Repairing the Australian summer
To ask Michael Clarke how the summer schedule might be better planned is to watch the competing forces of Australian cricket wrestle all at once within the national captain's mind. The first thing to notice is the slightly pained look that crosses his face, as he weighs up all the competing parts of Cricket Australia and the states he must satisfy as the face and voice of the national game.
When Clarke speaks, he admits an understandable bias towards the fortunes of the Test team, but is careful not to trample on the Twenty20 Big Bash League. Mainly he is limited to careful and qualified sentiments about how the three formats of the game can co-exist, that all are important, and that in his case he has made the personal choice to give up international T20 in order to grant himself some small amount of time at home.
All the while he suppresses the urge to say what most Test players, coaches and selectors have been muttering ever since the expansion of the BBL last summer ran headlong into the strident conclusions of the Argus review. That document stressed the importance of the national team to the health of the game in Australia, and urged that no compromises could be made in ensuring its success.
Promising as it sounded, Argus' findings have had to compete with CA's strategic plan, which features pillars including the need to "put fans first" via means like the BBL, while also demanding a national team that strives to be the world's top ranked in all forms. There had to be tension somewhere in this muddle of national team thinkers, marketeers, administrators, broadcasters, players and fans, and so it has proved.
The BBL's gaudiness has been made more maddening for the national set-up by occupying precious schedule time during which the Test team is also playing. Batsmen have fought the competing technical and mental demands of jumping from format to format, while bowlers have more or less given up on the possibility of doing so without a greatly heightened risk of injury. Meanwhile those working assiduously at growing the BBL have noticed that the inadvertent competition provided by concurrent Test matches has affected their attendances and broadcast numbers.
Notions that Test match crowds had little interest in T20 and vice versa were too neat by half, and have resulted in a hodgepodge of a summer that is costing the game's blue-chip stock - the national team - at the same time the blue-sky speculation of the BBL is struggling to gain the desired foothold. Australian cricket is more or less at war with itself in a way not seen since the two summers of World Series Cricket. That state of competition did not last, and nor can this one. There has to be a better way.
Having looked closely at the rhythms of the summer, the peak times of the year for international matches and the habits of families, whose children are among the most desired audiences for the BBL, this correspondent has compiled a vision for a more sensible schedule, minimising the crossovers currently causing so much angst within Australian cricket. It is not a perfect solution, and will only be able to occur in the three summers out of every four that do not feature an India Test tour of Australia in December and January, but it is a start.
The central planks of the program should be the preservation of strong and reliable spots for Test matches, ODIs and T20Is, and the clearing of as much room as possible in school holiday time for the BBL. To that end, the five-day portion of summer should remain more or less where it has been this summer, beginning in November and on through December. The Boxing Day and New Year's Tests in Melbourne and Sydney are among the strongest embodiments of Test cricket in the world, and should stay that way. The Sheffield Shield that underpins the performance of Australia's Test side must be permitted its full 10 rounds and final, and by starting in late September or early October and running until around December 20, the competition may be allowed seven rounds before the onset of Christmas.
With the Test team reaching its final two Tests of the summer, Boxing Day is a reasonable start date for the BBL. There will be some competing elements as the tournament begins while the Tests go on, but a December 26 beginning will allow the tournament a chance to flourish into January, and wrap by the 25th of the month. This may be done by reducing the number of matches to the 31 played in 2011-12, all teams playing each other once.
Another way of tightening the event will be to schedule more frequent double-header match days, an option that would also work better to serving the audience CA needs to develop most from the BBL. While night fixtures are the more profitable television product, afternoon and twilight fixtures draw a greater number of children and families through the gates, allowing parents to get the family home at a more manageable hour. If this means sacrificing a little of the event's TV money, the likelihood of more children catching onto the game by being there is surely worth it.
The other major divergence this program takes from the current model is to hold off the start of ODIs and T20Is while the BBL continues. Instead of pulling on the green and gold of the national team's limited-overs strip, Australia's players would then be permitted a more meaningful - and promotion-friendly - stint in the T20 league than the one-match cameos of the first two seasons. But by tightening the BBL somewhat the ODI segment of summer would be permitted to re-start with a showpiece fixture on Australia Day, and allowed room to play on into mid to late February, depending on the touring team. It is broadly accepted that the segue from T20 to ODIs is far more manageable than that from T20s to Tests.
As an acknowledgement of T20's mounting popularity at the expense of ODIs, the 50-over series should be capped at three matches, or five if only one touring team is in Australia. T20Is should remain at two match series, in keeping with the widely held view that the game's shortest form is best served by club teams. These matches would take place after the Shield and domestic limited-overs competitions have begun again, providing a chance for players, selectors and coaches to recalibrate in the first-class game before the autumn and winter tours take place.
This alternative program is not particularly revolutionary, nor a violent departure from the numbers of matches and variation in fixtures currently in vogue. But it does neaten the season in a way that would reduce the sense that CA is fighting itself as much as other teams and other sports, something so evident in Clarke's furrowed brow when called to ponder how the summer might improve.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here