How English T20 cricket settled for functionality after missing its own boat

May 29, 2022

T20's 20th season arrives in England with a sense of déjà vu and regret in equal measure

How English T20 cricket settled for functionality after missing its own boat

The perfect blossom is a rare thing. You could spend your life looking for one, and it would not be a wasted life.

Without wishing to ruin the climax of the 2003 epic, The Last Samurai, let it be said that Lord Katsumoto - the utterer of that immortal line - did not die wondering in his pursuit of this simplest of pleasures.

"Perfect... they are all perfect," he declared, as he fell on his sword, petals cascading all around him, with Tom Cruise emoting winsomely alongside him. And yet, somehow you sense that, when Tom Harrison (the Last Executive?) took one last look around the boardroom at Lord's before his own moment of sweet release last week, he's unlikely to have shared similar sentiments about the ECB's parlous circumstances.

For the ECB on Harrison's watch has become a quest for something rather more prosaic than the perfect blossom ... the perfect PowerPoint, maybe? A presentation that can improve upon the slick selection of slides with which Chris Silverwood is said to have pipped Gary Kirsten for the England coaching job in 2019, or the creation of the Hundred, a competition that - for all of its exhaustive marketing - still conveys at times the gaucheness of a badly cut-and-pasted motivational quote.

It's ironic then that, 20-odd years ago, at much the same time that The Last Samurai actor Ken Watanabe was hamming it up on location in New Zealand, an unsung extra in the ECB's back offices, marketing manager Stuart Robertson, was presenting the findings of his groundbreaking consumer research to county chiefs at Lord's. Does the perfect PowerPoint even exist? It might well have done that day.

Potential cricket fans, Robertson surmised, didn't object to the idea of cricket per se, but disliked the reality of its all-immersive attributes. His proposal (next slide please) was to play the same game... but shorter! And as no-one would have said way back in the internet's Stone Age of 2002: "That's it. That's the tweet." The motion was carried by the counties, 11 votes to seven, and the die was cast for the most profound revolution the sport has ever seen.

Not that you'd necessarily know it from England's version of T20, as it prepares to enter its 20th season. The Vitality Blast, as it is now known, has grown significantly in the intervening years - from a polite two-week cough of introduction in that first summer, to a season-long sprawl in its teenage years, and now back to a more manageable (but more marginalised) six-week block from late May to early July, as the height of the summer is turned over to the sport's newer, shinier and even shorter saviour.

But looking back on when we first met the concept of Twenty20 cricket, as Atomic Kitten would almost sing at the inaugural Finals Day in July 2003, the sense of déjà vu as the Hundred gears up for its crucial second season is almost as overwhelming as the sense of regret at English cricket's missed opportunity.

On the one hand, that is to be expected - we are talking about the reinvention of the wheel after all, and so it is hardly a surprise if many of the same "data-points" that the ECB pored over while honing the Hundred are broadly identical to Robertson's original findings. The concern that children, women, ethnic minorities and those in disadvantaged communities were disproportionately turned off by the existing county structure; the realisation that a bit of marketing spend could go a long way, given how under-sold the rest of the sport had been for generations. Sure enough, an outlay of £250,000 for that first season, and a tie-in with Sainsbury's Nectar Cards, gave the fledgling (and as-yet unsponsored) tournament just enough heft to soar.

And yet, the fact that the sport is still having the same conversations about its reach and relevance two decades later - only this time with added existential dread - is dismal proof of just how badly the ECB botched its first and most golden opportunity, not simply to move with the times, but be the times themselves as they moved.

Back in 2003, remember, English cricket was still a year away from making the fateful decision to ditch its unrivalled recruitment tool of free-to-air TV. Admittedly the market was significantly less clued up than it is in the current pluralised era of streaming platforms, but if Harrison - to give him due credit for the most significant achievement of his tenure - was able to factor in a shorter format to lure the BBC back to the table in the last £1.1 billion rights deal, who's to say what might have been achieved in 2004, instead of the sport's all-in with Sky, had anyone stopped to factor in the goldmine that it had inadvertently hit upon?

How English T20 cricket settled for functionality after missing its own boat

Unfortunately, the sport at the time simply had no concept of what real image problems were. The commentary of the age doubled down on the fear that English cricket might make a spectacle of itself (as if that was actually a bad thing), rather than welcome the notion that - with time running out to nail that era-defining rights deal - doing something differently was preferable to doing nothing at all.

"It had better work," intoned Stephen Fay, Wisden Cricket Monthly's editor, after attending the tournament's launch in a rooftop garden in Kensington - an event also graced by the pop group United Colours of Sound and a host of conspicuously open-collared ECB executives. "The ECB's gamble will be difficult to judge this summer," Fay added. "A win may alter the image for the good of the game. A loss will have damaged the integrity of cricket in England. That would be a disaster."

Forty-eight matches and one magazine cycle later, the editor's tune had been informed by the joyous events that had unfolded in the interim. "It's a hit," Fay declared in the intro to the August edition. "Now that we have seen Twenty20 cricket played, it is clear that it is not a revolution but an evolution from other forms of one-day cricket ... it does look as if it's here to stay."

And right there, in that rightfully measured critique of a very English success story, can be detected the origins of the botch-job that would colour England's endeavours for a generation. Fay was not wrong in his assessment - and nor was Matthew Engel, the Wisden Almanack editor, when he observed in his 2004 notes that the ECB had "struck the motherlode of public affection for cricket that runs just below the surface crust of apparent indifference". Between them they expressed an enduring truth - that English cricket just did not like to make a fuss, because when it did, it was invariably causing a scene.

