FLt20 Pioneering England play Twenty20 catch-up

As English cricket’s Friends Life t20 competition kicks off its eleventh year World Cricket Badger considers why the country that gave the shortest format to the world has been left behind on the domestic stage…

Ten years ago English cricket gave the world Twenty20. The format bloomed, was adopted by everyone else and is now presented with more aplomb on the domestic stage in most other major cricket countries.

The England & Wales Cricket Board (ECB) has been treading water and is now playing catch-up with its own idea, something that has happened in English sport too many times.

The introduction of the game’s shortest form targeted a new audience, adding a fresh brand of excitement to feed a UK population more satisfied with fast-food bite-sized cricket than a bigger meal.

Pioneering England was the mad scientist in 2003. The invention was initially laughed at and questioned by purists, crowds and players alike. But then this new fangled concept, ridiculed at worst as a sacrilegious joke and at best as just a bit of fun, began to make people smile. More importantly tickets sold and players began to invent, entertain and enjoy.

Now about to embark on its eleventh year in the county schedule the golden goose that was to save the English game has long since sparked imitation elsewhere.

Pakistan, in 2004, and Australia (2005) staged their first domestic competitions and the now infamous billionaire Allen Stanford took big money Calypso cricket to the Caribbean in 2006. International cricket caught the bug in 2005 and Twenty20 was here to stay and was giving a quick hit to profits too. By the end of 2006 all major international sides had debuted in Twenty20 cricket, but it was the Indian Premier League (IPL) in 2008 that truly revolutionised the game for good.

The ECB spoke of Twenty20 as a way of funnelling the masses into other areas of the game. There is little or no evidence to suggest that a sports fan’s first date with Twenty20 leads to a longer-term cricket marriage. The annual drunken pilgrimage to a packed house Roses Twenty20 does not lead to a return trip in August for a Championship fixture.

The annual draft system introduced by the IPL to finalise the competing franchises squads is an event in itself which pre-promotes the competition and gets fans talking, excited and ready.

A century-and-a-half of history surely benefits English counties in terms of loyalty and allegiance, but the way the news of overseas signings dribbles out does little to get the fires burning.

In a period of belt tightening many counties are going without star overseas names and to make matters worse England’s centrally contracted players rarely feature in their own competition, even on finals day.

The IPL is vibrant, loud and the fans experience is the same whether it’s match 1 or match 39. ECB initiatives to ramp up excitement simply don’t. A perfunctory guard of honour where players often face the least populated stands achieve little.

The fun and frolics seem to follow the Sky cameras. A mobilised armchair fan attending a non-televised match the following week must wonder where all the pyrotechnics have gone. The genuine razzmatazz is reserved for finals day, but it’s too late by then to put bums on the seats of county grounds.

While flashing stumps, sponsored time outs, clever use of social media and brand named maximums seen elsewhere don’t win hearts and minds alone, the majority of the Friends Life t20 in England this summer will feel very similar to any other county fixture.

But it’s the financial gulf between Indian and English cricket that is widening all the time. The IPL is the largest Indian global brand with an independent valuation of US$4.5 billion. The salaries paid in the IPL are second in sport only to American National Basketball Association League. The English Premier League football salaries are in fourth place. With the IPL played over only 6 weeks the rewards for players are huge.

The tournaments twitter feed has recently passed one million followers, the most followed franchise is Chennai Super Kings with 378,936 followers and that following is truly global. In contrast the ECB is followed by 175,142 followers and the leading county following is for Yorkshire with 27,773.

The financial clout, the worldwide reach and the power rests very much in the subcontinent these days.

During last year’s Karbonn Smart Champions League in South Africa the English players and coaches all said that it was a priceless experience and a fantastic incentive to reach England’s domestic final and qualify. For many English players the Champions League has been the biggest stage they will ever grace, but this summer the chance of an autumn trip to compete in India has been denied.

Would the Football Association tell Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal they would not sanction their participation in European football’s Champions League because the domestic game comes first? Of course not.

Yes, cricket’s version is yet to fully capture the imagination. But having been in South Africa last year I can assure you the competition featuring the successful sides from t20 competitions in India, Australia, England, South Africa, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, West Indies and Pakistan is getting bigger and will only get better. Like the IPL it will not go away just because it doesn’t fit a traditional English summer.

Twenty20 in England has to be viewed as an isolated event. Do it once, do it big, make it exciting and shout that the party is coming to town. In cricket parlance, go big or go home.

The ECB does little more than slowly react to what works well elsewhere when the goal, however unrealistic it currently seems, has to be bettering the IPL.

The most successful domestic competitions are staged in uninterrupted blocks. The ECB have historically thrown a random Championship fixture in the middle of the group matches and are now talking of threading the competition through the entire season. That may spread the costs and allow a regular Friday night appointment to view, but it also dilutes the tournament’s momentum and denies counties the chance to sign Twenty20 specialists.

On the international stage England are currently ICC World T20 champions. Domestically the country that spawned 20-over cricket must decide whether it wants to mix it with the big boys or not.

If it’s worth doing then it’s worth doing it well, otherwise let’s all just move to Mumbai.

James Buttler

James has been working as a journalist and broadcaster in cricket since 2006 and was an avid fan for many years before that.
As the editor of World Cricket Badger he is intent on building the website to give quality coverage of the domestic game around the world.
He is also the presenter of the Cricket Badger Radio Show on Radio Yorkshire every Tuesday evening between 7-9pm UK time.
James was the full-time Media Manager at Yorkshire County Cricket Club between 2007 and 2010.
James is a published author, a writer/video contributor to many cricket publications and a complete cricket badger!

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