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Gladiators sink pink Panthers

06/16/2015

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“Friday’s Just Got Better!” scream the adverts currently plastered around many tube stations. “The weekend starts here. Come and watch Middlesex at Lord’s. Secure your seat NOW for just £20”. In the background there’s a picture of a beautiful sunset, a packed stadium and an Ibiza-like crowd going bananas, hands aloft. The message is clear. You know what kids, forget pubbing and clubbing this is the most fun you can possibly have on a Friday night. This year’s rebranded T20 Blast cricket jamboree is once again big box office, promising blockbuster shots, explosive entertainment and a piece of card to wave around with a “4” on one side and a “6” on the other. You will “have a blast”.

Being something of a contrarian I’ve elected, on a whim, to come and watch Middlesex, not at Lord’s, the self-styled home of cricket, but in leafy, suburban Richmond in south west London. It’s not even in Middlesex. And neither is it a beered-up, post-work Friday evening but an altogether more sedate mid-June Sunday afternoon. Having re-routed to avoid the weekend engineering works on the District Line and somewhat sketchily managed to locate Richmond Cricket Club (I had no idea that Old Deer Park is so big) the match is already eight overs old by the time I hand over a couple of tenners at the entrance and someone has a rummage through my bag. It’s twelve twenty cricket not twenty twenty cricket for me today. And there aren’t even any seats left. Secure your seat? Pfffftttt.

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Middlesex had won the toss and put Gloucestershire into bat and they were sixty odd for two; a decent start but nothing spectacular. But like a night of dirty synth electro bangers at Pacha the momentum of a T20 game can change rapidly. Fifty balls later Ian Cockbain and Benny Howell have cracked a further hundred runs and are galloping along at more than twelve runs an over. Gloucestershire are looking set for a big score. There’s some good, clean hitting, particularly from Cockbain who scores 75 off only 39 balls including six sixes mainly hit straight and long and briefly threatening to trouble low flying aircraft on their descent into Heathrow. The name sounds familiar and I recall seeing Ian Cockbain’s dad (of the same name) play for Lancashire in the eighties. I’m getting old.

There is a brief lull in the scoring after Cockbain is dismissed but the former England wicket keeper and Gloucestershire skipper Geraint Jones scores a typically combative 34 off not many balls and the Gladiators post the highest ever T20 score on this ground of 214 for 4. It will take some beating.

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Richmond Cricket Club is a wonderful setting for cricket. The ground in Old Deer Park backs on to Kew Gardens and the gardens’ Pagoda peers periscope-like over the end of the ground known as the Pagoda End. The land is shared with the London Welsh rugby club, a reminder of the chief sporting activity in this part of the world. Taking a wrong turn out of the railway station I’d already wandered past the London Scottish rugby club on the other side of Old Deer Park. The place has an almost bucolic, village green feel to it and there’s a decent crowd, four or five deep around the boundary edge. There are no stands but around two and a half thousand seats had been placed around the ground. It looks a picture even on a rather grey, overcast day.

There’s plenty of the usual razzmatazz associated with this abbreviated form of the game. Pumping musical interludes after each four, six or wicket. T-shirts thrown to the crowd by the Middlesex mascot Pinky (they play in pink). And some of the most bizarre headgear that I’ve ever seen at a sporting event; Middlesex County Cricket Club headbands with pink fur attached to them that make it look like you’ve slapped a large dollop of candy floss on your head and then stuck your fingers in an electric socket. Needless to say I eschew such frippery. In fact, it takes me most of the match to realise that the reason Middlesex play in pink is because they are known as the Middlesex Panthers in this form of cricket.

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This is very much a London 2012 sort of crowd. Families. Waitrose-sponsored England cricket shirts. Fresh-faced youngsters. “Ooh, Ginny darling, pass me the Pinot Grigio from the cool box”. The twenty overs a side game has made cricket more attractive to a new audience, an entertaining product that can be easily consumed without demanding too much of our time or even that much knowledge of cricket. The enthusiasts with their well thumbed copies of Wisden and their flasks and scorecards are outnumbered by the day trippers who’ve come for a good time. The average age of the crowd feels significantly less than for an average four day county match and there are far more women in attendance. Which has to be a good thing. But is the twenty quid admission fee a tad over-priced? Aren’t we risking pricing some people out of the game? Whilst there is plenty of black music on offer most of the few black faces around the ground appear to be stewards or litter pickers.

When it’s good, T20 cricket can be exhilarating. But when matches become one-sided, as many often do, it can leave you feeling a little under-nourished. Like scoffing a bag of crisps when what you really need is a roast dinner. I’ve been watching twenty twenty cricket since it replaced the longer form Benson & Hedges Cup in 2003 and despite all the fireworks I’m yet to see a really tense, nail biting finish; one that goes down to the last over or the very last ball with the game in the balance and your stomach in knots. But that’s probably because I follow Derbyshire who are perhaps the least successful of all the counties at this form of cricket; a single measly quarter final appearance is the best that they’ve managed in this competition in the last twelve years.

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Middlesex’s reply is a bit Derbyshire-esque. There’s a flurry of runs in the first few overs as the in-form opener Paul Stirling hits two of his first three balls for six but they proceed to lose wickets at regular intervals and the distinctive west country burr of “Gloucestershire la la la”, springs up from a small group of away fans in the pavilion. The match gently peters out, some spectators start fiddling with their cool boxes and head for the exit and ultimately Middlesex finish 43 runs short of Gloucestershire’s total. More T20 Bluster than T20 Blast. Only John Simpson offers any prolonged resistance hitting 74 and there’s no partnership comparable to the one between Cockbain and Howell that had been the foundation of Gloucestershire’s total. The Gladiators performance in the field is a notch up from Middlesex’s, no doubt boosted by sticking a daunting total on the board and David Payne is the pick of the bowlers taking five wickets for 24 runs. So Gloucestershire go top of the South Group with this win. They look a decent side. An outside bet for this year’s T20 finals day?

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