Clearly, not enough lessons had been learned from four years earlier, when the 1999 World Cup had rolled into town - 16 years after the Mother Country's last staging of a tournament that had grown exponentially in its intervening editions in Asia and Australasia.

On that occasion, the ECB's irredeemable failure to buy into its own carnival of cricket resulted, among other embarrassments, in the hosts being eliminated before the official World Cup song had been released. It would be another 20 years before they got the chance to make amends for that misstep.

And yet, in the eyes of its county-orientated beholders, the truest beauty of that original Twenty20 fortnight was not that the game had found a means to be appealing once again, but that it had done so in spite of the frightful innovations that had been imposed upon it to sex it up. Unlike the Hundred's brainstorming sessions, many of the more outré playing conditions were strangled at birth back in 2003 - the idea of a "Hot Seat" for the incoming batter, for instance, never came to fruition even if the pitch-side dug-outs have become a staple. But when the off-field accoutrements also started blending into the background – the jacuzzis, the fun-fairs, the face-painting, the bouncy castles – that was the moment that the game started to congratulate itself on a niche well filled.

For that's all the counties ever actually wanted out of Twenty20 cricket. "The confederacy of mediocrity", as Engel's Wisden predecessor Graeme Wright had described in 2002, saw a tidy means to top up their coffers in a once-a-season jamboree, but no joined-up vision as to what this surge of interest might do in terms of "participation" - an unavoidably dry-as-toast subject, but one that has become increasingly hard to chew as the age profile of the game's recreational players continues to rise year on year.

For the players, it was all pretty take-it-or-leave-it in those early years. Andrew Strauss, then captain of Middlesex and still a year away from his Test debut, described his first stint in the field against Surrey as "75 minutes of chaos", and acknowledged that it "will be difficult to get back into Championship mode" after trying to "hack every ball out of the ground". Not that Middlesex's contests took place at Lord's either - Westminster Council clearly shared the terror in the county chiefs' eyes when sizing up the concert licences that the clubs would require to belt out snatches of music between deliveries, and declined to endorse such rowdy antics. When Middlesex did finally host Surrey at HQ in 2004, they drew the biggest domestic crowd to Lord's since the 1950s.

Tactics were a mishmash. Some teams favoured ODI-style pinch-hitters - not least Worcestershire, who drafted in a 28-year-old building contractor from High Wycombe, David Taylor, with a penchant for tearing it up in the Home Counties League. He duly rewarded their faith with 46 from 20 balls on debut before his returns fell away thereafter. Others backed their "proper" batters to hit the gaps, and build innings with conventional partnerships - although some enduring trends could be detected from the outset, not least the unanticipated success of spinners, and the importance of frequent (if at that stage largely random) bowling changes.

Above all, however, English cricket had the advantage of first-mover status. For it wasn't as though the rest of the world cottoned on to the opportunity at the first time of asking either. In February 2005, Australia and New Zealand would be the first men's teams to take the format to international level, but their inaugural contest at Auckland could barely function for ironic references, from the hosts' retro beige outfits and preposterous coiffures to Glenn McGrath's mock under-arm delivery from the contest's final ball - for which he received a similarly mock red card from umpire Billy Bowden.

India, too, in an echo of its slow-slow-quick embracing of one-day cricket in the aftermath of the 1983 World Cup took an eternity to recognise the format's possibilities. Right up until the moment they won the inaugural Twenty20 World Cup in 2007 - or more specifically, until Yuvraj Singh struck Stuart Broad for six sixes in an over at Durban, which is the moment that Lalit Modi has since said fired the afterburners - there was a similar sense of disquiet at the BCCI over the format's disruptive capabilities. And yet, barely seven months after Misbah-ul-Haq's ill-fated scoop to short fine leg, and in a stunning burst of speed that no administration on the globe could rival, the IPL was up and running, and suddenly the sport that England had spawned was no longer theirs to under-utilise.

Could history have panned out any differently for English cricket and its improbable brainchild? Given how quickly the ECB descended into madness in the IPL's aftermath - with its blind trashing of the so-called Bradshaw-Stewart Plan in 2008, which was in essence the Hundred but a decade ahead of the curve, and its absurd dalliances with Allen Stanford and his $20 million winner-takes-all shoot-out - it's hard to imagine quite how the intervening years could have contained more mis-steps.

And yet, after 20 long years of Twenty20 politicking, still the T20 Blast limps along - still the play-thing of the counties, and still serving the purpose for which it was created at one of those habitual moments of game-wide introspection. Because if, on the face of it, the competition falls short of the agenda-setting glamour that English cricket so desperately needs to captivate its elusive new audience, then at least it can be said that England's white-ball team has reaped the benefits of an 18-team structure that offers exposure and opportunity to the widest pool of players in the global game.

The betterment of the national team, after all, has always been county cricket's raison d'etre - no matter how often and how awfully it has fallen short of its remit over the years. As the ongoing debate about four-day cricket can attest, simply throwing open the doors to the "franchises" isn't much of a solution either.

After all, the quest for perfection is all very noble, but sometimes, there's just as much value in something that simply functions. –Cricinfo

How English T20 cricket settled for functionality after missing its own boat