Going back to Australia's Twenty20 roots
On January 12 2005, the WACA was sold out. It was the first time the ground had been sold out for a cricket match since a one-day international between the West Indies and Australia in 1981. But unlike that year, 20,071 people had not jammed in to see two of the best sides in the world in a 50-over fixture. Instead they were there to witness Western Australia play Victoria in a one-off, experimental Twenty20 fixture, the first of its kind on Australian soil.
The presence of Shane Warne in the Bushrangers line-up would have undoubtedly bolstered the attendance, but the counter-argument to that is a combined total of only 42,193 had attended four days of a Test match between Australia and Pakistan at the ground a month earlier. Warne's support cast in the Test match featured names like Glenn McGrath, Adam Gilchrist, Ricky Ponting, Shoaib Akhtar, Younis Khan, and Mohammed Yousuf. In the Twenty20, the crowd would have hardly recognised the names of Liam Buchanan, Ian Hewett, Tim Welsford, Darren Wates, Peter Worthington, and Scott Meuleman, let alone have entered the gates to see them play.
The lure was quite clearly the format. The Twenty20 concept had been brewing in England for several years, but had not reached Australian shores. Domestically, the depth of talent and strength of cricket was as strong as it had ever been. But interest in it from a spectator's perspective was waning. The Australian side was so dominant, a World XI was to be assembled in October 2005 to try and challenge Australian hegemony in world cricket.
Twenty20 seemed to be the right antidote at the right time. This one-off match at the WACA captured the imagination of all those who saw it, even though it was a particularly one-sided affair. Victoria battled their way to a total of 8 for 141, after winning the toss. The visitors at one stage slumped to 5 for 55 before Adam Crosthwaite (57 from 46) and Hewitt (32 from 24) steered the Bushrangers to a total that seemed competitive. But two Western Australian show-stopping wicketkeeper-batsmen, Luke Ronchi and Ryan Campbell, lit up the WACA with an opening stand of 101 from just 56 deliveries to make a mockery of Victoria's total and show Twenty20's great appeal, which is big-hitting, thrill-a-ball, cricket. Ronchi's sparkling 67 from 24 balls launched a career that has included Australian representation, while Campbell, a month shy of his 33rd birthday, must have lamented the timing of the format's arrival after his unbeaten 56.
"The biggest thing was just the crowd. The crowd was just the most amazing thing," Ronchi said, as he reminisced. "The game was good but just the noise of having 20,000 people was just amazing."
It is extraordinary to think that on the eve of the first edition of a new franchise-based Twenty20 league in Australia, the Big Bash League, that the first match of its kind on these shores six years ago was nothing more than a novelty. Despite extraordinary success in England since the first county-based competition was launched in 2003, Cricket Australia had been very reluctant to introduce the product in the Australian market. Even ESPNcricinfo's report was unsure of the concept, writing in the post-script to the WACA match "it remains to be seen whether the popularity shown for this Twenty20 match is more than a one-off".
"A few of the guys took it seriously." Ronchi said. "Murray Goodwin, who was our captain, had played a fair bit of it in England. But for me it was more a novelty. At the time I didn't take much notice of it (Twenty20). I just thought it was a slog, and a bit of fun. I didn't think it would take off quite as well as it did."
The following night, 21,000 crammed into the Adelaide Oval to see the first unofficial international Twenty20 between Australia A and Pakistan. Six years later, it is arguably the most popular version of cricket not just in Australia, but world-wide.
And whilst the skeptics continue to question the concept of a franchise-based competition shoe-horned into the heart of a fascinating Australian Test summer, the lessons that can be gleaned from the first Twenty20 ever played in Australia are quite clear. No matter the teams, no matter the individuals, the wider public seems to love the format. Crowd numbers, and television figures will be only measurement for success, and if they outstrip Test match audiences then the Big Bash League, much to every purist's chagrin, may well be the way of the future.