Zany distraction that became starting blocks for a gold rush

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The Independent Online

It was more than just a final here yesterday. More than just two semi-finals. Who would have imagined six years ago, when Twenty20 finals day at Hampshire's ground was just a zany distraction from the serious side of the authentic game.

The summer sport that once contentedly kept itself to itself, that only dressed up in her finery for Tests and one-day finals, has become quite giddy with her new-found celebrity and cash-creating capacity. While the faith endures in this frivolous adaptation which possesses few of the subtleties and fascinating nuances of the long game, players are being assailed from all quarters by the abbreviated version of the game.

No one would deny them joining in the gold rush, though inevitably the prospect, for the moment, still tends to provoke cynicism among the men in whites. Show us the money, is the response. Or, as Robert Key, captain of the first victorious semi-finalists Kent, declared: "No one is booking Ferraris or things like that at the minute."

Yesterday's champions, Middlesex, trousered £42,000, though that is but small beer compared to the bubbly stuff on offer to both yesterday's finalists, who will be invited to contest the Champions League, due to be staged in the Middle East in September.

The total prize money is £2.5m, with the winners receiving £1m; the richest prize in team sports... except that offered by Sir Allen Stanford to yesterday's winners, who will play three matches in the prelude to England's £10m winner-takes-all contest with the Stanford Superstars on 1 November.

Middlesex will play against England, the Superstars and Trinidad & Tobago, the West Indian Twenty20 champions. The minimum to be won by the county in that competition is some £140,000.

The Texan businessman reminds you of his fictional compatriot, Sex and the City's Carrie Bradshaw: "I like my money right where I can see it... hanging in my closet." Except where Stanford is concerned, he wants his money right where he can see it... playing cricket at his behest.

The Champions' League will feature two Australian teams, Victoria and Western Australia, South Africa's KwaZulu Natal Dolphins and Nashua Titans (Northern Transvaal) and, from India, the Rajasthan Royals and Chennai Super Kings. Probably.

As with many Twenty20 matters it is beset by doubts. English counties may be forced to omit so-called rebel Indian Cricket League players for a year, to appease the Indian board. However, the ECB, who are backing the Champions' League to the tune of three quarters of a billion dollars over 10 years, will not agree to a tournament open only to certain counties.

At present, Lalit Modi, vice-president of the Indian Cricket Board, who also happens to be chairman of the officially sanctioned Indian Premier League, will not countenance any players involved with the ICL, or their clubs, participating.

This could have meant that, if Kent had won the final, Justin Kemp and Azhar Mahmood would have been ineligible, and thus their county too. It could yet mean the abandonment of the whole project.

How compelling this hybrid of the old game and imported frippery remains in the long term will be intriguing to watch, and it will conceivably be costly for those prepared to pour millions in support of their faith and the possible repercussions on the future of the long game. The most immediate effect on the latter has been an increase in the County Championship pot; up from £100,000 for the Division One winners this year to at least £500,000 next season.

Before the start yesterday, the spectacle of one lone tout at the entrance, vainly attempting to dispose of a fistful of tickets, did not suggest that this was necessarily the hottest ticket in town. Even in Southampton. For the moment, TV will sustain it regardless. It is a format designed for the home audience. But there is no long-term certainty it will endure. If these sound the sentiments of a Twenty20-phobe, then it is possibly because this observer isn't among the male target audience, aged 16 to 34.

The disciples of Twenty20 believe there is also a hitherto untapped potential of women and children spectators. A none-too-scientific survey suggested that the crowd here were mostly men, attending an event that was male-orientated.

Beer was being consumed copiously behind the stands, not too far distant from where women queued for too long for the toilets. An all-blonde posse of npower (one of the sponsors) girls, in clinging outfits, parading in front of the stands was, at best, a little passé.

With male eyes returned to the cricket, Kent were the first team to secure their place in the final, and with it qualification for the Champions' League, after a 14-run triumph over Essex. However, the Spitfires captain, Key, was not exactly banking his windfall yet. "Until I get some plane tickets through the door, until someone actually goes and wins it and sees all that money, I couldn't care," he insisted.

In the second semi-final, Middlesex's victory over Durham was completed with the flourish of a six from Tyron Henderson – one of seven from him.

It was a yield that typifies what draws the crowds to this form of the game and why it has earned the counties an estimated £8m this year. And why, like everything connected with Twenty20, we're back to questions of money once more.