New 100-ball format highlights cricket’s unhealthy relationship with change

Cricket has been through numerous revolutionary changes. It all began way back in 1977 when Kerry Packer, then head of Channel Nine, started his own competition by the name of World Series Cricket. Though he didn’t know it at the time, his new take on a grand old game would shape its future. White balls, coloured clothing, cricket at night and heavy commercialism are all now common themes. What he and his associates started way back at the SCG during 1978 – some 20 years before my birth – has led to the cricket you and I watch with great interest today. Take the IPL for example. Without WSC it may have a very different complexion to what we have become accustomed. Some may say change was imminent and Packer was the man lucky enough to strike gold. But what he and Channel Nine did for the game is immeasurable. Without the WSC revolution, cricket may have gone several years before a broadcaster came up with the idea to place a camera at each end of the wicket. And what about the humble stump microphone? That too was the brainchild of Mr Packer’s WSC crew.

You might be wondering why I’m writing all this. No, it’s not because Channel Nine has lost the right to broadcast cricket in Australia (though it will be sad to see it go after 40 glorious summers). It’s because I’m intrigued by the backlash the ECB has received in response to its revolutionary plan to cut the length of its new franchise tournament to 100 balls.

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Kerry Packer – cricket’s original trendsetter.

When I first read the news on Twitter, I immediately thought the ECB had decided to limit a batsman’s innings to just 100 balls in the domestic 50-over tournament. The idea here being that the less balls a batsman has to face, the quicker he must score. Of course, this simply wouldn’t work; imagine a batsman getting to 100 balls only to be forced to retire on 99, or having to retire during a close run chase where 40 runs are required from 24 balls with just three wickets in hand. My mind immediately thought of these seemingly impossible circumstances because they are scarily tangible, such is the penchant for boards to tinker with cricket to the point of extinction. 50 over cricket is an easy target for change. It no longer offers the money-making potential of the newer, more popular format. Who knew T20 would be the target of revolution so early in its life?

There are many reasons the ECB may want to change what is already working – and working exceptionally well – around the world. The first answer is money. And why wouldn’t this be what immediately comes to mind? T20 cricket was designed for boards to make a financial windfall and is now played so that these same boards can prop up the less profitable formats. The second potential response is prestige. With the IPL making waves in India, and the BBL inspiring an entire generation of cricketers in Australia, the ECB may have finally had a gut full of other countries riding on its coattails. This is less likely, but still possible considering England lay claim to the creation of T20 cricket and would hate to see other countries profiting from what they started. The third and final answer is the fans. It is widely accepted that since cricket was put behind a pay-wall in England, its main audience has been middle-aged males. But this is not the ECB’s target audience – let’s get that straight. The future of the game relies on its popularity among younger audiences. Typically, these audiences have short attention spans, an affinity for entertainment, and enjoy the gimmicks of T20 cricket. And so the only way to appease the future custodians of cricket is to tailor it, mutilate it (whatever you want to call the dumbing down process) and ultimately shorten an already abbreviated format.

But we must consider what this means for the future of the game given its love of revolution. No other big sport the world over has gone through so many changes. Football still looks the same as it did when cricket was going through its first major shakeup. There have been some minor changes to the way it is presented to audiences on television, but the mechanics – the actual gameplay – remains largely untouched. The major American sports are the same. They have been adapted to suit a modern landscape that thrives on commercialism, yet there have been minimal changes to the actual rules of the game. Even golf, on a par with cricket for traditional customs, remains largely the same.

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The revolution will be televised.

Hundred-ball cricket is just the tip of the iceberg. History tells us there will be many changes to come. WSC brought cricket into the future and gave it a pulse. It too was criticized and maligned, but without it, cricket may not have lived far beyond the turn of the 21st century. The reason I say this is because, outside of the Ashes, test cricket has struggled to draw a crowd. Sure, it may not have been required to compete with T20 cricket for viewers. But the money generated by T20 at both a domestic and international level would not have been there to keep test cricket afloat.

Revolution is not necessarily a bad thing. But you have to question at what point the game will be bent completely out of proportion. The Hundred-ball format might just be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Penalty crackdown should be encouraged, on one condition

If the NRL wishes to cure the penalty disease currently plaguing the game, referees mustn’t be afraid to use the sin-bin.

