Mecca of cricket wakes up to Twenty20 reality

Published: Friday, July 16, 2004, 23:53 [IST]
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London:Imagine staging a school disco in St Paul's Cathedral. For some cricket purists the prospect of Lord's hosting a Twenty20 cricket match was equally shocking.

But on Thursday the Twenty20 Cup came to the 'home of cricket' with a match between London rivals Middlesex and Surrey.

The Twenty20 Cup is the shortest form of the professional game and, as its name suggests, is limited to 20 overs per side.

It was launched in England last season to boost flagging attendances at County matches which, in common with domestic cricket around the world, have struggled to attract major audiences.

The vast growth in the number of international contests, which provide the overwhelming bulk of cricket's funding, plus the fact that many County games take place during the week, have led to generally lower crowds since the 1950s.

But Twenty20, where matches are held at the end of the working day and place a premium on aggressive batting, proved a commercial success.

And Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), the owners of Lord's, saw Thursday's 26,500 crowd break the previous Twenty20 attendance record of 14,862 set during last season's Lancashire-Yorkshire clash at Old Trafford.

It was also the most tickets sold for a County game at Lord's- apart from a One-day final - since Middlesex played Surrey in a County championship match back in August 1953.

Back then England great Denis Compton was a Middlesex regular; on Thursday his grandson, Nick, was playing for the County.

Lord's and the MCC are often depicted as the ultimate bastions of conservatism with the cartoon of an ageing MCC member, complete with white hair and military moustache, familiar to readers of any British newspaper.

Even so it was MCC, when the club ran English cricket, which oversaw the introduction of a One-day knockout County cup in 1963, then 60 overs per side, as concern mounted over falling championship crowds.

And globally, One-day cricket unlike five-a-side football or seven-a-side rugby, is a rare example of a shortened form of a game being commercially vital to a sport as a whole.

Meanwhile the new sound, at Lord's anyway, of pop music greeting every boundary or wicket probably did not help convince the doubters.

But the shock of Twenty20 would be as nothing compared to the vote a few years ago which allowed women to become members of the now 217-year-old MCC.

However, some things don't change. There was no evidence of anyone in fancy dress, despite pleas from officials, unless you counted the bright orange and yellow striped MCC ties.

Nevertheless, an MCC spokeswoman did abandon her 'uniform' of blue jacket and skirt for a pink flower-print dress in honour of the occasion.

Reigning champions Surrey won by 37 runs remained unbeaten in the competition's short history after former England One-day captain Adam Hollioake scored 65 not out.

But South African Lance Klusener's 28-ball fifty, in what was the all-rounder's final Middlesex innings before returning home for international duty, helped ensure few spectators left before the finish.

Next Thursday, Lord's will stage the first Test between England and the West Indies but it's unlikely many more people will be present on the first day than were for the Twenty20 game.

And next season, during Australia's tour of England, the first international Twenty20 game is due to take place.

Over the years One-day cricket has got progressively shorter. But Twenty20 seems set to be around for a while yet.

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