BBL's summer madness returns
The Big Bash is back. Cue the excitement. Cue the fanfare. Cue the fireworks. Cue the chaos.
And what chaos we have seen in the days leading up to opening night.
First, Michael Clarke, Captain Australia, hero to the masses, world's No.1 Test batsman, is withdrawn from his one and only scheduled appearance for the Sydney Thunder by Cricket Australia's High Performance crew.
Ben Hilfenhaus is likewise advised not to play for the Hobart Hurricanes as a precautionary measure with Test cricket in mind.
In the same memo, injuries to John Hastings and Josh Hazlewood from their Test duties last week are outlined. Hastings is ruled out of the Melbourne Stars' opening match. Hazlewood joins James Pattinson, Pat Cummins, and Mitchell Marsh as non-participants in the entire tournament.
Then came the saga of Usman Khawaja. Desperate to reclaim a Test berth, he is named to captain the Chairman's XI team playing a three-day fixture against the touring Sri Lankans. But after Clarke's withdrawal from the Thunder, Khawaja is to be withdrawn from day three of the Chairman's match to represent the Thunder on Saturday night.
Meanwhile, the most extraordinary scenario imaginable played out around the availability of Dale Steyn. Having signed for a one-off guest spot with the Brisbane Heat, the no objection certificate which the Heat obtained from Cricket South Africa was withdrawn when the Cape Cobras realised Steyn was available to play a limited overs semi-final for them on the same day.
Each case brings its own complexities, all the while framing the all important second edition of the Big Bash League, which begins just five days after the completion of a compelling three Tests between Australia and South Africa, and less than a week before another vital series against Sri Lanka.
BBL One began with similar doubts. No-one knew what to expect. No-one knew whether it would be constructive or destructive to Australian cricket. As it turned out it was a roaring success. It's still hard to explain. Concocted teams, a cacophony of colour and sound, the constancy of games almost every night in prime-time for six weeks for some reason meant it was a winner. The crowd figures were not all that different to previous seasons but the television ratings were.
Herein lies the importance of BBL Two. Cricket Australia's current seven-year television rights deal with the Nine Network and Fox Sports is expiring in March of 2013. Fox Sports bought exclusive rights to the Big Bash last time around. Fox Sports paid well over the market value for domestic cricket in 2005, but well under the current worth in 2012. The BBL's success has seen other networks clamouring for a slice of pie. The beauty of a successful domestic product is its reliability. The ratings of the international series scheduled during each Australian summer rise and fall with the quality and popularity of the opponent, as well as the quality and popularity of the Australian Test side.
But the BBL is T20 cricket. It does not matter who is playing or where. Australians seem to love it. The facts back it up.
The first domestic T20 scheduled in Australia in 2005 saw 20,071 pack into the WACA to watch WA and Victoria play a one-off match, for no rhyme or reason other than to trial a format no-one had ever seen before in Australia. Only 42,193 people attended a WACA Test match across four days a month earlier.
Last season, 23,496 attended the MCG to see Shane Warne versus David Warner and Chris Gayle in the first Thunder v Stars showdown of BBL | 01. Yet nearly 5000 more turned out two years earlier when Victoria, without Warne, and New South Wales, without Gayle, played a T20 at the same venue. Work that one out.
Ricky Ponting, widely lauded as the best Australian Test batsman since Bradman, played his final Test innings on Monday in front of less than 10,000 people in Perth. A month earlier he made a glorious, unbeaten 162 for Tasmania against Victoria in front of fewer than 100. Yet the crowd predicted at the Gabba on Sunday to watch Ponting in purple, in his least preferred format, will trump those figures comfortably.
Fans show up for T20. It is the action-packed format for them. It is as predictable as night following day. Does it matter that Clarke has been withdrawn? He was not even on any BBL squad's roster last year and the Big Bash was a huge success without him. Will the presence of Usman Khawaja, with his one T20 half-century and pedestrian career strike-rate of 101.13, add thousands to the crowd figures and television ratings? Imagine if he was 20 not out overnight in the second innings against Sri Lanka only to be pulled to play a T20.
Will people care that David Warner has switched from the Thunder to the Sydney Sixers? Will they care that Shane Watson no longer plays for a Sydney team? Will they care that Dirk Nannes will line-up for his 10th different T20 franchise, not to mention his international caps with Australia and the Netherlands?
Will fans recognise Faf du Plessis when he plays for the Renegades on Friday night for his seven-hour century for South Africa in the Test series? If the Renegades beat the Stars will anyone know the words to the team song, if indeed they have one, given Aaron Finch is the only player left in the entire squad who played in a Renegades win last year?
Will the fans stay away because of the injuries to Mitch Marsh, John Hastings, Pat Cummins, James Pattinson, and Josh Hazlewood? Marsh was a star of last year's tournament so he is a loss, but the other four managed two games between them for the entire BBL last summer, even if their currency has risen significantly in the interim.
Will Brisbane Heat General Manager Andrew Blucher's words ring true regarding Dale Steyn's withdrawal?
"[It] is terribly disappointing for the team and our fans and members, who were eagerly anticipating seeing Dale play."
If Brisbane fans missed his 30 overs in the Test match at the Gabba for South Africa three weeks ago will they really rue the four overs he could have bowled on Saturday night for the Heat?
The frivolous postures being struck here, there and everywhere regarding the Big Bash League are not the major issues at play. It's all just part of the fanfare. We will see big hitting, fast bowling, quality spin, great fielding, and close games throughout the tournament no matter the teams or the players. Australian domestic cricket has a reputation for it. The tournament will be successful again, and the only query is whether it can outstrip last year's viewership records.
The broader concerns about BBL |02 are thus. How can Dale Steyn honour contracts with the Brisbane Heat, Cape Cobras, and the Deccan Chargers, at the same time, with all their competing interests, and yet all the while be prepared thoroughly for regular international duty? Cricketers today are not faced with the age-old club versus country that footballers are, they are now fighting franchise verses franchise arguments, tournament versus tournament debates. How can a player be a servant to four masters?
At present, Steyn's Cricket South Africa contract is lucrative enough to ensure national duties trump all others. What happens when it isn't, like the cases of West Indian, New Zealand, Sri Lankan and Pakistani players? You can now see why many want a stand-alone window for the Indian Premier League. It would save the chaos that is occurring in Australia right now.
Furthermore, Cricket Australia were not concerned about running last year's BBL concurrently with the Border-Gavaskar Test series, as India are big drawcards and could not be dwarfed by the T20 League.
But what if the Warne Muralitharan showdown in Melbourne on Friday night heavily outweighs the battle for the Warne-Muralitharan Trophy which begins in Hobart a week later? It is entirely conceivable that there will be more interest in the two retired (or are they?) champs than there will be in an Australia v Sri Lanka Test series.
Hence the critical importance of this Big Bash League for CA. If they secure the television rights deal they want on the back of another successful tournament, then they secure their financial future at a time when cricket as we know it has never been more uncertain.
But we should not concern ourselves with such deep philosophical questions. It is time to cue the lights, cue the cameras, cue the action. The show is about to start. The Big Bash is back.
Alex Malcolm is a freelance writer based in Perth