I applaud Matt Cecchin for sending Cameron Smith off for ten minutes on Friday night following the tirade of verbal abuse levelled at him and his assistant by the Melbourne Storm.

It was also pleasing to see James Tamou sent for a sit down on Thursday when the Penrith penalty count was beginning to get out of hand.

If the referees wish to continue blowing regular penalties they must persist with using the sin bin as a deterrent. Hopefully this will send a message to players and coaches that any slight infringement will not be tolerated.

For too many years now players have been coached to slow down the play-the-ball or give away a penalty close to the line to avoid conceding four points. This has led to several unattractive games and an increase in teams electing to kick a penalty goal rather than attempt a try-scoring play.

The catch-22 situation here is that the crackdown on these negative tactics by the referees has in itself stymied the natural flow of the game.

Anyone watching Friday night’s clash between Melbourne and Cronulla, whether at the ground or in front of their television sets, would’ve been left frustrated by the constant blowing of penalties.

They detracted from the spectacle and caused the game to become disjointed and unwatchable. There was no flow, no rhythm, and if you’re a casual fan of rugby league, I don’t blame you for changing the channel.

The NRL will know that it faces an uphill battle competing with the AFL, which continues to expand its reach into the eastern states.

The players are also aware that they are all members of the entertainment industry and that their performances – which influence the quality of the product they produce each weekend – determines whether fans will invest time and energy in supporting it.

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The NRL is not just competing with rival codes, of which there are many at this time of year, they are competing with the entire entertainment industry.

With the advent of streaming services such as Netflix, there are now several choices where there was once few and the battle for attention has heightened.

More and more fans will be lost to these alternative forms of entertainment if the game continues down the path it is headed.

But that doesn’t mean the referees should stop blowing penalties to avoid momentum-restricting stoppages, because if they are there to be given, they have no other choice.

It is important, however, the referees continue to show discretion in their decision-making, as fans will be turned away by the kind of nitpicking that gifts teams field position and, ultimately, victory.

This is the cause of as much frustration as the stoppages created by penalties. No fan wants to watch a game that is heavily influenced by the referees.

And yet the crackdown on negative play should be encouraged. If allowed to continue, it will, quite ironically, lead to a more polished and free-flowing game.

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Defensive units will stay back the required ten meters and allow the playmakers to run. Teams will abandon the wrestle tactic. The ruck will improve. Games will speed up and fatigue will start to play a factor again.

The NRL will look less like Super Rugby, with penalty goals kicked at will, and more like the game ardent followers fell in love with.

But if the increase in penalties is not met with an appropriate punishment, such as a stint in the sin bin for a member of a team that commits several offences, the NRL is in for a mass exodus led by disgruntled fans.

Another option is implementing a 5-minute sin-bin for any player that deliberately gives away a penalty close to their own line. This way referees will be more inclined to send a player off and teams will cease employing tactics that are likely to incur a penalty.

The risk in this method concerns that well discussed Rugby League phenomenon – the grey area – because it relies on referee discretion.

But if it helps rub out what is a blight on the game, even while raising the ire of coaches, then the NRL must consider it.

My guess is the referees will buckle under the weight of public opinion and the current crackdown will cease.

But if it does continue, is it too much to ask for the NRL to be proactive in managing it?

Lessons for the ECB’s bold venture into uncharted territory

If you’re not a fan of switch hits, midgame firework displays, or any of the T20 fanfare, and would much rather tune into a test match with a copy of Wisden in hand and a cup of tea by your side, look away now. This is going to get ugly.

I’m not going to patronise you, for I too am a traditionalist. I’d much prefer to watch a patient test ton than a T20 slogathon. For me, there is less glory in the shortest form of the game; matches are quickly forgotten and the performances within them fade swiftly from memory.

But this is the direction cricket is headed. What was once seen to be revolutionary is now the norm. T20 has connected with a generation of cricket fans that must be entertained to remain invested. The ECB and counties that voted in favour of ‘revolutionising’ cricket in England are simply following a well-trodden path.

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What concerns me most about this new tournament is that it will run in conjunction with the ‘Blast’. Already there are 133 games of T20 cricket played during the summer. If the new franchise tournament is to follow a four-match home and away structure, this figure will balloon out to 165 – and that’s without considering the extra finals matches.

