What About The NatWest T20 Blast?

Picture the scene: England versus Australia in the 2019 World Cup Final at Lord’s. 10 overs remain. England, having lost the toss, are 290 for four chasing a record 415 to win the Cricket World Cup for the first time.

At the crease is England captain Joe Root, who is unbeaten on 120. At the other end is his fellow Yorkshireman Will Rhodes, at the crease following Ben Stokes’ dismissal for a quickfire 100 off 48 balls.

NatWest T20 Blast

2014 winners: Birmingham Bears

2015 group stage: 15th May-24th July

2015 quarter-finals: 12th-15th August

2015 finals day: 29th August, Edgbaston

Root - ever the man for a crisis - tees off, smashing Australian quicks Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood all around the home of cricket. The winning runs come off the final ball of the 48th over, with Root playing a switch hit over the wicket-keeper for six. In the process, he brings up his double-century.

The crowd erupts. The egg and bacon tie brigade frantically hug Joe Public in their blue England World Cup shirts. Pablo Picasso couldn’t have mixed primary colours better. After the players shake hands, Root is interviewed by the recently retired Ian Bell – now the face of the International Cricket Council’s coverage:

“Just how did you do it Joe?” Bell asks.

“Well Belly, to be honest I don’t know. But one things for sure, this would never have happened if I hadn’t played for the Sheffield Steam Trains in the EPL for the last two seasons.”

This could happen couldn’t it? No, I don’t mean Ian Bell becoming the face of cricket coverage around the world, but the English Premier League.

Players from the 18 first-class counties line up at the launch of the 2015 NatWest T20 Blast

Players from the 18 first-class counties line up at the launch of the 2015 NatWest T20 Blast

Since England lost the Champions Trophy final in 2013, there have been repeated calls for the England and Wales Cricket Board to host their own equivalent to the Indian Premier League. India and Australia have won the last two World Cups since the launch of the IPL and Big Bash respectively. So could England do the same?

Somewhere down the line I believe it will happen. But such an idea poses more questions than answers. Which cities would have teams? Who’s going to pay for it? And from a county’s perspective, what would happen to the NatWest T20 Blast? You know, the revamped competition launched last year.

I enjoyed watching last year’s T20 Blast, there were some very entertaining matches, in particular the Roses matches between Lancashire and Yorkshire. Sky’s coverage was very good, with Michael Vaughan a welcome addition to the commentary box, Ian Ward continuing his high level of broadcasting and of course Bumble was there too.

What was it like for the players? Derbyshire’s Mark Footitt told me:

“It’s a lot of fun. It’s the spectacle that makes it exciting. And from the playing point of view you learn some days that you will take wickets and some days you’ll get [hit] out of the park. It’s fast, its furious and wham bam thank you mam!”

You learn more from your negative experiences. Derbyshire certainly have - after finishing bottom of their group last year they’ve recruited Martin Guptill and Tillakaratne Dilshan. Footitt believes that players of this ilk will no doubt improve their chances:

“The signings we have made with Guptill and Dilshan are a massive statement to make,” he said.

“It is one of our main focuses to try and do better and try and get to a quarter final if we can.”

An argument frequently levelled at the T20 Blast is that it doesn’t attract big names. That can’t be said this year as many of the stars from the recent World Cup will be featuring. The likes of Guptill and Dilshan will be coming up against Brendon McCullum for the Birmingham Bears and also Aaron Finch and Glenn Maxwell for the Yorkshire Vikings - to name but a few.

The increase in international stars mean that attendances will surely top those of 2014. Last season the average attendance of the Big Blast matches was 5,772. Given that the counties were competing against the Test Series with Sri Lanka and India as well as the football World Cup they were very commendable.

Players from the 18 first-class counties take part in a tug of war at the launch of the 2015 NatWest T20 Blast

Players from the 18 first-class counties take part in a tug of war at the launch of the 2015 NatWest T20 Blast

Counties sold tickets for their group games at very affordable prices and are doing the same again. Glamorgan offer family tickets for £35 (two adults and two children), while at Leicestershire a junior ticket at some matches costs as little as £1. The majority of the matches will again be on Fridays, something that Footitt feels the counties will be looking forward to once again:

“I think being on a Friday night does make a massive difference in terms of attendance. The clubs and their chief executives love it.

“When they see the full houses to see the T20 cricket they’re rubbing their hands together.”

That’s all well and good but what are the negatives?

There’s no coverage of the matches on terrestrial television, while there’s also the weather to consider, but even an EPL wouldn’t sort that out.

You’d also have to look at the format. Two divisions of nine may work in the County Championship but in this day and age of faster, cheaper, better it doesn’t work for T20. The format leads to a lot of dead rubber games.

How about splitting 18 counties into regional groups of four? Invite Ireland and Scotland to take part to take the numbers up to 20 teams. The counties play off in a round robin format with the group winners and the three second placed teams that have the best net run-rate going through to the quarter-finals. The quarter-final winners go through to the finals day, which would still take place on a Saturday.

The matches could be played in a five week block. And providing they aren’t playing Test matches the big players would still come in and benefit young players such as Rhodes. With fewer matches than the divisional format there’d be more competition leading to more high pressure situations – something that England players don’t have much experience of.

You could also offer incentives to teams that don’t make the quarter-finals such as extra home games for the following season which in turn could lead to seeing different winners every year adding to the excitement.

New ECB chairman Colin Graves’ proposals are very much welcome and we could see the benefit long term. I just hope that an EPL featuring the likes of the Sheffield Steam Trains doesn’t derail the progress made in the county T20 game.

© Cricket World 2015


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