'Quick, cheap, fun, family,' as my wife put it. Cricket column, The Times, July 17 2004

At Lord's on Thursday evening, in the slanting sunlight of a muggy evening, two shock discoveries were made. One is that a large paying audience exists for county cricket, just so long as the hours of play are designed for people who have a life. The crowd was an estimated 25,000, or 5,000 more than at last year’s Cheltenham & Gloucester Trophy final, for a game on which hardly anything was riding — Surrey were already through, and only a massive win would have saved Middlesex. The attendance was the most exciting thing about the occasion.

The other discovery was that Twenty20 is still cricket. The central magic of the game, its ability to ebb and flow, is not lost. After seven overs, at 66 for two, Surrey were lording it, but then Paul Weekes came on and changed the mood with his modest off breaks. He bowled straight and full, took a wicket and dried up the runs at both ends, so that only 19 came off five overs. Then poor Ben Hutton dropped a skyer from Adam Hollioake, and as the City boys in the crowd chuckled into their beer, the tide turned again. Hollioake mowed and clubbed his way to 65 off 41 balls, and the last eight overs were a 98-run romp.

Even so, Middlesex, chasing 183, felt like favourites. Andrew Strauss was there, so was Lance Klusener, and Jon Batty had no Bicknell or Saqlain to call on. Klusener rose to the occasion, taking older fans back to the 1999 World Cup with his controlled explosions, but Strauss sank. A slow starter at the best of times, he kept missing good-length balls from the mighty Murtagh and Sampson. He scraped 11 off 16 balls, hopeless in this form of cricket. You have to aim to score at two runs a ball, as Ian Harvey and Mark Ealham have shown. For a time the action lay in the “Rate Req’d” box on the scoreboard: ten an over, then 12, and, not much later, 42.

One of this year’s Twenty20 stars has been Mark Ramprakash, who is famous for his orthodoxy. He doesn’t play that differently: he just quickens his hands and feet and loosens his arms. His straight push becomes whippy and wristy, his sweep and dab go finer. He bats like a man who has just had a double espresso (though where he would find one at Lord’s is another matter). On Thursday, he twice cut the ball for six, which was not a feature of his 52 Tests.

Yesterday, he was one of five players sharing the £1,500 prize for the most sixes so far (nine). Graeme Hick, his partner in unfulfilled promise, was another. Unlike Hick, Ramprakash was never taken seriously as a one-day player by the selectors, who offered him a meagre 18 appearances over 11 years. If Twenty20 had come five years earlier, it could all have been very different.

The Lord’s crowd wasn’t just big, it was broad: there were more Asians than usual, more women and girls, more jeans and bare navels, more conversation and laughter. It was a cocktail party with a match attached. They loved the skyers, the sixes and the outfield catches, while tending to miss not so much the finer points of the game as the more instant ones — snappy catches in the in-field, lbws speedily given. Next time, there has to be a video screen.

I booked eight tickets (never done that before) for £55 and took my wife and children plus another family. Daniel, aged 10, made a beeline for the shop and fell in love with a bat. Laura, 6, liked the smell of the scorecard; she supported Middlesex for an over or two before settling down with a Roald Dahl book. Freddie, 10, kept a sharp eye on the run-rate. Orla, 8, paid polite attention and enthused about the loos (“ten out of ten”).

Simon, a grown-up, said: “This is brilliant. Midweek, straight out the office, thanks very much. They should do it for internationals.”

My wife, more of a basketball fan, was quizzed by a marketing person with a clipboard. What do you think of it? “Good.” Why? “Quick, cheap, fun, family.”

The brevity of the thing is catching. All the children liked the jingles that greeted each boundary. Everybody enjoyed the Mexican wave; yes, even me, which may mean a blackball from the Cricket Writers’ Club. Seeing what happens to the wave when it reaches the pavilion is irresistible. The answer is always the same: nothing. That’s what Lord’s did for decades in the face of changing times. Why stop now?

Twenty20 works better than 45-over cricket, or even 50. It feels like the best available foil to the stately majesty of Test matches. “We’ve invented a really exciting product,” Tim Lamb said the other day. He’s right, except for that word “product”. Too cold, too business-school. This is a game. And a very good one.