Sport

The Twenty20 Blast is in rude health

Image Credit: Derbyshire Cricket Club

A quick question. You are planning to launch the latest edition of your premier Twenty20 tournament. Now, when would be best to host the pilot, tempo-setting fixture? How about day 5 of the scheduled Lord’s Test Match – the first in a new era of captaincy – and slap bang in the middle of a home Women’s World Cup?

The fixture, for its part, was an absolute humdinger: a tie of epic proportions. Whisper it quietly, but the Twenty20 Blast is very good. And behind a PR façade, this is an awkward truth for the ECB. After all, this is a tournament that has been set for redundancy three years in advance, but soldiers on willingly for the cause regardless. What could be a slick, modern, trendy festival of willowy carnage instead has the feel of a half-finished job: a tournament fleetingly the ECB’s plaything suddenly unplugged from its natural energy source and left to chug and splutter its way to 2020.

And yet, running on a cocktail of the consistently excellent Sky Sports coverage and a huge fanbase garnered in a brief stint as the flagship, the Blast is only getting better. Last night provided a perfectly timed distillation of the competition’s rude health.

There was, firstly, a sell-out fixture between Surrey and Essex at The Oval. A capacity crowd crammed into the ground, loving every minute of the decision to forgo a plethora of other evening delights on offer in the capital. There is, however, a curiously pervasive notion that only Surrey can provide an entertainment package worth viewing: that their T20 cricket has inspired a legion of fans unwilling to accept their might be good cricket beyond the boundaries of London. And so, enter stage left last week’s Roses match between Lancashire and Yorkshire. The highest ever attendance for a T20 match in England outside of London and Final’s Day. It beat with rain all evening, and the fans did not care one jot, raucously cheering even the simplest of action. Huge levered six: cheer. Dexterous pick up and arrowed throw to save a single: cheer. Dot ball: boo. Or cheer. Depending which way the wind was blowing. The atmosphere was electric, and the cricket responded in kind.

Back to The Oval though, and this Surrey behemoth could scarcely look more powerfully lithe: A pack of Velociraptors with the finesse of flamingoes and the panache of a modern orchestra. The catch of course is that they are a moulded and grooved synergy of talent, and the modern blueprint for the kings of T20 is a melting pot of fierce rivals drafted to form unlikely alliances. There is rife speculation already that the Lord’s faction will look to poach from the Oval in jest, or that Joe Root will be prised from Headingley in an act of villainy, despite the suggestion his international commitments will prohibit availability.

The existing Surrey top four contains 22,811 ODI runs though, and also few lads who probably know a thing or two about how to inflict maximum carnage wielding a bat. It is not often the brutal stroke play of Jason Roy is demoted to merely a support act, or your two gilded overseas recruits, Aaron Finch and Kumar Sangakkara, are de-lacquerers of the white ball in chief.

For this was the grand return of Kevin Pietersen: a fixture carefully targeted for maximum exposure; maximum ego-boost; maximum butchery. Pietersen has always wryly enjoyed making things a little awkward for the ECB. A derogatory text about his own skipper to the oppo here, a blitzkrieg 326* on the eve of a selection meeting there. You know, nothing too difficult. This was Pietersen’s first T20 game in England for over 1000 days, and a first half-century in the Blast since 2004. It is testimony to the aura of Pietersen, and his wilful disregard for convention, that a tweet relating to a “Very big announcement” on Surrey Cricket’s feed in June evoked wild rumours as lurid as a return to South Africa as batting coach for the tour of England, only to in fact harmlessly relate to fundraising for the Rhino conversation close to Pietersen’s heart. Pietersen is nothing if not box-office in everything he does.

Here, Pietersen could not hide his childish delight at once again being a part of the T20 Blast. In a post-match interview, long after the crowds had parted, Pietersen was stuck in a reverie of bright lights, sauntered singles and reverse paddles. Four sixes off an over of Simon Harmer? No different to walking out to the middle; sixes are just a by-product of the “art of batting” Pietersen concluded. “Manipulating the field; hitting balls through the off-side; picking length, that’s the stuff that really excites me.”

 A calf-injury had prevented Pietersen taking to the field for the defence, but lacking in youthful exuberance, agility and crowd-pleasing fielding dynamic, the 37-year-old cannot get close to the way the bright green Surrey stick figures glide the pitch. There is Tom Curran – the newest England sensation – brother Sam, Dominic Sibley and 19-year-old Ollie Pope, a player now considered too integral to be released for England Under-19 duties. Martialled by the sly winning habits of Gareth Batty, and the re-invigorated power couple of Jade Dernbach and Stuart Meaker, Surrey really are easy on the eye. With Mohammad Amir offering up 89mph swing bowling of the highest order in opposition; Dan Lawrence, Ravi Bopara, Tom Westley and co for support, it is difficult to pick flaws out of what was a quintessential blockbuster clash.

This is also really the point, because back to the crux now, and on a balmy midsummer night in July, this was only the second-best Blast fixture of the evening.

