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.

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?

BBL popularity a product of Scorchers’ success

It was pleasing to see the Perth Scorchers romp to victory over the Sixers in last night’s BBL decider and lift the trophy for the third time in the competitions six-year history. As a Brisbane fan, you might think that I’m still bitter from Friday nights epic which saw the Sydney based franchise overcome the Heat on their home patch, in front of a record-breaking domestic crowd and during a super-over that had more twists and turns than a Bollywood drama. But I’m not. Last night typified exactly why this competition continues to go from strength to strength in terms of popularity while other t20 competitions around the world are stagnating. Teams like the Perth Scorchers, on beautifully sunny summer evenings at intimate grounds like the WACA, are what defines the competition. The three trophies the Scorchers now have stowed away in their trophy cabinet have not only set a precedent for the other franchises, but layed the foundations for future rivalries, traditions and has given the BBL a sense of history and context.

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Perth Scorchers, three titles in four years.

Given that t20 domestic league fixtures give fans instant gratification, but rarely last long in the memory, shows what the success of the Perth Scorchers in the third, fourth and sixth edition have done to give the BBL a platform from which it can grow its brand, allowing the fan to buy into the history of a contrived competition whose aim will always be to raise revenue and subsidise the less popular formats, but has managed to grow an unprecedented backing simultaneously.

Next year the competition will grow, with CA confirming in the days just past that each team will play an extra game, increasing the competition from 32 matches to 40. This is a win for both the fan, who craves more of the history that this years’ BBL has created, and the administrators, who use it as a vehicle for increased revenue and participation rates. Only one of the aforementioned by-products doesn’t promise to trigger a self implosion.

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A packed Gabba crowd watch the opening BBL fixture.

The Australian Open TV ratings have been smashed by those of the Big Bash this year and this comes as no surprise when you consider how CA have marketed its love child. The casual tennis fan couldn’t recall who won the 1976 Australian Open because its history, while steeped in glory, stretches right back to just after the turn of the nineteenth century and not a lot has changed since. Not the coverage, the fan or the structure. The BBL, on the other hand, is hip, modern and resonates with the young and old because of team’s like the Perth Scorchers, that have given a previously listless competition relevance and delivered excitement around match results in an era where immediacy determines a viewers enjoyment levels.

For now, the Big Bash will be in the back of our minds as the end of the cricket season signals the rather swift transition into the marathon football season which begins to warm up next weekend. But as soon as the 2017/18 competition rolls around – with its new look and expanded geographical reach that keeps it from becoming repetitive and hence unattractive to the viewer who tunes into the cricket for one and a half months every year – all of the memories of season’s past return to give the competition context, prompting excitement in a way that only test matches against the big three have been able to previously.

Technological innovations are both a blessing and a curse for t20 cricket

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Brad Hodge on the mic during the IPL – Photo: Wisden India

Cricket has a lot to thank for the introduction of various technological innovations that have made the t2o format a more engaging and entertaining product. From helmet cams – that were brought in as a way of allowing the viewers to share the players view from the sanctity of their own living room – to on-field mic’s – which have allowed each and every person that tunes into the television coverage to get a sense of what is going through a captains mind, or what area of the ground a batsman is looking to target – cricket has gone through many different stages of development and now looks more technically savvy than ever. These have led to some of the most memorable moments in the brief history of t20 franchise cricket. But just last week, BBL host broadcasters Channel Ten crossed the fine line that divides entertainment and contest integrity, which must be upheld if the hit-and-giggle format is to maintain a semblance of legitimacy and be taken seriously.

