Happy birthday, then, Twenty20. Saturday brings not one but two significant on-this-days for cricket’s youngest and most violently transformational form. Not only is 13 June the 12th anniversary of the first round of T20 matches played anywhere, those rather forgotten inaugural Twenty20 Cup games prodded out into the world with a sense of wary middle-aged abandon in the summer of 2003. It also marks 10 years to the day since the first serious attempt at a T20 international, England’s sun-drenched, wonderfully febrile 100-run thrashing of Australia at the Rose Bowl.
Even now the TV pictures of that day have something dream-like, and even a little discomfiting about them. “The English public have wanted this for so long,” Nasser Hussain bellowed, memorably, on the Sky Sports commentary as the irresistible new-ball pairing of Jon Lewis and Darren Gough rattled through Australia’s top order. And Nasser was right. Clearly some sort of revolution was in train here, an entire cricketing future at stake. Just not perhaps the one everyone present had in mind.
“I remember it as if it was yesterday,” says Paul Collingwood, who top‑scored, took two wickets and still managed to miss out on the man-of-the-match award to the great scene-stealer Kevin Pietersen. “So much has happened between then and now but it’s still at the front of my mind. It was a different atmosphere to anything else we’d played in England. It was one that Australia brushed off with a shrug as though it was just a Twenty20 but it meant more than that. 2005 was just such a good year for cricket, a great year for the England team and that T20 was a stamp on the summer.”
If the cheers of the Rose Bowl crowd still sound a little incredulous and disembodied, the sense of abandon had little to do with formats or firsts, but was instead firmly fixed on the Test match summer to come.
“I can’t really remember any tactical stuff apart from the usual plans about how to bowl to certain batsmen,” Collingwood says of a match that was also his own debut in Twenty20 cricket. “It was just one of those days when it all goes right. Wherever we put our fielders they hit the ball there and they struggled all day with the tempo of the game. It was built off straight emotion. To us it was go out there and enjoy it and go as hard as you can.”
As Australia stumbled chasing England’s total the match seemed to collapse into a series of grand heroic close-ups of Pietersen cavorting in the evening sunshine. A thrillingly puce Gough dug a hat-trick ball into Andrew Symonds’ shoulder. KP, in full skunk-haired warrior-doofus mode, took three catches in five balls. Collingwood bowled Brett Lee with a leg break. And briefly England had the new world in their palms. “THRASHES!” the Sun fanfared on its back page the following day, a prelude to two deliciously interminable months of Test cricket and the English summer game’s last really concerted shot at reaching out across the barricades to a wider public.
And yet, as it turns out, the real keys to the future were lurking in the foreground all along. By the end of that year Twenty20 still basically belonged to its founding nation. Of 259 matches played by December 2005 187 had taken place in England. Certainly that first Twenty20 Cup in 2003 had felt like a strictly localised excitement. The idea for a short form had emerged initially from a market research study commissioned in 2001 by Stuart Robertson, the then marketing manager of the England and Wales Cricket Board. At a meeting of counties and administrators a name was hastily roughed out (Twenty20 beating off competition from Cricket Lite) and the new form called into existence by a narrow majority vote.
Two years later there was an air of village fete pageantry about those first games, with their fire eaters, face painters, minor pop stars and – most memorably – Nottinghamshire’s topless‑beefcake poster campaign starring Pietersen, Chris Cairns, Paul Franks and Gareth Clough (voted in by the marketing department’s female staff), posing half naked in what appeared be an abandoned chicken coop.
“We’re going to bowl first because I haven’t got a clue what’s going to happen,” Adam Hollioake announced as Surrey won the toss against Middlesex at The Oval. Meanwhile, in Sky’s televised opener at the Rose Bowl, James Kirtley kicked off cricket’s new world with a wide, James Hamblin hit the first four in Twenty20 cricket and back at The Oval Andrew Strauss was a star of the day, racking up a half-century off a giddy 45 balls.
Four days later in the second round of matches Pietersen, who seems to have been there through all this, the midwife at Twenty20’s birth, hit 58 off 37 balls, prompting the Guardian’s Andy Wilson to write with some prescience: “Twenty20 might have been designed for the tall South African.” By the end of its inaugural competition 257,759 spectators had been lured to 48 matches over 37 days and a qualified success declared.
