Mon, 14 Oct 2019

Threatened species shows off its worth on T20 Finals Day

ESPNCricInfo
22 Sep 2019, 23:42 GMT+10

7:10 AM ET

It is a curious truth that whenever one of cricket's prized formats has been challenged in recent years it has often responded in a manner illustrating its value. In 2016 the decision was taken to reduce the number of County Championship matches to 14; then came Middlesex v Yorkshire at Lord's, the best climax to an English season for many years and a game so fine it even inspired an excellent book: Duncan Hamilton's Kings of Summer.

This year a prevailing enthusiasm among some propeller heads was a reduction in the length of Test matches to four days; so we had the most closely contested Ashes series for a decade, one in which three of the five matches had the temerity to extend themselves into a fifth day.

Next year, of course, The Hundred is to be played in the weeks hitherto reserved for the Vitality Blast. Having marketed T20 cricket superbly and seen it attract record attendances at almost all venues, the counties must now try to sell a second short-form competition much earlier in the summer at a time when many GCSE and A Level examinations are taking place. Good luck. The response of the Blast was to offer a glorious Finals Day at Edgbaston, where two of the three matches went to the last ball and one of those games, the Worcestershire Rapids v Notts Outlaws semi-final, gave us one of the most bizarre finishes in the history of T20 cricket.

Old coaches and players are wont to suggest this is another example of the power of "Mother Cricket", a strange force by which the game rewards those who respect it and punishes those who do not. More rational individuals view this contention as so much hokum yet even they would agree that in the summer prior to the greatest change in the English domestic game for a generation we have had a season so fine that no one outside the ECB sees any need for fundamental alteration.

The Vitality Blast has played its part in all this. T20 Finals Day is utterly unlike any other occasion in the sporting year. It is back-slapping, brightly-coloured, belching, beery England in all its unapologetic finery. Decorum? Don't even think about it. Subtlety? Not unless you are referring to Pat Brown's knuckle balls or Ravi Bopara's judgement of an innings. Some people will never warm to T20 cricket yet even they admit the importance of the income the competition generates and concede that it has refined and extended many skills. How many misfields do you recall from this year's Finals Day? How many dropped catches?

And it is even more important to recognise The Blast's value because it appears under challenge; because, so the argument goes, if the ECB can use The Hundred to kill The Blast it will foreshadow the introduction of a hierarchy of ten or so first-class teams with the smaller counties permanently relegated or forced out of business altogether: counties like Essex, who won The Blast and may well win the County Championship, the greatest prize of all; counties like Somerset, who won the Royal London One-Day Cup; counties like Northamptonshire and Gloucestershire, who are on the verge of promotion to Division One; counties like Derbyshire, who so relished their first Finals Day; counties like Leicestershire, who continue to nurture great talents like Hasan Azad and Harry Swindells.

Great God, this is poisonous stuff. And a simple press release from the ECB would be a most powerful antidote to it all.

For the moment, though, we still have Finals Day and even the sceptics should treasure it a little. Sir John Betjeman would have loved the whole ridiculous rigmarole. Even though he knew next to nothing about cricket, that fine poet always appreciated English people displaying all their daft exuberance; the lines of people in fancy dress doing some version of the conga would, I suspect, have brought forth howls of laughter from him. Though capable of serious poetry, he relished popular entertainment - Coronation Street in its golden years was a great favourite - and Edgbaston on the third Saturday in September is a right royal knees-up.

And of course it is bloody daft. From the first chorus of the morning to the final spray of champagne it is gloriously unhinged. You cannot stage an obstacle race between 18 adult humans, most of them dressed in felt animal costumes, and hope that it will look anything but absolutely bonkers. You cannot celebrate the fall of every wicket by sending people hurtling into the air in a glass pod - it is called the Bungee Blast - and think you are presenting an image of maturity.

You cannot hire Mr Motivator - ask your parents - to exhort 6,000 people in the Hollies Stand to exercise when most of the people he is encouraging have been drinking for England and many are dressed as bananas / Donald Trump / chickens / Roman Catholic priests, and still hope to look sensible. Someone might have suggested to the ECB that it is tricky to exercise when you cannot stand upright. But never mind, welcome to Birmingham's House of Fun.

It is also about the beauty of seeing a great city in its crepuscular light; the beauty of seeing Birmingham's great business houses disappear into the darkness until they are revealed only by tiny pinpricks of red. The English season should always end with the last day of the County Championship but there is a certain elegiac richness about this particular Saturday evening. Gone is the expectation of early morning. All we have before us is the season's final game of short-form cricket.

And so we are left with the cricketers. They must always have the final word. We are left with Worcestershire's Daryl Mitchell going over to his team-mate, Wayne Parnell, when he has been hit for four off the penultimate ball of the Final. We are left with Simon Harmer returning to console Parnell when his blows off that bowler have secured the trophy for Essex. And we are left with Harmer telling the press that his team will celebrate their victory properly but will not "go nuclear". Many of the 24,550 folk at Edgbaston, on the other hand, have been going nuclear all day. The first beach-ball was confiscated at 11.24am. Freddie the Falcon won the Mascots' Race.

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