January 21, 2010

Bigger bash but what about baggy green?

More people are flocking to Australian domestic Twenty20 games than before and the board plans to cash in with an extravaganza that sounds a lot like the one in India

A funny thing has been happening this month: people have been going to domestic cricket in Australia. A lot of people. Last week, 43,125 turned up to the MCG to watch Victoria beat Tasmania in a Big Bash match. This wasn't the tournament final, you understand (that's this Saturday at the Adelaide Oval); it was just a regular Twenty20 game between two states. Fewer fans showed up for day three of the Boxing Day Test this summer.

By contrast, going to Sheffield Shield cricket at the MCG is like watching a school play at the Sydney Opera House - only family, friends, and a handful of curious onlookers bother showing up. A four-day game between the same sides at the same venue would be lucky to attract 1000 people a day, and you half expect the batsmen to be distracted by tumbleweeds rolling across the field.

It's not surprising that Cricket Australia is excited, for it is already planning a bigger Twenty20 tournament that will rewrite the way domestic cricket is played in Australia. For the 2011-12 season, Australia's Twenty20 tournament will not feature teams like Western Australia and Queensland. Those sides will be Perth and Brisbane. The six state capitals will field teams and there will be two extra sides, likely to be based in non-capital-city growth areas like Geelong or the Gold Coast or Newcastle.

A national draft is on the cards, meaning that a state icon like Brad Hodge, if he's still playing, could line up for Sydney instead of his beloved Victoria. Foreign players will be in the mix as well, although whether teams could choose any more than the current limit of two is undecided.

It all sounds suspiciously similar to another tournament that held a player auction this week, and while there are strong parallels the Bigger Bash, or whatever it's ultimately called, will never rival the IPL. For starters, the teams won't be privately owned in the beginning - the state cricket associations will run the city sides.

Mike McKenna, the general manager of marketing at Cricket Australia, is in charge of a working group looking at how to structure the new competition. He said franchising of teams could be a possibility in the future, but for the time being the aim was simply to build a club-like following among fans, similar to that seen in the Australian Football League or the National Rugby League, with the teams funnelling into the existing Champions League.

"The IPL has been one of the references," McKenna told Cricinfo. "We've looked more at Australian sport for an example of what's worked. There are plenty of good examples, we've got some fantastic professional sports leagues. We've got to get the foundations of the game right before we can even talk about private investment. Sport in Australia is not full of great successes in private investment.

"The IPL, one of the things they have is an unbelievable amount of money. We're never going to get that sort of money. It means we can't splash around the way they do. One of the things we will focus on is the quality of cricket in our teams. From year to year, hopefully our teams will do well at the Champions League and prove that it's a very good quality competition."

There's an argument that the Big Bash is already a high-quality tournament. New South Wales won the inaugural Champions League and so far this year, Big Bash crowds are up 80% and the television viewing audience is up 15% on last summer. But Cricket Australia wants the eight teams so it can not only push into parts of Australia where cricket is a massive participant sport without an elite presence, but also to expose more players to the top level.

For the 2011-12 season, Australia's Twenty20 tournament will not feature teams like Western Australia and Queensland. Those sides will be Perth and Brisbane. The six state capitals will field teams and there will be two extra sides, likely to be based in non-capital-city growth areas like Geelong or the Gold Coast or Newcastle

Of course, it's not that simple. Many questions are yet to be answered. With more elite positions up for grabs, will young players focus on winning a Twenty20 spot with the Gold Coast Gold-Diggers, and the IPL deals that could follow, rather than on breaking into their state's Sheffield Shield team? Cricket Australia's party line is that the baggy green will remain the ultimate goal for emerging players, but that's of little relevance if they have spent their junior years slogging sixes instead of building patient innings on difficult pitches.

When can it be played? If foreign stars and Australia's Test and ODI players are to take part, and Ricky Ponting believes that must happen for it to be a success, the options in peak holiday time are limited. Late January is a possibility but the scheduling raises another even more important question.

Will the Sheffield Shield be cut back to make way? Money and pizzazz aside, that's the question that could most shape the future of Australian cricket. Six teams play each other twice in the Sheffield Shield, which results in 10 first-class games a season and one of the most elite domestic competitions in the world. It's where the baggy-green stars are born, and if 10 matches becomes nine or eight or seven, then Australia's Test team cannot help but suffer.

"There's not actually a real problem at the moment," McKenna said. "We've done some modelling around it and the modelling is based around the principle that we keep the same number of Shield games we've got now. We see it as the pathway to the Australian cricket team.

"We're not looking to tinker with that too much. The reality is the season, when it's bookended by the Champions League at one end and the IPL at the other, and other sporting codes, that there's only so much time to play. So our expansion at the moment is based on that principle. If it changes, we have to be very careful how we handle that from a talent-development point of view."

For now, the details remain sketchy. But fans of domestic cricket in Australia should prepare for a big shake-up.

Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer at Cricinfo

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