“I don’t think Twenty20 will alter the shape of cricket. I can’t see it becoming an international game,” the veteran Leicestershire administrator Mike Turner predicted in the Guardian. “My guess is that it will, in the end, have a negligible effect on crowds, finance, standards or interest,” Christopher Martin-Jenkins agreed in the Times. The prognosis elsewhere was more welcoming. Mike Selvey, writing in the Guardian, seemed to have an idea where things were heading: “New heroes could be created here. Those who might dismiss the format as pot noodle cricket that will destroy techniques could be way off the mark.”
Fast forward two years and even as England and Australia capered about at the Rose Bowl there was still a sense of the starter motor clattering, the gears still waiting to catch. Sri Lanka and South Africa had been fellow early adopters and with their cautious cooperation the ECB did try to make the first step towards something more expansive. The International 20:20 Club Championship, English cricket’s great forgotten ghost ship of a Twenty20 competition, was staged only once, over three rain-sodden days in September 2005. Somerset, Leicestershire, Faisalabad Wolves from Pakistan, Sri Lanka’s Chilaw Marians and South Africa’s Titans took part, alongside a franchise-style PCA Masters XI which included Chris Gayle, Craig Spearman, Rohan Gavaskar, Parthiv Patel and (of course) Martin McCague.
The Wolves won the final at Grace Road, a match to which spectators could gain free admission by saying the word “Sony”. And for England, Twenty20 and the dream of global expansion, that was pretty much that. Australia produced the cautiously titled Australian Twenty20 competition the following year. Shortly afterwards Allen Stanford added a nitrous oxide boost to an innovation that might otherwise have plateaued out with his Stanford Caribbean tournament, complete with black bats, silver stumps and (presumably hypothetical) $20m purse.
Something was stirring. India played their first T20 international in December 2006. A year later the ICL, a rogue Indian league founded by Zee Entertainment, forced the Board of Control for Cricket in India’s hand. Given fuel by a captivating Indian victory at the 2007 ICC World Twenty20, the Indian Premier League launched the following spring and instantly skewed the cricketing world on its axis with its pizazz, optimism and cash-drenched sense of theatre.
The ECB responded in cringeworthy fashion. Despite Stanford having been linked in the US to bribery and money-laundering since 2006, a few weeks after the inaugural IPL, the ECB brass could be seen cooing in the background as Stanford capered about Lord’s with a plastic case containing $20m of someone else’s dollar bills, prelude to the collapse of a planned Stanford-funded league and his own arrest and imprisonment.
Fast forward another seven years and there is currently an ever-mushrooming crop of excitable, revenue-raking Twenty20 leagues, from the Cool & Cool Presents Haier Super8 T20 Cup in Pakistan to the Ram Slam T20 Challenge in South Africa to the Georgie Pie Super Smash in New Zealand. The IPL, meanwhile, has taken the field. It is now the single greatest gravitational force in the world game, an industry leader with an estimated brand value of $7.2bn. By contrast the ECB’s own summer hit-about sounds less like a global sporting juggernaut, more like a slightly weak expression of exasperation. Twenty20. Blast! How ever did we let that one get away from us?
The transformation elsewhere in the past decade has been all-encompassing. At a global governance level the shortest form has provided India with a means of monetising its numerical strength, retaining its sponsorship and TV revenues, and implanting itself unarguably at the front of how and where and when cricket will be played in the future. And India loves Twenty20, which continues to grow while Test cricket, outside England and Australia, is a zombie form now, still perambulating through the yearly schedules but with attendances decisively shrunk in India, South Africa, Sri Lanka and New Zealand.
More minutely cricket’s basic skills have mutated dramatically. The texture of the game is profoundly different in all forms. Plenty of senior international cricketers simply do not play Tests any more. Many young cricketers around the world appear to have little interest in doing so. In Forbes’ list of the 10 richest cricketers, all either play in the IPL or are Twenty20 specialists, with those at the top catapulted out of the minor-sport paddock and on to the fringes of the global elite. This will naturally have an effect, from hard-nosed career decisions among professionals to seven-year-olds at their first team practice with an image in their heads not of white-flannelled attrition but of high-energy, high-impact white-ball cricket, of a sporting pinnacle that takes place in front of flame-throwers and writhing podium dancers, with a timely six or a nerveless yorker the ultimate skill.
And yet somehow only a decade on from the Rose Bowl all of these currents – from scheduling, to TV riches, to the ambitions of young talented cricketers – point away from Twenty20’s founding nation. The ECB marketeers were right. There has indeed been a revolution in watching and playing the game. But for English cricket this has been felt like a disturbance through the wall, an insurgent power-grab, to be braced against and mitigated rather than enjoyed and exploited without fear of the consequences.
