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?

Scattergun season leaves Yorkshire floundering in unfamiliar territory

Inconsistency has plagued Yorkshire’s quest to achieve a three-peat of championship crowns in 2016, as they continue to cling on to their position in the middle of the division one table by the skin of their teeth.

They say a strong Yorkshire makes for a strong England. While many whisper sceptically behind their hands, condemning any such theory, the burden of the old cliché – dated as it might be – weighs heavy on the shoulders of the playing group this season.

We’ve been reminded during this unsunny summer that sheer weight of expectations is a significant encumbrance not to be brushed aside. Before a ball had been bowled in anger during April, we were told in no uncertain terms that there was no stopping the might of Yorkshire, who were bound for yet another year of unbridled successes.

Au contraire. How four months, a coin toss and a few unanticipated departures can unhinge a perfectly architected yellow brick road. It now appears Yorkshire’s deep seated winning culture has inexplicably gone to the dogs – or at the very least – hit a significant bump in a long and winding road.

Yorkshire are not directionless, but they are at this stage in a marathon season rooted to the spot on the championship table with a formidable run home – one that includes a visit to Lord’s and Old Trafford. With Root, Balance, Bairstow and Rashid all away on England duty until at least the final round, it is left to a patchwork side to pick up the slack that flagged somewhere around mid-May.

Had it not been for some pesky South-East weather intervening on a strong Yorkshire performance against Surrey at the Oval, they might well have been able to add a win to their season tally of 116, potentially positioning them inside the top 4. But there’s no point dwelling at this point on what could have been.

All is far from lost for Yorkshire though. While they face a torrid time dealing with injury that constantly attempts to access permanent residency in the Yorkshire ranks, the likes of Leaning, Hodd and Rhodes will be asked to step up to the plate and toe the line through August and September for the defending champions.

The new toss regulations appear to have taken their toll on Yorkshire’s bowling, while their batting, led by messiah’s Lyth and Lees, consistently fluctuates between two extremes – breathtakingly brilliant and unequivocally vulnerable. A proclivity to inspire and frustrate fans in the same session is an inconsistency that must be addressed. Too often have Bresnan and Plunkett been called on to do the heavy lifting down the bottom of the order.

Their bowling performances have laid the foundations for their successes in years gone by, but the scrapping of the coin toss this season has seen Yorkshire struggle to win outright. This issue is not isolated, it is very much a competition wide epidemic brought about by flat, lifeless wickets prepared in the knowledge that the opposition side mustn’t profit from their decision on the first morning. So much so that the toss has turned into a game of Russian roulette for the foolhardy.

Yorkshire’s bowlers have toiled for days on end at stages this season, powerless to arrest fluent strokeplay, as batsmen fill their boots and plunder runs to all parts of the ground with ease. Their only reprieve from a 150-over graft, a sporting declaration from the opposition captain.

It should come as no surprise then to find that Yorkshire captain Andrew Gale was among the first to speak his mind on the new toss regulations upon their unveiling in November last year. His statement was brief but insightful: “[no mandatory toss is] Absolute madness”.

Surrey captain Gareth Batty shared a similar sentiment towards the ensuing anarchy of the new toss regulations that saw his team chase leather in the field for 210-overs this week. He too was blunt in his appraisal of the current state of pitches around the country, labelling them – rather crudely I might add – as being “very flat” in nature. This statement may have been somewhat tongue in cheek though, given that Batty was fresh from a trailblazing game that included an unbeaten hundred and eight wickets.

But I shan’t harp on about these toss regulations any longer.

Yorkshire’s Blast form is bordering on farcical, though, their mad cap style has struggled to bear fruit since even the early days of the Twenty-Twenty Cup. The absence of their England players during the period when the Sri Lankan ODI series was taking place hasn’t helped their cause either.

Any hope of a journey to Edgbaston for finals day now appears bleak, with just a handful of fixtures – and therefore opportunities – remaining in the 2016 edition. But optimism and desire so often prevail in this whimsical game we call cricket. To sneak into the top four and progress beyond the North group stage they must win their final two games, and while they’re at it, muster a genie from a bottle to grant an indelible wish. Very rarely do six wins qualify a side for the quarter-finals. Yorkshire’s Blast campaign for 2016 has all but met its maker.

Their Royal London One-Day Cup season started in the worst possible fashion, with a big loss to Worcestershire in a television game at Leeds. Since that dreary summer’s day, where their one-day season looked destined to follow suite, Yorkshire’s fortunes have experienced a dramatic revival. Back to back wins have them perched inside the top three and within striking distance of the unbeaten Derbyshire.

A last start rout of rivals Lancashire whose batting innings ended inside 18-overs – only Martin Guptill surpassed single figures – will give them the momentum they require to begin the march towards Lord’s. The RLODC is the one competition they look primed to win, but with the halfway point of the season having only just been reached, a large majority of the plot still remains. I’d be jumping the gun making any bold predictions at this point in the journey.