Twenty20 cricket is celebrating the 20th anniversary of its founding with celebrations running throughout the season, the ECB proud of the once bold new format that has taken the world by storm. It star-studded matches, packed with world class batters, dynamic fielders, fast men and mystery spinners, have transformed the game’s finances and established it as the Premier League of the summer months. In an alternative universe maybe.
The “every ball is an event” excitement of 2003 felt lost in a disowned past at Lord’s this week as a London derby played out in front of a sparse crowd. There has been advertising, the product is strong and there’s not even fierce competition for the attention of sports fans this summer, yet a feeling persists that it just doesn’t matter enough to pay the entrance fee, turn up and watch – certainly not in the numbers that once saw taxis disgorging office workers who rushed into grounds so they did not miss the first ball (and, it must be said, the first pint).
The competition’s media presence is thin, with another format scheduled for August proving a shinier bauble to ogle. Though quite why national newspapers should be so dismissive of the Blast in its editorial priorities is mysterious – online space is hardly at a premium but reporting is sketchy at best. The Ashes is the quadrennial moment that cricket steps into the centre of English sporting life, leading sports bulletins, and finding space on inky paper and on glowing screens. There appears to be no real appetite to put in the hard yards to capitalise on that opportunity as far as county cricket’s premier competition is concerned.
Ball two: Wood on fire as Lancashire maintain flawless start
Liam Livingstone took over the captaincy of Lancashire and has transformed the side who can only draw in red ball cricket with three consecutive wins, enough to top the North Group. To be fair, Steven Croft led the first victory, but it’s clear that a franchise superstar can have a galvanising impact on a dressing room.
Of course, a captain has to have the players and, in Daryl Mitchell, he has a batter whose purple patch is proving to be more a purple acreage, the hitherto bits-and-pieces man metamorphosing into a world class batter as his age ticked past 30.
His 85 off 41 balls was the centrepiece of Lancashire’s 208 for four, even Nottinghamshire’s Pakistani superstar, Shaheen Shah Afridi, carted for 47. It was another international left-arm quick, Luke Wood, who knocked the top off the visitors’ reply and, though Notts fought hard, weight of runs proved too much in the end.
Ball three: Tykes tonked, again
There were contrasting fortunes across the Pennines, as Yorkshire’s annus horribilis showed no signs of abating.
Taking guard on a Sunday at 11.30am (blame more doom at Elland Road for that schedule I expect), Alex Lees returned home as captain of Durham to smash 90 off 53 balls, setting the Tykes a dispiritingly distant 218 to win the match. To their credit, the home side did not roll over, but they could not find the substantial partnership such a chase requires, coming up short by 29 runs.
It’s getting to the stage when other counties’ fans might begin to feel sorry for the Yorkies – and nothing will sting them quite like that.
Ball four: Ben Charlesworth worth a chance
Gloucestershire is another county looking to kickstart their season after a winless round of Championship matches. A hammering from Kent was followed by an improvement, but still a defeat, to Glamorgan, albeit the visitors getting over the line with just five balls to spare, eight wickets down.
The conundrum in a bad trot is whether to throw in the youngsters and trust their fearlessness or stick with the more experienced pros until morale improves and then introduce the new blood in more positive circumstances. At 22, all-rounder Ben Charlesworth has plenty of experience in Championship and 50-overs cricket and his goodish form with the bat won him a T20 debut in the Glamorgan match, which he repaid with the top score of 56 off 39 balls from No 6. I suspect he might play rather more T20 cricket now and bat a notch or two higher in the lineup.
Ball five: batter of the week
It’s usually wicketkeepers who enjoy the freedom to tee off knowing that they can still contribute to the side with their primary skill. All-rounders need to take their batting with a little more circumspection, but “bowlers who bat” can probably assume a licence to thrill that goes 646 rather than 007.
Surrey have packed their XI with such players, perhaps taking a line from Sunil Narine’s carefree swinging with bat in hand knowing that it’s his work with the ball pays the rent. Sean Abbott, like fellow Australian bowler Michael Neser, has shown considerable ability with the bat this summer, but even he didn’t see the equal fourth fastest T20 century ever in his locker.
Kent, back at the Oval after the previous week’s mauling, were the hapless victims, 11 sixes and seven fours entertaining a decent Friday night crowd in south London. No wicket for 38 in three overs though – keep an eye on the day job Sean!
Ball six: bowler of the week
An analysis like Craig Overton’s 4-0-8-3 would catch the eye in any format of the game, and looks most incongruous in T20 where you have to expect edges and tip-and-runs to yield a minimum of 16 or so off a full allocation. But Somerset had fire in their nostrils facing their opponents for the first time in the format since Finals Day last year, when Hampshire knocked them out en route to lifting the trophy. Overton added four catches to his bag for good measure, as the home side fielded as well as they bowled.
A target of 75 was knocked off inside 10 overs to send Somerset to the top of the South Group. Taunton’s faithful will be happy but, perhaps, harbouring a tinge of regret at not seeing more of a match – that can happen against Hampshire if you get James Vince early.