For a competition entering only its ninth year, the Twenty20 Cup is looking remarkably haggard. This season's event gets under way tonight at the Rose Bowl, where 2010 champions Hampshire and runners-up Somerset meet, but the action will have to be spectacular to dispel the sense that this a tournament in trouble. A cup that once appeared to offer a lifeline to the perennially under-threat domestic set-up is now more likely to help hasten its demise.
Last season demonstrated just how the Friends Life T20, as it's now known, has been devalued. Crowds were generally down – way down in some cases – amid grumbles about overkill (each club played 16 games, as they will this year, but not next, when there will be 10 each) and the football World Cup, which apparently kept people away. There will be no World Cup this year, nor even a European Championship, but perhaps football's flagship event wasn't quite the competition killer some made it out to be.
Put simply, the 2010 event suffered through a combination of too many games and high ticket prices. Sixteen group matches for each county meant any scarcity value was lost and, with some clubs charging as much as £25 a go, the punters stayed away. No amount of carping about football and bad weather – as if that's anything new in an English summer – could dispel the notion that we were watching the goose that laid the golden egg being slaughtered.
To be fair to the county clubs, there are other, more long-term, problems. The likelihood is that the English Twenty20 (even if it were a franchise-based, nine-team city event, an idea which is not about to go away) is destined to remain a second-class competition as long as the Indian Premier League exists. India's flagship event may have had a difficult year but it is undeniably the blue riband of Twenty20 tournaments. It has the crowds (albeit diminished in 2011), the big names and, most importantly, the money. Many of those young cricketers who do well in this year's Friends Life T20 will be dreaming, perhaps above all, of an IPL contract.
Even that would be fine if you got the sense that the ECB cared enough about its own T20 competition. It's inevitable that England players will miss T20 games – Test matches are and should remain the focus of the English summer – but there needs to be more effort made to get the England team (Twenty20 world champions, let's not forget) involved. If you send out the message that the Twenty20 Cup is not important enough for the best English players, it's no wonder if fans take the hint and stay at home.
For all the problems, there is good news. Some clubs rode out the difficult 2010 season in style, attracting decent crowds along the way. One was Essex, where advance sales have been even better this year: speaking recently, the club's chief executive, David East, claimed there had been "a huge surge in [sales of] Twenty20 tickets this season". Essex's commitment to making every game at Chelmsford a real event – "Fortress Chelmsford" may be an amusing concept, but Essex don't often lose in front of their partisan support – has paid off.
This year those Essex fans should have more to cheer than ever before. The county are the only South-eastern club never to have won this competition but with the addition of the Kiwis Scott Styris and Tim Southee, plus the return of Ryan ten Doeschate from the IPL, they look well equipped to do better than their semi-final exit last season. Expect Essex to shine on and off the field this Twenty20 season.