The access to the players that Channel Ten and their viewers are granted during each contest is groundbreaking and undoubtedly one of the great pleasures of tuning into a franchise slog-fest. Listening to Kevin Pietersen as he describes his approach to the art of batting, albeit in the t20 format, is as close as you can get to a money can’t buy experience and gives both the casual observer, who mightn’t have the foggiest idea about the intricacies and strategies behind scoring runs, and the traditionalist a unique insight that helps one study their own approach against that of a well-trained professional who has succeeded at the top level. But the on-field mic, which was designed for t20 cricket and has become a mainstay ever since, is a gimmick that should remain exclusive to t2o cricket. There is no place for it in the longer formats where a players attention must go undivided and where, like stealing pages from the playbook, on-field comments could be noted down and used to strategise in the oppositions next team meeting. Fancy having David Warner or Alastair Cook micd up during the first over of an Ashes test match. The players piecing together their thoughts and emotions like a jigsaw puzzle in a pressure cooker environment would be a remarkably insightful experience, but its hard to argue that it would not have some kind of influence on their concentration levels or put their decision making off kilter. And that’s without even mentioning how tacky and modern it would make the coverage of a traditional rivalry, which thrives off the charm of its history, appear to the millions of viewers that expect the cricket be played in its purist form.

The events of last week, which saw a Channel Ten commentator deliver statistics to the micd up Brad Hodge at a crucial junction during the BBL clash between the Thunder and Strikers, caused a stir amongst fans and led to CA issuing a rather candid statement, but, quite strangely, failed to mention that they would be taking any action on the matter. It is also the perfect example of why player mics, helmet cams and anything that may influence or change the course of events should be limited to the shortest form only, ensuring that the integrity of a game is never compromised by stats, dossiers or otherwise.

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The scene of the crime

The comments made on air rolled heads at the time they were made, including that of Kevin Pietersen who has been vocal on the need to ensure that the entertainment factor of t20 cricket is upheld at all times as this is, by and large, what has allowed the format to reach out to a new audience. But even his umbrage towards the exchanging of information was plain to see when he repeated the phrase ‘very naughty’ and began to giggle uncontrollably as Brad Hodge signalled to Ben Laughlin that he would be bowling to his ‘bunny’ Shane Watson in the very next over.

Of course, players are given access to the kind of data that was disseminated to Brad Hodge by the Channel Ten commentary team before each game and its hard to imagine that he wasn’t already aware that Shane Watson had a weakness to the off-pace bowling of Ben Laughlin. Particularly when the statistical outlier is so obvious it would be staring the teams’ statistician in the face when he runs through the ‘Form Guide’ in the lead up to the game. But the fact that the information which passed hands changed the course of events, and was given during a crucial period in the game by a third party that has no business in relaying information to players, makes this an easy case to solve.

Setting up a network between well informed commentator and under pressure captain is not what we want to see the player mics used for. Just like we wouldn’t want our footballers to be tipped off about a goal kickers record from a particular angle prior to a conversion attempt by Ray Warren or Phil Gould. Not only would it detract from the legitimacy of the game, it could change who steps up to take the kick.

The role of the broadcaster is to educate the viewer if they manage to stumble upon a statistical anomaly in their dimly lit commentary box that looks more like the Big Brother confession chamber than a place of opinion filled by those who are most qualified to comment. They mustn’t abuse their access to the big name players or have that privilege taken away from them like a misbehaving spoilt child who has their favourite toy confiscated by their parents. Channel Ten have done wonders for the game of cricket in this country and their coverage and commentary is to be applauded. But their ignorance and inexperience in this case has shown that cricket’s broadcasters must tip toe with caution across the tightrope that divides technological innovations and the integrity of a tournament that is quickly gaining validity amongst fans, but continues to have some of the traditional rules and regulations bent because its primary goal is to entertain the masses and maximise revenue.

How the BBL’s unprecedented rise is endangering the popularity and relevance of test cricket in Australia

Andre Russell’s black painted bat, which he brandished during the Sydney Smash three nights ago, is another blatant example of cricket’s bold journey into uncharted territory.

The t20 format’s brief history is rife with groundbreaking innovations that have made the game a more attractive product that appeals to a wider range of audiences and Dre Russ’ colourful blade, when the chinks are worked out, will undoubtedly continue this legacy.

Zing Bails, boundary-side dancers, music played after each delivery, flamethrowers and rocket men are just some of the features that have made the shortest form as unique and flashy as many of America’s major sporting codes. And these are the components of cricket that will become commonplace amongst each and every format of the game when Australia’s next generation – who will be totally unaware of how the Big Bash rose to prominence after its humble beginnings on pay TV as a state based competition – are introduced to the game.