If these numbers don’t get your blood boiling as a cricket purist, nothing will. The truth is, in another 10 years, this will seem perfectly normal. The County Championship and One-Day Cup will have shrunk significantly by then. Just ask Adil Rashid and Alex Hales. Both have pulled up stumps on their respective red-ball careers in favour of the shorter formats. And fair do’s to them both. They have identified that going on the T20 circuit is the best way to earn a crust in an era of reduced test match scheduling and vast franchise riches.

With the emergence of a second T20 tournament, the prevalence of short form specialists like Hales and Rashid will increase year-on-year. Since the days of World Series Cricket, players have gone in search of rock star-sized paychecks. In many ways, the players of that era are responsible for normalizing the contract processes – such as IPL auctions – we now take for granted.

In that spirit, let’s take a look at what the new English franchise competition can learn from one of the biggest T20 tournaments in the short history of the format.

Why the BBL works

Believe it or not, the BBL hasn’t always been as successful as it is today. In its early years it struggled to draw crowds and attract a television audience. When free to air network, Channel 10, bought the rights for $100 million on a five-year deal in 2013, the competition suddenly gained traction. In 2016/17, the BBL averaged 1.03 million television viewers per match; there was a slight fall in viewership this year, with 947,000 tuning in each night. Compare these figures to the ‘Blast’, and you begin to see why the ECB had no choice but to implement a franchise competition – and why it was necessary for a FTA broadcaster to obtain the rights to show some games. T20 Finals Day in 2015, which saw Lancashire take out the crown, averaged an audience of 388,000 on Sky Sports. Attendance figures in the ‘Blast’ are also smashed every year by the BBL, which sees well over 1.5 million people pass through the stadium gates each season.

In addition to exposure on FTA television, the BBL can attribute some of its success to the popularity of its high profile overseas stars. As is the case in several sports around the world, the superstars of the game bring with them an extra element of excitement. Afghanistan leg-spinner Rashid Khan stunned the Adelaide Strikers faithful in the most recent season of the BBL. He, along with other big-name players like Dwayne Bravo, Tymal Mills, Shadab Khan, David Willey, Carlos Brathwaite and Kevin Pietersen, develop interest in the tournament; they are the BBL’s major selling point and are indirectly responsible for increases in grassroots participation.

While the ‘Blast’ also features a whole host of international players, they are spread across 18 counties, rather than 8 franchises, and are scarcely able to commit to the full two months of competition. But this is all common knowledge by now, and no doubt contributed to the ECB’s push for a franchise-based tournament. Nevertheless, in order for the new competition to flourish, international stars must take centre stage. In the BBL they are the face of marketing campaigns and television advertisements. Without them, many would see tournaments like the BBL as little more than a glorified version of the fatiguing one-day cup.

The ECB will have no trouble selling a franchise competition to the masses, especially if it is played during the school holidays. The BBL runs across the summer break in Australia, with all games played at family-friendly hours, and tickets sold at family-friendly prices. This is important, and has been a contributing factor to the tournament’s longevity. There are concerns, however, that expansion is counterproductive to T20 cricket. The tournament was extended to 40 matches plus finals in 2017/18 and was met with a subsequent drop in television ratings.

The T20 paradox

One of the problems with T20 cricket is that it quickly becomes repetitive. Most matches follow a similar storyline by virtue of their brevity. Seeing a ball sail into the grandstand every night at 6 o’clock can only remain enjoyable for so long. T20 doesn’t ebb and flow the way test matches do either. If a team limps to a first innings total there is no time to put things right.

There is a school of thought amongst Australia’s leading scribes that the BBL has reached its breaking point as a result. Any further changes to the way the product is sold and packaged will turn fans away. The ECB’s new competition must avoid trying to oversell itself the way Australia has in recent times. With two tournaments running in tandem, there is a good chance fans will suffer fatigue. How are the ECB going to deal with this? It’s an important question and will ultimately decide how long the tournament remains relevant.

In this day and age, cricket must move with the times. CA has done this exceptionally well; the BBL is still among the best-supported sporting ventures in the country. Can the ECB find a balance between its thirst for cash and the limits of T20 cricket the way Australia has? Or will it fall into the trap of pushing it beyond its limitations and be flogging a dead horse before five years are up?