Could things have been different? Could the energy of 13 June 2005 have been tapped more profitably? Perhaps it is better to accept some things just are not meant to be. An IPL-style competition in England would have required the junking of an existing century-old system, twisting of some untwistable arms, recalibrating the weather and generally taking a massive gamble on future revenue streams. Plus of course England’s own coaches and cricketers have never really been a natural fit for the sheer verve and boldness required to make the format work.
It is no coincidence that 10 years down the line the England team, like their administrators, are no closer to knowing what to do with Twenty20. “I think at times we have been too conservative,” says Collingwood, who believes players would benefit hugely from unfettered access to the IPL and Big Bash. “The best players in England should be playing the big tournaments. They should be exposed to that. I can safely say I learned so much at Delhi [Daredevils] about the tactics of the game. Then being captain for England through that period it helped so much going into the 2010 World Twenty20. It’s crucial they get exposed to that kind of pressure.”
Even when England have been good at Twenty20 they have not seemed able to learn from the experience. Before that superbly executed triumph at the World Twenty20 in 2010 they had won only 10 of 25 matches played. Since winning it England have shrunk back into the pack. In the past decade 70 players have been picked to play 74 matches, a kind of splatter-painting approach to building a team which has left 47 players with fewer than 10 caps and 24 that never got a second game. At the end of which it is tempting to suggest England have never played the game better than they did that first giddy afternoon in Hampshire, where a top four of Marcus Trescothick, Geraint Jones, Flintoff and Pietersen looked as bold and gloriously carefree as anything fielded since.
Ten years on to the day, Twenty20 cricket may be the ECB marketing department’s gift to the new global order. But we will at least always have the Rose Bowl, when the world was still young, when Lewis was cricket’s inaugural new-format golden arm, when KP was free to yahoo across the second stage and when – however giddily, however briefly – we were Twenty20 kings.
A brief history: how Twenty20 became serious
June 2003 In 2001, in an attempt to arrest falling attendances in the county game, the England and Wales Cricket Board proposes a 20-over competition to replace the B&H Cup and the county chairmen vote narrowly in favour – 11-7. Hampshire and Sussex kick things off at the Rose Bowl in the first recognised Twenty20 game, with musical support from Mis‑Teeq, D-Side and United Colours of Sound among the entertainment.
17 February 2005 Australia and New Zealand take part in the first ever Twenty20 international at Eden Park in Auckland, though it is a light‑hearted affair – the kits are retro‑style monstrosities and the Black Caps players sport a variety of moustaches for the occasion. “I think it is difficult to play seriously,” says Ricky Ponting, whose 98 off 55 balls helps Australia to a 44-run win.
July 2006 Nineteen Caribbean teams compete in the inaugural Stanford T20 tournament, backed by the American billionaire Allen Stanford.
September 2007 The inaugural Twenty20 world championship takes place in South Africa. During the tournament the Board of Control for Cricket in India announces plans for a Twenty20 Champions League to be played in the autumn of 2008. Chris Gayle scores the first international T20 century in the opening game, while India beat Pakistan in the final to claim the title.
April 2008 The inaugural IPL begins, with Rajasthan Royals eventually beating Chennai Super Kings in the final. Sony buys the broadcast rights for $1bn.
June 2008 Allen Stanford helicopters into the Nursery Ground at Lord’s to announce a five-year contract with the ECB, under which he would invest $100m in prize money for a series of T20 matches between England and a Stanford Super Stars team.
October 2008 England take part in the Stanford Super Series for a winner‑takes-all pot of $20m. The Super Stars win by 10 wickets and the event is seen as a disastrous failure. In February, the ECB severs all ties with Stanford after he is accused of fraud. The American is later handed a 110-year jail sentence for defrauding investors of $7bn, in June 2012.
December 2011 The first Australian Big Bash takes place, featuring eight city franchises rather than the traditional state-based sides. Perth Scorchers lose out to the Sydney Sixers in the final.
September 2013 The first Champions League without English representation takes place, due to clashes with the County Championship. English sides have not been back to the tournament since.
February 2015 The ECB announces the latest attempt to catch up with the rest of the world, with consideration being given to a domestic T20 franchise tournament. John Ashdown
Paul Collingwood will play for Durham Jets against Lancashire Lighning on 25th June, tickets available at www.durhamccc.co.uk