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Man who invented T20 sits back — and pitches for the future

Deepak Narayanan

Posted: Jun 11, 2009 at 1055 hrs IST

Nottingham: It was an inconsequential match in the context of the tournament and neither team had a massive entourage of traveling fans. Yet, the crowds trickled in to Trent Bridge two hours before the start of the West Indies-Sri Lanka match, which the Lankans eventually won.

At the World Twenty20 championships — despite the lack of publicity, despite tickets being sold at almost-ridiculous rates — the stands have been filling up. About 10 years ago, things weren’t this good in the English game.

Not only was the national team struggling to string together meaningful results (read no Ashes victory in over 16 years at the time), county cricket, the backbone of the sport in the country, was pretty much on life support as far as spectator interest went.

It was then that Stuart Robertson, along with John Carr — both marketing men at the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) — were asked to draw up a proposal to revive the game. After some extensive market research (commissioned at over £200,000) and lots of head-scratching, they came up with Twenty20.

Robertson is acknowledged as the inventor of T20 cricket although he has slipped away from the glaring spotlight the game has been under since 2003 when it made its debut in England. And what was once a solution simply to bring people back to the grounds — and many critics shrugged off as a short-lived gimmick — has turned into what’s being spoken about, not in whispers any more, as the future of the game itself.

“The Benson & Hedges Cup, which the T20 championship replaced then, used to get crowds of just 500-1000 people. For T20 county games though, we started getting in five to six thousand people — and most were just general public buying tickets, as opposed to members just strolling in otherwise. So, financially, it had a big impact on the game here,” he told The Indian Express.

Did he know, then, that it would grow to such proportions in such a short time? “I’d be lying if I said I did. All credit to the Indian board and the IPL. But at the same time, I’m not really surprised.”

The story behind how they locked down on 20-overs-a-side is interesting. “We actually just worked backwards from what time we could play till. In the summers, we have daylight till about 8.30 pm. We wanted people to come in after work, so we had a window of about three hours. It wasn’t rocket science, really,” he said.

It wasn’t as if shorter formats of the game hadn’t been tried before. Super 6 contests used to draw sporadic interest while New Zealand really pushed hard to make Max Cricket popular. Max, a 10-over contest, had some interesting tweaks as well, like the Max Zone straight down the ground, where runs got doubled.

“Max cricket was too gimmicky. It was a different game,” Robertson said. “We never wanted T20 to be an end in itself, just the means to an end, which was getting people back watching cricket at the grounds. As far as our aims went, those new spectators would then, in turn, get attracted and addicted to the longer formats.”

That has pretty much gone out of the window now, with concerns regularly being raised about the future of Test cricket and one-day cricket. Forget Twenty20, it’s Twenty20 club cricket that is now being seen as the future.

“Personally, I like the longer format. But at the end of the day, it’s really not about what I like or what you like, it’s about what the spectator likes. Though the one-day format would probably be the one to suffer first, I feel Test cricket needs to move on, it needs to reinvent itself and become more competitive. Every match has to stand for something, probably they need to work on the failed 1999 Asian Test championship experiment again (in which India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka had faced off in Tests),” said Robertson, now involved with Hampshire cricket, his next aim getting the Rose Bowl stadium Test status.

But what about overkill? Isn’t Twenty20 in danger of going the one-day way — predictable to the point of being boring? “As of now, it seems unlikely. But I have an idea that could bring more intrigue into T20 cricket,” he laughed. Break the matches down into two innings of 10 overs each, he said, but with teams only having 10 wickets to play with over two innings. “Batsmen will have to play smarter cricket then, and it would give teams a chance to fight back.”

Don’t snigger — it might well be the future.

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