A pub quiz question now: Who are the only two first-class counties never to make it to T20 Finals Day since its inauguration in 2003?

Worcestershire and Derbyshire is the correct answer. A generous 1 point for each, because after watching their clash on Thursday, you would scarcely believe it.

A move to a block format (an intensive, all-encompassing T20 exclusive period) was expected to help the major counties alleviate their woes in the competition: Counties like Yorkshire and Surrey, who have underperformed markedly in recent years. For even the finest players expressing a true freedom in the shortest format can be devilishly difficult with a devastating leave at Edgbaston the day before still plaguing the mind.

There is a modicum of truth in this. Middlesex have appointed Daniel Vettori as a specialist T20 coach, and financial muscle has been flexed to a higher degree safe in the knowledge the tournament does not ebb and flow for the whole duration of the summer.

On the pitch, however, and early evidence suggests that the chasm has only widened. That instead the counties who use the competition as a shortcut to silverware and the big stage have only looked to further exploit the loophole and tap in to the plethora of specialist knowledge available.

Last month Derbyshire won their first County Championship game for over two years. They have, for the large part, been involved in an enervating battle with Leicestershire to avoid the ignominy of the Division 2 wooden spoon, and one that has detracted from exploits in other formats. Relinquished from the shackles of the venomous red ball for the first time, as it stands Derbyshire and Leicestershire are 1st and 2nd in the Blast North Group. Perhaps this is temporary – the result of a sharp transition – or perhaps this is cunning preparation cleverly disguised as underdog spirit: the mimesis of DNA designed by Northants in recent years.

Conjecture aside, this is also overwhelming evidence that the T20 Blast is just getting started. With just 14 games per season, an expansive data set has taken time to generate. Time further to analyse and enact. When Derbyshire appointed John Wright, the brains behind the Mumbai Indians IPL success in 2013, as a specialist T20 coach ahead of this season, they became the first domestic county ever to do so.

And so, Derbyshire have become a clever team. Against Worcestershire, all of the old dog’s new tricks came into play. There was Wayne Madsen, who opened the bowling with his part-time spin and snared Daryl Mitchell. There was captain Gary Wilson, who was mercurial, and unconventional with his field placement and the manipulation of his attack, to varying degrees of success. There was 20-year-old Matt Critchley, a leg-spinner parading as a pinch hitter at the top of the order. And there was shrewd acquisition, too. Imran Tahir, statistically the best bowler in the world, but also a man who cherishes every wicket like the birth of his child, and Matt Henry, a serially underrated bowler and relentless wicket-taker.

In the end, a chase of 187 was made to look criminally under-par, where at half-time it had stood sizably and proudly. Billy Godleman produced a belligerent 70 off just 42 balls, and then calmly announced he had not played much white-ball cricket recently. From the very first ball, picked off a length with brazen disrespect and pulled to the rope, Godleman was imperturbably calm and in control of destiny. His own; Derbyshire’s; Worcestershire’s; and the T20 Blast’s.

This is a player of sumptuous raw ability, but also almost certainly one who will fall casualty of any elite bracket in a new City T20 competition. At times the treatment of Division 2 can smack of a far-away land: an inferior mass of gangling legs, spilling waistlines, and lethargic cricket that accidentally adopted Ben Duckett and Moeen Ali after a barbarous storm that left them on the doorstep.

One is indeed a Division 1 waste product, and so the analogy is fitting, but there can be no argument that both have been developed willingly. England’s latest Test Match recruit Tom Westley has been burnished on the Division 2 greentops; Sam Northeast is regularly plucked out of complex global algorithms tasked with unearthing the finest T20 batsmen, and after this encounter between Derbyshire and Worcestershire, Ross Whiteley is now statistically the 10th most potent six-hitter in the world.

In fact, the Twenty20 Blast has been won five out of the last seven times by a Division 2 outfit. A generous interpretation is that it is easy to see the tournament as one failing to produce the gun-slinging showdowns that attract a global audience and embellish a sleek brand. But then it is easy to forget that Mark Wood was bowling to Joe Root at a sold-out Edgbaston; that Andre Russell was part of a star-studded Nottinghamshire team; and that neither could live with the nous of the Northants chubsters. With Derbyshire taking up the mantle this year, are the smaller counties being punished because they keep, well… winning?

That may be a harsh assessment, but there is something strangely refreshing in watching this unshackled version of the T20 Blast: a glorious satisfaction that there are still, for all intents and purposes, two more seasons remaining as the premier competition before the arrival of [yet to be named competition], and its supporters are going to bloody well enjoy it.

This wasn’t a twilight Wankedhe stadium with pyrotechnics, sponsored strategic timeouts and rife corruption, or a feverish New-Year Sydney derby complete with flaming infernos and knock off Mitchell-Johnson moustaches, but it was two very different, and very brilliant games of domestic cricket in England. Can anything really be “future-proof” anyway?

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