I had not seen a more disinterested performance since Kevin Pietersen used county games to return to fitness
The man in the Ninja Turtle costume swayed gently as he peered into his phone. Its screen shone like a beacon into the Birmingham blackness on that Saturday night last September but this Michelangelo was studying its contents so intently his nose almost touched the screen.
He had probably been drinking for 12 hours solid.
On the other side of the road, four similarly intoxicated Superheroes argued in animated fashion over that perennial closing-time question – curry, nightclub or curry-then-nightclub.
I walked past them merely drunk on the events of the previous hour at Edgbaston when Simon Harmer somehow steered the last-ball of the 2019 Vitality Blast final to the boundary to take the trophy to Chelmsford for the first time.
Barring a couple of trial events, cricket has been without fans this season. Red-ball, white-ball, Tests and ODIs, every format has missed their presence. But the single event that feels their absence the most is T20 Finals Day.
It has not just taken the position previously held by the 60- over competition (aka Gillette Cup, NatWest Trophy, Friend’s Provident Trophy) as the carnival of the cricketing calendar. It has developed a niche of its own – longer, brasher and much more exciting.
Last year was my third finals day watching Essex and the first in which we reached the afternoon. In 2006, we were outfoxed by Leicestershire in the first semi-final at Trent Bridge and so, in 2010 at the Rose Bowl, decided to throw money at winning the trophy. Unfortunately, we missed and our pile of £50 notes landed next to Dwayne Bravo, who was run out for five and recorded 4-0- 46-1 in his sole game for the county.
Returning with fresh eyes last September, it was noticeable how much the event has progressed. There was no Kiss Cam, Sweet Caroline or vegan food for my previous finals. Back in 2006, the main entertainment in the break was a short set by the Sugababes. I had not seen a more disinterested performance on a cricket pitch since Kevin Pietersen used Championship games to return to fitness ahead of an international recall.
Stung by a long, soul-destroying day after the Essex exit in 2006, I baled early in 2010 after Bravo’s last bow. Last season, I was struck by how few Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire fans departed after their teams were eliminated. Perhaps that is because the ‘product’ is better these days or just that many more neutrals book up early for county cricket’s party night.
My position was directly opposite the Hollies Stand, the lightly-marshalled area in which fancy dress rules and those with sobriety in their bloodstreams and fashion sense fear to sit. Deep into the final, as Essex chased Worcestershire’s 145, some huntsmen chased a trio of tubby foxes and, for some unknown reason, a flock marshmellows pursued a swarm of bees.
After Harmer hit the winning runs, the fireworks erupted and the trophy was lifted. Unfortunately, only 20 per cent of the sell-out crowd still remained and the ceremony took place facing the main stand and away from both sets of Essex fans.
Still, the players took their prize to the crowd and suffered all our requests for selfies with a smile. Then, all of sudden, the quiet of the night descended, some of us began to consider a long drive home and Michelangelo finally found that taxi number.
T20 finals day is one of the longest events in UK sport but perhaps the most joyous. Three games of reverse sweeps, slower ball bouncers and paddle shots watched by nuns with beards, beerstained brides and a platoon of Vegas-style Elvises. It is not for some but loved by the majority. A day in which English cricket truly lets down its hair and, this season, the most missed event of the entire campaign.