How a marketing stunt turned into a global phenomenon
The story behind the birth of T20
The great revelation of 20-over cricket – which formally announced its arrival more than a decade ago this week – is not that it became so successful so quickly, but that nobody thought of it sooner.
The brainchild of England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) marketing executive Stuart Robertson, the concept that has redefined world cricket in the 21st Century arrived through the same birthing process as many a profound innovation – to solve a worsening problem.
Come the turn of this century, attendances at county matches had dropped by 17 per cent.
Even more worrying for officialdom trying to work out where the game's traditional followers had gone was putting their finger on where the new breed of cricket fans might come from.
Robertson undertook a market research survey unprecedented in its scale (reputedly more than £250,000) and scope that laid bare the depth of cricket's image problem.
Too much of it was played when people were otherwise occupied. It was viewed as elitist – those who lived closer to struggle street thought it a game for the wealthy; potential young fans felt it was a sport for oldies.
And most notably in a world that increasingly wants results at the click of a button, it took too long. Even the game's abbreviated form soaked up an entire day.
That last finding was scarcely a revelation to anyone who had sat through more than a few 50-over innings during which the period between over 15 (when the fielding restrictions were lifted) and 45 (when the helter skelter began) was a tedious succession of singles pushed to long-on or deep cover.
So Robertson suggested those middle bits simply be excised.
Surely limited-overs cricket minus the boring bits would be interesting?
And a match that takes three hours rather than seven could be programmed in the evenings – even during the week – when adults had done their chores and kids could skip their homework.
Like the Velcro cricket pad and the twist-top stubby – other life-changing inventions that preceded T20 cricket – the triumph of the idea that was first formalised into a county-wide competition in 2003 was its simplicity.
Not that everyone saw it that way at the outset, or even now – 11 years down the track – as the ongoing debate as to whether 20-over cricket will save or sink the longer format continues to rage.
"We (the ECB) had a lot of opposition but there was a lot of support too and it wouldn't have got through otherwise," Robertson, now with county team Hampshire, recalled years later.
"I worked closely with the cricket department at the ECB and eventually a 20-over competition, to replace the old (originally 55, then 50-over) Benson and Hedges Cup, was put to the vote of the county chairmen.
"They voted 11-7 in favour of adopting it.
"Some said 'no thanks' but crucially I had put the same proposals to the county marketing directors just before and they were unanimously in favour.
"So even the chairmen who didn't want it then said 'Okay, you go and make it work' and the success of the project was in the hands of people who really wanted it."
True to its genesis as a marketing tool to introduce or re-acquaint people with cricket, the early days of England's Twenty20 Cup were part sporting event, part fun fair.
The game was often a backdrop to speed-dating, bouncing castles, swimming pools, karaoke machines and guest pop-star artists – including the group Liberty X, of which Kevin Pietersen's wife Jessica Taylor was a member.
But it quickly achieved its aim, even though nobody involved suspected it would launch a series of hugely popular franchise-style competitions in virtually every Test-playing nation – including Australia's own KFC T20 Big Bash League – and facilitate the rise of the globetrotting 20-over specialist player.
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The inaugural competition's finals – the two preceding semis and the grand final were all staged on one epic day – drew a sell-out crowd to neutral Trent Bridge, which hosted the play-off that was originally to be staged at Lord's.
However, the home of cricket's application for a concert licence so that Atomic Kitten could strut their stuff as part of the festivities was rejected by the Westminster City Council.
When the game finally made an appearance at Lord's the following summer – 10 years ago this week – it drew a crowd of more than 27,000 to watch Middlesex take on Surrey which represented the largest attendance for any county fixture (excluding one-day finals) in more than 50 years.
Barely six months later, the game devised as a salve for domestic cricket was transplanted to the international arena when New Zealand hosted Australia at Auckland's Eden Park.
Remember when: Australia and New Zealand play the first T20 international
The fact that the occasion was little more than a fancy dress warm-up for the Australians' subsequent ODI and Test tour convinced a number of players – visiting captain Ricky Ponting included – that it would never became a serious element of the international cricket calendar.
Indeed, India simply refused to be involved in Twenty20 internationals at the outset because they believed it diluted the value of the more precious 50-over product.
But having played a solitary 20-over international in three years prior to the inaugural ICC World T20 in South Africa in 2008, India’s five-run victory in that tournament's final over arch-rivals Pakistan triggered a love affair with the game that remains in an ever-escalating honeymoon phase.
As Robertson is reminded every time he conducts an interview about his role in the creation of the format that is also seen as cricket's best chance of securing a long-term foothold in non-traditional markets, the novelty has rapidly evolved into the staple.
"I couldn't possibly imagine what would have happened with it," he told the Daily Mail years after T20 was born.
"All it was then was a way to get new audiences interested in county cricket.
"It has brought a bit of attention to me and my name is sometimes mentioned when people talk about how Twenty20 cricket happened but I can tell you one thing – it never made me any money."