Kent’s Blast triumph a rare authentic moment in an endless sprawl of cricket | Jonathan Liew

Finals Day is one of the few constants in the domestic game with the sport becoming bewildering and exhausting to follow

The woman in the bird costume can scarcely believe what she’s seeing. The man dressed as a bottle of mustard is mesmerised by the flight of the white ball against the dark night sky. The pair of jockeys leaping in anticipation of a Somerset six now clutch their heads as Jordan Cox of Kent hurls himself skywards, flips the ball back over the boundary rope and into play again. By the time Cox has finally hit the turf, Matt Milnes has grasped the catch off the bowling of Darren Stevens, and Kent are on the way to becoming men’s Twenty20 champions of England for the first time since 2007.

And for all the individual brilliance on display, Kent’s triumph felt very much like a team effort, a fitting reward for a likable bunch of cricketers: the evergreen Joe Denly, the brilliant Qais Ahmad, the grinning Sam Billings, the veteran all-rounder Stevens, a man who looks like he’s just thrown a shoe over a pub and can’t wait to do it again. Above all it felt like a moment of catharsis for Kent’s longsuffering fans, who through global plague and trophy drought have impressively, irrepressibly endured.

In other words, it meant something. Maybe not to everyone. Maybe not even to everyone at Edgbaston on Saturday night, some of whom had clearly arrived with no greater ambition than to sink pints in a rented costume. There are times when Finals Day feels less like a cricket occasion and more like a sort of strange pagan ritual, the sort of anthropological folk tradition you find in National Geographic magazine. But amid the confected frivolity and industrial consumption was an event with sport at its core: a thing of real joy and pain and sacrifice and achievement.

Less than 24 hours later I watched Mumbai Indians taking on Chennai Super Kings in the resumed Indian Premier League. This, too, was a fine game. The young opener Ruturaj Gaikwad scored a scintillating unbeaten 88. Dwayne Bravo hit an effortless 23 off eight balls, and then took three quick wickets without at any point threatening to break into a run.

But there was something else here, too: an expression of ownership and power, a sense of turf being claimed. Adam Milne, the fast bowler who had so impressively secured Kent’s Blast qualification earlier in the summer, was now taking the new ball for Mumbai. Many of the players on display – Rohit Sharma, Ravindra Jadeja, Shardul Thakur, Jasprit Bumrah, Moeen Ali – were due to play in the abandoned fifth Test against England at Old Trafford, but had instead been spirited east, blown to Dubai by the trade winds of cricket finance and a series of hastily arranged charter flights.

This, then, was the product of all those boardroom-level talks, the fraught and frantic negotiations, the ripped-up schedules. For all the glossy sheen of the production, these days it’s almost impossible to watch the IPL without also being aware of everything that has been pillaged and plundered to make it happen: the gravity of an entire sport warped just so we can watch Suresh Raina waddling around trying to burn off his breakfast.

A fan dressed as Ronald McDonald at T20 Finals Day
Finals day is the perfect excuse for fans to sink pints in rented costumes. Photograph: Harry Trump/Getty Images

Above all, as someone who likes all the cricket, who will watch it being played between pretty much anyone in any format, it’s hard to remember a time when this sport felt more bewildering, more disorienting and exhausting to follow. The Blast finals took place three weeks after the quarter-finals, which took place five weeks after the end of the group stage. The IPL comes straight after the truncated Test series, which overlapped with the Hundred, which overlapped with the Royal London Cup.

The County Championship finishes this week. England’s women are playing New Zealand for the second time in seven months. There are T20 World Cups in 2021 (men), 2022 (men), 2023 (women) and 2024 (men again).

In whose interest is all this cricket being shovelled at us? How is anyone sanely and sensibly supposed to track it, to trace the narrative threads, to work out who’s playing who, and when, and why? Who does Chris Jordan play for right now? (There are at least four answers, none of them wrong.) And when cricket has been repackaged as a kind of endless content, a sprawl of games and jurisdictions and power grabs and competing self‑interests, at what point does it stop mattering who wins and loses?

Perhaps this is the moment at which a sport simply dissolves. It becomes a fungible entertainment product, a lucrative payday, an object of tribal bickering, and – importantly – nothing else. Nothing can be taken away, only added, and so over time the only real way of navigating this infinite feed is to choose a filter, choose your character – T20 specialist, Test connoisseur, county diehard, IPL obsessive, Knight Riders stan, Worcestershire ultra – and fight to the death.

The irony is that English T20 arguably did more to ignite this process than anything else: the rapid greed, the schedule sprawl, the narrow parochial interest. Now, curiously, Finals Day feels like one of the few constants left in the domestic game: a wild and untamable phenomenon that through saturation and neglect, new fads and new fashions, somehow still manages to generate full houses, to feel vital and authentic and unique.

This is why Cox’s catch felt like such a special moment: a 20-year-old and a 46-year-old combining to exorcise a 14-year curse, a rare moment of clarity that like all the best sport felt connected to the past and tethered to the future, while making absolutely no sense in the present.

Contributor

Jonathan Liew

The GuardianTramp

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