In the deep, dark depths of the mid 1990’s it was an oft-made joke that England, the country that created cricket, were the worst Test nation in the world.
Fast forward fifteen years and English cricket was again the butt of jokes as the board who founded the Twenty20 format—the ECB—saw their Friends Life t20 tournament splutter and choke along last season with very empty stands a bitterly regular sight throughout the competition.
Whilst in Australia, Bangladesh, the Caribbean, India, South Africa and Sri Lanka franchise based tournaments have been founded, the ECB have persevered with a county-based league despite critiques of it being outdated and unfashionable.
Nine years after establishing the sport’s shortest and most revolutionary format, the ECB had, according to some, adopted the worst system by which to run their league.
But twelve months on from much hostility towards the competition the landscape is rather different.
Franchise based tournaments the world over have been hit by financial, corruption and logistical difficulties whilst the FLt20 has had a blockbuster season with crowds up an impressive 76% on last year and the highest average attendances for five years have been recorded.
Sell-out crowds on warm, golden evenings have become a recurrent theme of the summer and appear to have breathed life into the flagging format. In London alone almost 145,000 people attended group stage fixtures, including a 27,000 for Middlesex versus Surrey at Lord’s.
No international football tournament, no Olympics and having wonderful weather have helped, as have improved scheduling and marketing, but selling out Lord’s for a county match is quite an accomplishment.
The quality of the cricket has rarely been in question over the past decade. 18 teams is a considerable number and although this number dilutes the talent, this is palliated by the fact that all eighteen teams are fully-functioning first-class counties with academy infrastructure already in place.
Furthermore, when established the Twenty20 Cup was merely an addition to the already existing List A and First-Class trophies that the 18 counties have long competed for. This is not the case in franchise based leagues where there is a more distant separation between state and regional sides and the franchises.
That is not to say the 18-county setup has not come in for considerable denunciation. Critics believe that a smaller, perhaps city-based tournament would be a more attractive commercial proposition and would also decrease the number of fixtures perhaps enabling more games to be televised (this season Sky Sports screened 25 matches).
But in opposition to this a solution would have to be found as to how the money generated from this format would be divided out amongst the counties and at what grounds the matches be hosted at.
It is too often forgotten that T20 cricket and the 18-county system spreads cricket far and wide to a much greater extent than a city based tournament would do. Reducing the number of teams would see many fans cruelly cut-off from live T20 cricket.
More relevant is that such a radical change from 18 to nine would require counties to vote themselves out of existence in the T20 format. Something that simply will not happen.
Next year the structure of the season is to be changed slightly to allow the majority of T20 matches to be played on Friday evenings in an effort to make fixtures more predictable as well as embracing the sizable Friday night crowds.
This will put an end to the block nature of the current format that prevents much first-class cricket being played in the interim between matches. Which is something that is currently seen to hamper England’s options with regards to calling up players for Test matches with very little four day cricket played in the months of June and July.
This move will affect the number of overseas players featuring for counties simply because the FLt20 will be a season-long competition requiring more extended availability than the current two month block.
However, whilst there have been some international players featuring this season there have been no true star names. It would be a surprise were crowds to drop off simply because of the absence of a player such as New Zealander Mitchell McClenaghan who has been playing for Lancashire this season.
Very few players in world cricket have the ability to draw crowds with their name alone. People generally come to grounds to watch good cricket, not simply a star player or two.
As always in the UK, weather is an important influence in the success of an event. This summer, in contrast to last, has been blessed with warm, sunny evenings and the tournament has prospered as a result.
Making the FLt20 season-long will mean some matches are played earlier and later than previously, thus increasing the chance of inclement weather. But conversely spreading the fixtures will help avoid a single wet month totally washing out half of the tournament.
The issue regarding making the FLt20 a “commercial proposition” gets to the crux of this debate. Is the English domestic T20 tournament about creating money? Is it about attracting new fans to the sport? Or is it about improving the national team?
As is often the case with such a scenario, the answer is a mixture of the three.
The current format is best suited to achieving that. Whilst some have advocated following the lead of the Indian Premier League, it is worth noting that attempted IPL-clones the BPL and SLPL have struggled to establish themselves.
Most probably because India provides a unique setting for a tournament where cricket, glamour, money and Bollywood are all insatiably demanded. Trying to recreate the kind of sexy cricket that the IPL offers in England would prove a thankless task.
The Friends Life t20 is an English T20 league. It’s not trying to out-do itself, overspend or over-complicate. It's not trying turn Chester-le-Street into Chennai, nor Manchester into Melbourne, and the ECB should be wholeheartedly and sincerely commended for that. In an era of proliferation, expansion and greed the ECB have remained admirably rational and the tournament is better for it.