Channel Ten’s advertising campaign sprouts the idea that the beginning of the Big Bash season marks the true start of summer, just as the Boxing Day test once put a punctuation mark on the festive season. And they might just be on the money with this assumption.

It’s no longer test cricket that steals the limelight at this time of year and any matches played prior to the beginning of the t20 season are in danger of loosing their relevance in the not to distant future. After all, most concertgoers skip the front bands in favour of the local pub because they are only really interested in the main event.

Can you name the fights that preceded the Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather bout in 2015? No? That’s because they held far less importance in the context of the event as a whole.

The Australian reported recently that BBL player payments will increase under CA’s new payment scheme in a move that is likely to have major ramifications for the Sheffield Shield and Matdor BBQ’s ODC competitions.

When the BBL television rights are once again put up for sale next year, the $20 million price tag Channel Ten snapped them up for last time they were on the open market is tipped to increase astronomically.

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Cricket’s bold journey into a new and uncertain decade. Getty Images

A raise in BBL player payments, to a level that well and truly supersedes the average retainer for a state cricketer, will force players to question which career route is the most viable for them and what benefits the can derive from participating in all three formats. A decision that may be affected by a number of variables.

The short life span of fast bowlers in the longer forms of the game is likely to sway their thinking while living arrangements and age are two other factors that will influence a players career move.

Expanding the competition into other Australian regions and increasing the number of fixtures played across the summer is the ideal way to grow the competition, expand its geographical reach and give more players the opportunity to compete at a professional level. But cricket is a case unto itself. Other popular sports around the world don’t have multiple formats and are incapable of cutting off their noses despite their face in a way that cricket can by giving the most profitable format all the resources and attention it needs to outperform the others. And this is exactly what CA are risking by increasing the number of games in a season and by giving its players greater incentive to pursue a lucrative career in the shorter form of the game, which is over in just three hours and provides as many opportunities as a long career in the Baggy Green, less the injuries.

The West Indies is home to a swathe of specialist franchise players and the national side, in all formats outside of t20 cricket, has seen sharp declines in performance as a result of the unavailability of their star players, who have been lost to the world’s biggest tournaments.

Gayle, Bravo and Russel, some of the West Indies most gifted cricketers, have spent their careers traveling from country-to-country like cricketing gypsies to take part in the various franchise competitions and have made as much, if not more, than their test-playing counterparts in doing so. In this case though, it was the board’s failure to pay its players an adequate wage that set them on the rebel path to franchise stardom, it wasn’t a matter of the governing body putting all their eggs in one basket and leaving its other formats to die off without anyone raising an eyebrow – although there are multiple parallels that can be drawn between the irresponsibility of the two cases.

Australia does not want to experience a mass exodus on a West Indian like scale.

CA has created a popular product and deserves to lap up their new found fortunes but could make minced meat of test cricket’s popularity in this country and its major breeding ground (Sheffield Shield) if the Big Bash continues to grow without restraint.

Television and t20 cricket are a more dynamic pairing than Starsky and Hutch and this partnership doesn’t look like taking a dive anytime soon. The NRL and AFL received in excess of $1 billion following their last broadcast rights deal and by the time the Big Bash manages to eclipse these numbers the cricketing landscape will have experienced dramatic rearrangements and scheduling changes that benefit both the broadcaster and CA, who require the revenue generated by the Big Bash to subsidise their investments in the Shield and domestic one day competitions – the running of which provides CA with little financial gain.

The BBL has become far more popular than test match cricket in Australia and this is a truth the traditionalists must accept.

Its move to FTA television three years ago has given it the legs to overtake the traditional form in terms of TV viewership and crowd figures. But we risk diluting the pool of talent at state level and test cricket’s importance if BBL games are let to spread across the summer like a super virus.

CA’s new found admiration for the shortest format is obvious but it must allow all formats to coexist if we are to maintain interest across the board. And that starts with keeping the schedule as it is – so not to disrupt the Sheffield Shield any more than is currently the case – and keeping player wages equal across all formats to disparage specialisation.

T20 innovations have made an imprint on test cricket and are the precursor to a entirely different cricketing landscape that is already beginning to take shape.