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.

Trent Bridge
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.

The links between television and the games’ growth cannot be understated

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The Kerry Packer legacy lives on today. Photo: Daily Telegraph

Last Wednesday marked 40 years since the Kerry Packer circus revolutionised the game forever. In many ways, Packer and Channel Nine are in part responsible for cricket as we know it today: flashy, colorful, high octance and perhaps most importantly, giving players the opportunity to accrue wealth beyond their wildest dreams. The television rights for the IPL are so expensive that broadcasters in Australia, who have already outlaid a great deal of cash for home test matches and the month-long BBL bonanza, simply cannot afford them. Elsewhere, in countries such as the UK, New Zealand and even the United States, you’ll need to pay a pretty penny for a pay tv subscription to gain access to the marvels of a Rising Pune Supergiant runchase, or to see a young, uncapped Indian spinner being blasted to all parts of the ground by Virat Kohli, much to the delight of an adoring crowd.

The point here is that television, and its vast riches, rule cricket and has done so for some 40 years now. The IPL, BBL and every other t20 franchise tournament around the globe would be nowhere without the revenue generated through exorbitantly priced television rights deals negotiated between cricket boards and broadcasters. Take away the popularity of the shortest form though, and those television rights would be worth a duck egg. Packer, gifted with a once in a generation business mind and the kind of stubbornness that would rarely see him fail to close a deal with favourable outcomes for Nine, identified 40 years ago that the fan should be the television networks biggest priority because without them, he would be at a loss and, though this wasn’t his modus operandi, so would cricket.

So he got to work designing a competition that would suit television and benefit his media empire. Shortly after losing out on securing the rights to Australian test cricket in the 1970’s, he realised that the game was falling behind. Television audiences were down and, for a businessman as sharp of wit and money obsessed as Packer was, saw to it that these circumstances be rectified.

Limited-overs cricket was soon conceived, a format that promised to maximise viewership through its television friendly sessions of play. Unlike a Test match, fans could park themselves in front of the TV and take in a game in just a few hours, rather than having to wait five days for a result to eventually be reached. This made perfect business sense. Nothing would hook the viewer in more than a game featuring multiple flashpoints that reaches a crescendo shortly before tea time. It was a television goldmine, but further tinkering was still required.

Not yet content with the outcomes of his newly formed competition, Packer and his associates at Nine decided they needed to try something rash, something that would completely change the complexion of cricket and dramatically increase viewing numbers to a level that would sustain profitability. They achieved this by introducing white balls, coloured clothing, floodlit cricket and, perhaps most notably, by giving players rock star paychecks to secure their signatures and tie them down to World Series Cricket. To this day we are still seeing large sums of money lure players away from their commitments at county and international level. Ben Stokes was payed 1.7 million pounds at the last IPL auction and missed two matches for England against Ireland just over a week ago, as did Jos Butler and Chris Woakes. They chose instead to stay on with their IPL franchises, a contentious decision but one that is becoming less so as a result of the regularity with which it now occurs.

It is quite clear that the old school values and practices Packer introduced all those years ago as part of his master plan still live on in the t20 age. He was well before his time in this regard, which probably explains why many believed he was the godfather of cricket and the games’ most influential figure. But we shouldn’t overlook what allowed the humble ‘Supertest’ to develop into the world renowned one-day phenomenon that is still in operation today. The links that can be drawn between what made the Packer empire tick, and what is currently allowing the T20 format to flourish and reach the untapped markets, are there for all to see.

Television is, of course, cricket’s single greatest asset and the ECB must realise that the wealth boards around the world have made from T20 has not been gained through sponsorship’s and ticket sales, but through broadcast rights. If they take one lesson from Packer and the success he had, it is this: cricket fans of all classes, as well as those with only a rudimentary understanding of the game, must be exposed to the sport on a regular basis otherwise it will ultimately fail in its pursuit of increasing revenue and garnering interest amongst the general population. Whether this is achieved through airing it on terrestrial television, or by selling subscriptions at a low cost to the owners of smartphones and/or tablets on an app dedicated to county cricket, one thing is certain – Sky can no longer hold the monopoly. For far too long cricket lovers have been forced to pay through the nose to watch Alastair Cook open the batting for England, or to see up and comer Mason Crane master his craft at Hampshire. If not, they might catch a short glimpse of the days play on Channel Five’s one hour highlights package. What this has achieved though is not of benefit to the ECB, nor the marginalized supporter base. How can the game grow if up to two-thirds of the population cannot access it?

While Packer did not have to co-exist with Pay TV in the 1970’s, he still understood that if nobody is tuned-in, the product is worthless to corporate investors or sponsors and will eventually die off. That is the direction the ECB is headed. And that is why they must ensure the new city-based competition is made available to all audiences on terrestrial television. If the fan, or the channel surfer looking for some entertainment over dinner, is not aware that a game between London and Southampton is on because it has been hidden behind a pay-wall, then the outcome for the ECB is an obvious one: the tournament will not earn enough money to continue operation and will be worthless to television broadcasters, which, as we know, play an enormously influential role in the game’s popularity. It’s a loss-loss situation for the ECB.

When the BBL came into existence six years ago, Foxtel, Australia’s number one Pay TV service, held exclusive rights to the tournament. After a brief period of success during the opening season, interest began to fade, signaling the end to a short lived honeymoon period where, despite disappointing viewership figures, CA caught a glimpse of what this league was capable of. In 2013, the rights were secured by free-to-air television network Channel 10, and the potential CA saw in its brief vigil on Pay TV was finally realised. Since its transition to the FTA network, the league hasn’t looked back and interest continues to peak. It is any wonder it took CA close to a decade to realise that making the Big Bash available to just over 50 percent of the population would mean it would struggle for an audience. You have to question whether changing it from a state based competition to a tournament played between contrived and bizarrely named city teams made any difference whatsoever, or whether it was purely the fact that the whole of Australia now had a means by which to watch it. Common sense seems to get thrown out the window a lot these days by cricket boards when it comes to growing the game.

The counter argument to all of this is constantly repeated by cynics: “If the competition is worth the same amount on Pay TV as it is on FTA, what incentive does the ECB have to offer it to a terrestrial network? The answer to this is, of course, dependent on how you define worth. Sure, the monetary value of the television rights might well be equal no matter who purchases them, but its worth to the viewer decreases dramatically when hidden behind a pay-wall. And without an audience, the television rights will not appreciate in value nearly as much as they could if it was televised for free. Just like interest in theater would decline if there was to be a sudden hike in ticket prices, or if certain blockbuster movies were only screened in a select number of cinemas. This is what the ECB is doing – confining it to the households of a small minority, effectively reducing how much it can make at the box-office.

When Channel Ten purchased the rights to the BBL five years ago, they payed just $100 million for a five-year deal. That value has now more than doubled, with the rights expected to be sold for around $250 million when they are put up for sale next year. Exposure counts. Packer realised this forty years ago and yet cricket boards are still in the dark over the fruits of free-to-air television. The T20 game is built for broadcast, just as World Series Cricket was during the 1970’s, so why can’t it be a driver of growth?

Some may say that by taking this approach we risk selling out the game and turn it into something no more attractive or unique than a Wednesday night soap-opera. But the ECB must stop stalling and take a risk that will see them rejoin the pack of cricketing boards who have welcomed the broadcast of T20 on FTA with open arms and reaped the rewards.