We’ve reached the halfway mark of BBL six. The Brisbane Heat are top of the pops and the support from their fans is following suit. Like any great franchise with adequate financial support and exposure to a thriving sports market, success equals greater interest and that is exactly what the Heat have achieved this season.
Lynn and McCullum, coined the ‘Bash Brothers’ for their unique six-hitting ability and the game-breaking partnerships they have, will be separated in the coming week which will see some of the Heat’s young guns vie for a position. Reardon, Heazlett, Labuschagne and Doolan are all in line for the number three spot to be vacated by Lynn this Wednesday night when the Heat take on the Scorchers at the Gabba.
Lynn’s departure from the Heat to join the ODI squad has come as a shock to none given his scores this season which included a remarkable, game winning knock against the Sydney Thunder. He’s given the Heat the spark they needed to show the competition they are capable of mixing it with the marquee clubs, while McCullum’s experience alongside Peirson at the top of the order has proven the difference between the mediocre totals they were able to produce last year in his absence, and the big runs they’ve racked up in BBL|06.
There is no question that these two players, and the feats they achieve on a game by game basis without fail, put bums on seats at the Gabba. Their ability to clear the ropes more often than many of their peers is considered a desirable quality among modern viewers who would rather sit on their porch and watch paint dry than buy a ticket to a six hour day of test match cricket. In many ways we should be concerned that the oldest form of the game is being viewed in this way, but if t20 is the format keeping cricket afloat in this country, we must embrace the change and let it blossom like a flower in the sunlight and never let it whither.
The loss of a major player can often turn many fans away from heading to the ground to see their team in the flesh. It may also cause them to think twice about their chances of making the Americanised “play-off” stage and then the “Big Final”. But the Heat are quickly rising to prominence and are now a sporting brand as popular as the Brisbane Lions who, for five short years, were the indisputable rulers of the supporter base roost in Brisbane.
The Big Bash’s positioning during the school holidays, which has allowed adults to bring along their child to the cricket to see their heroes in action with the promise of a party-like atmosphere in-between, has been the biggest contributor to the Heat’s popularity and has sent crowd figures through the roof. The fact that a supporter can now ride the highs and lows of their side through an entire season on terrestrial television, unlike the other major sporting codes in Australia where fans may go weeks without seeing their team play if they don’t have access to pay TV, has inspired a generation and created a product whose narrative is easy to follow.
When word was released by the major newspaper chains that tickets to their opening home game were being scalped through online dealers, cricket and the Heat brand had officially reached its peak. Only the Lions during their pomp saw fans take more drastic measures to get their hands on the hottest ticket in town.
Such was their dominance at the time, the demand for tickets meant the beating heart of the Lions and the Gabba was moved off site for the sake of 5,000 seats, raising the capacity to 42,000. But the Brisbane Lions haven’t experienced the same success since and the Gabba has gone unfilled for the majority of the last decade. Even the test matches hosted in Brisbane, including the recently concluded day/ night phenomenon, have failed to pack out the Gabba in the same way the Heat do. Perhaps this says more about the format and the league than the team. But it is difficult to argue that the Heat, and the brand it has created, is not at least a factor in the continued support from the Brisbane public.
The domestic cricket crowd records at the Gabba have been smashed since the Heat came into existence six years ago and if they continue their exciting style of play more will be set. Only the Sheffield Shield final of 1994/95, which saw AB captain Queensland to their first title in front of a boisterous and die-hard-filled crowd in the days before the Gabba was turned into a concrete amphitheater, would be a bigger moment in the history of Queensland cricket. The success the Shield side experienced during 2011 and 2012, which culminated in a home final at the Gabba, were sparsely attended and are now barely remembered thanks to t20 cricket. But if the Heat make it all the way to the final in late January – pending performance, injury and the myriad variables which all play a role in how far a side can prolong its campaign – fans will flock to the ticket gates, members will race to grab the most prized seats in the house and the Gabba will see crowd numbers eclipse 40,000 for the first time since the grandstands were built.
It’s difficult to think that AB and his boys wouldn’t have attracted a sizable crowd had the stands been built during the nineties. There was no t20 to compete with, domestic cricket had a spiking pulse and corporate greed wasn’t taking the game to the brink of extinction like it is today. Being at the Gabba when AB raced around the outfield with the Shield held aloft will forever be the most cherished moment in Queensland cricket’s history. It may even be the most memorable at the Gabba. But there is no doubting that the atmosphere inside the ground if the Heat were to make a Big Bash final this year, or in the future, would give the larrikans who populated the Gabba hill on the final day of the 1994/95 Sheffield Shield final a run for their money in the prestige stakes. “I was their when the Bulls won their first Shield” might be a more revered statement than “I saw the Heat take out the Big Bash title” for the time being. But with the BBL continuing to grow in popularity on a worldwide scale, the ignorance of the t20 minded follower may drown out the voices of those who believe winning a Shield is the pinnacle of domestic cricket in Australia. Particularly when you consider which would receive greater media coverage.
Brendan McCullum may be hoisting a nondescript trophy with little historical relevance on the very same patch of grass that AB received that all important Shield 22 years ago, and there are question marks over which will hold greater importance to the average fan. It’s an interesting thought that the memories of that final may fade from history with the patrons who hold onto them as a result of the popularity of a format that wasn’t even conceived when the game that defined cricket in Queensland was played. But we must roll with the times and if t20 cricket titles, played in a Baseball style league, are held in higher regard than a Sheffield Shield crown, than this is a sad reality that Australian cricket must face. Even if these monumental shifts in focus spell trouble for the future successes of the Australian test side.