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20:20 Overkill

Cricket is not everybody’s cup of tea. Those who love it enjoy watching players of great skill with bat and ball exercise great patience in an attempt to outwit each other. Its detractors claim it is too slow and boring. In an attempt to attract a new breed of fan, a new format was launched in England in 2003, 20:20 cricket. For those not familiar with the sport, this is a short game in which each team gets 20 overs (one over is six balls) to score as many runs as possible. This led to aggressive shot playing and the invention of new shots such as the reverse sweep and Dilshan scoop that wowed the crowds. A match (including the change over) lasts around three hours and so can take place on a weekday evening, giving people the chance to attend after work, school etc.

The new format proved an instant success as it offered something completely different from four day long county championship matches. There were cheerleaders, loud music to greet fours and sixes, big hitting and a party atmosphere in general. It was razzmatazz on an almost American scale. Large crowds flocked to watch the matches with a marked increase in the number of youngsters attending. The peak came in 2004 when almost 30,000 people piled in to Lord’s to watch Middlesex take on Surrey. Sky purchased the rights to show the competition on TV and large audiences tuned in. 20:20 quickly became an important cash cow for the counties.

Seeing the success of the format in England, other cricketing nations followed suit and established their own domestic 20:20 competitions. Australia established the KFC Big Bash, the West Indies had the Stanford T20 and then came the grandest of them all, the lucrative Indian Premier League (IPL), a competition in which players earn more money than Premiership footballers. These all proved incredibly successful too and the new format’s meteoric rise continued. It was not long before the idea of a 20:20 World Cup was entertained and in South Africa in 2007, India won the inaugural tournament. 20:20 was fast starting to dominate the sport.

It became so successful so quickly because it offered a high octane, fan-friendly alternative to test cricket, but test cricket and county cricket were still very much the norm. Those who wanted to see big hitting had to wait for the games to come around as in the grand scheme of things; they were still few and far between. Over the last three years however, this has changed as there now seems to be wall-to-wall 20:20 as everybody looks to cash in.

The IPL takes place every year, there have already been three world cups since 2007 and domestic competitions have been massively expanded (there were 151 games in England in the season finished yesterday and the KFC Big Bash in Australia has been effectively doubled this year). What started as an alternative to the mainstays of test and 50 over cricket is now taking over the sport. If any further illustration of this were needed, it came last month as Pakistan played two 20:20 matches against Australia in two days. Was there really any need for this?

The surge in the number of 20:20 matches is of course born out of financial reasons. National cricket boards and clubs/counties alike saw pound/dollar/rupees signs and pushed for expansion of the format. This has proved to be counter-productive. Certainly in England, attendances have decreased quite dramatically in recent years as fans have either become fed up of 20:20 or simply cannot afford to attend eight or nine games in the space of a few weeks. Warwickshire averaged around 3000 fans for 20:20 matches last season, whereas they used to fill Edgbaston in the competition’s early years. Those who pushed for expansion just a few years ago are now arguing for change.

Lancashire’s Chief Executive Jim Cumbes says change is a must as the financial health of several counties is at serious risk. Lancashire lost in excess of £500,000 last year, and this loss would have been around three times greater had it not been for concerts by Coldplay and Take That at Old Trafford. It would seem that the competition needs to be restructured to win back supporters.

Financial health is not the only health concern according to Pakistan legend Imran Khan. The former World Cup winning captain recently gave the Cowdrey Lecture at Lord’s and spoke of the effect non-stop cricket is having on the bodies of players and fast bowlers in particular. Anyone who remembers the likes of Joel Garner, Malcolm Marshall, Curtley Ambrose, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis etc, knows that there is no greater sight in the sport than that of a top class fast bowler in great form sending batsman back to the pavilion with their tails between their legs. Khan stated that he fears for the future of such bowlers as playing 50 over, 20 over and test cricket is simply too much for knees, backs and ankles to take over a prolonged period of time. Injuries sustained by the likes of Andrew Flintoff, Brett Lee and Shaun Tait would seem to suggest he has a point. Khan’s suggestion is to do away with 50 over cricket and keep 20:20. He spoke of the obsession with the sport’s shortest form in India and Pakistan in particular, where it is now much more popular than the more traditional forms of the game. Given the choice of a test match or 20:20 game, fans on the subcontinent would opt for the bish bash bosh of 20:20 every time. As such, discarding of 20:20 cricket, which enjoys unrivalled popularity in two of the sport’s biggest markets, would be tantamount to suicide.

Shrinking crowds would certainly seem to suggest that people have gorged on 20:20 and are now full to bursting and a revision of the current situation is needed to reduce the burden on players, but in a sport that has often been slow to change in the past, do not expect it any time soon.

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