later. Even if the purists do find his manners intolerable.

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