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December 17, 2011
Brett Lee's bouncer to break the nose of Brendon McCullum gave the nascent Twenty20 Big Bash League a visceral image to stand comparison with the Andy Roberts bumper that shattered David Hookes' jaw in the first season of World Series Cricket.
Significantly, it was winced at by a record television audience for a domestic Twenty20 match in Australia, suggesting the true measure of the BBL's opening night went beyond the mediocre crowd of 12,285 that made it to the SCG to watch the Sydney Sixers blaze past the Brisbane Heat.
Foxtel recorded an average audience of 342,000 and a total of 858,000, surpassing the 316,000 average of the 2010 Big Bash final. Greater numbers were anticipated for Saturday night's match between Shane Warne's Melbourne Stars and the Sydney Thunder at the MCG.
Television is a critical element of the BBL package, as Cricket Australia hopes to generate enough groundswell for the competition to allow it to sell the next round of broadcast rights for the competition to one of the free-to-air commercial networks, so taking the tournament into homes beyond the reach of subscription TV.
Those in attendance were given a good idea of what can be expected from the BBL, as old heads like Stuart MacGill, Matthew Hayden, James Hopes and Brad Haddin complimented youthful teams. The colours worn were garish, causing one spectator to compare them to a "kids dress-ups party", but looked striking on television. Dancing girls, seemingly mandatory at a Twenty20 tournament worth its name, were on hand to keep those on the boundary entertained, while the re-introduction of full-strength beer to the outer was another significant decision.
Corporate hospitality was in full swing, as CA and the Sixers strove to offer plenty of attraction to men and women of influence from the corporate and media worlds. There was a distinct hint of IPL flavour to the Sixers' box in the Victor Trumper Stand, as music blared with the lights dimmed down and precious few of a raucous crowd turned to watch the cricket for long.
Next door CA's function was a more considered affair, featuring the BBL trophy itself and a glad-handing chief executive, James Sutherland. Taking some time to sit and watch the cricket itself, Sutherland was happy to see the tournament begin after a year of rushed organisation to launch it a summer ahead of the original schedule.
He answered the question of how the summer might unfold with the BBL going head-to-head with Test matches by saying that audiences would now have cricket to attend in each city across December and January, not just those hosting Test matches as has traditionally been the case.
"When this goes head-to-head with Test cricket, we go through the summer and play four Test matches like we are against India, the cricket circus is only in one place at one time," Sutherland said. "In a six-week period, it comes to Perth once, Adelaide once, Sydney and Melbourne once, and it doesn't come to Brisbane and Hobart because they've already had their share.
"So this is a little bit about giving something more to the fans in terms of live stuff, but it is also playing cricket at different times. People will look at it and say we're trying to do too much, but it is the best time of year, the cricket season, the time where people want to come out and go to matches. It isn't like the football season where every second week you've got a home game, in some ways that is what we're trying to give to people."
Many have contended that the BBL's emergence will hurt the performance of what has become a maddeningly inconsistent national team. But Sutherland maintained his view that the new competition was intended to draw a greater and more diverse following to the game, one that may eventually find as much joy in Test matches as those who are sure to fill the MCG on Boxing Day.
"People forget from time to time what we're all about and understand that international cricket is the premium product," Sutherland said. "We want that to be successful, we don't want to compromise that. But the future is also about making sure we've got young fans who are going to have an interest in cricket, and international cricket. This [the BBL] gives them a flavour of cricket that hopefully will introduce a whole new raft of fans to the game."
On night one of the competition, those fans saw McCullum sent reeling and blood spilled onto the pitch. It was not the sort of moment one can easily forget, and in its brutish way did far more for the BBL than any number of marketeer's schemes.
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