Big Bash League: boon or bane?
The second season of the Big Bash League is nearing its conclusion. After a successful first edition, the BBL has reaffirmed its place in the Australian cricketing calendar and has, according to many, established itself as the second best T20 league in the world. That is of course behind the IPL, which despite the questionable standard of cricket seems to have earned itself an undisputed spot as the premier domestic league.
But these people who praise the BBL, lauding its vibrancy, colour and excitement, how exactly are they quantifying their eulogy? Is it fun? Yes. Is it exciting? Debatable. Is the cricket of a high standard? Perhaps. Is it benefitting Australian cricket? Certainly not. Now that the season is drawing to a close, perhaps it is time to take stock and, away from the sixes the noise and the razzmatazz, reassess the league's standing and its worth.
While critiques of an over-crowded schedule, skewed player priorities and corrupted techniques are damaging, they aren't necessarily going to turn the average fan away. The most ringing indictment against the BBL, is its artificiality. It is, for want of a kinder word, fake. The league begins and continues amid wave after wave of hyperbole and a manufactured sense of theatre. The official Twitter and Facebook pages for each of the eight franchises go into overdrive. The Brisbane Heat remind us every hour that things are '#HeatingUp', while the Sydney Thunder warn their followers they are to be '#ThunderStruck.' A competition among the eight teams for the most Facebook 'likes' and a higher place on the 'BBL Like Ladder' only heightens the synthetic sense surrounding the league.
The lengths each team goes to establish a fan following is staggering. Each team website, presumably on instruction of Cricket Australia, is identical in its categories and layout; all contain a 'team profile' page and the Melbourne Renegades' profile says: "The Melbourne Renegades represent modern Melbourne - vibrant, diverse and progressive. We have a healthy streak of anti-establishment and we play out of a non-traditional cricket venue, Etihad Stadium." "Anti-establishment"? That's not a sporting emotion, that's a political and economic view point.
The Renegades' local 'rivals', the Melbourne Stars, unsurprisingly brand themselves as "traditional" and harp back to the history of its home ground, the MCG. This isn't a rivalry driven by emotion or history. It's a pantomime rivalry for the crowds and for the men who sign the TV deals.
The sense of self-importance does not just appear off the cricket field. On the pitch the facade continues. Rumour has it that the speed guns have all been cranked up a notch or two for the League; Brett Lee's and your own puzzlement at his 150kph readings could possibly be explained thus.
Perhaps the most shocking revelation though came from James Sutherland, CEO of Cricket Australia, who after the Warne v Samuels fracas said: "Players are entertainers, they're putting on a show... I think while we can stand here and say we don't condone anything that happened last night, this sort of thing is probably something that only inspires a greater rivalry between the Renegades and the Stars and creates greater interest for the Big Bash League."
Hold on. Who said that? The CEO of Cricket Australia? The most powerful man in the sport in Australia? Yep. It was him. Having invested so much in the league there is nothing wrong with Cricket Australia encouraging the growth of a fan-base, but this headlong pursuit of a tribal-style support is ugly and embarrassing.
So what of the cricket itself? That the fielding is perhaps the most notable highlight says a lot. Furthermore, with the number of retired or discarded Australian cricketers floating around, there's a strong sense of dead wood about the league.
Granted, some of it is great. Watching Ricky Ponting bat again is awesome, seeing Brett Lee bowl is cool, the powerful hitting of the likes of Aaron Finch is always fun to watch ... It's fairly easy to enjoy the BBL. A few hours of vibrant cricket and colourful entertainment is many people's ideal way to spend an evening. But if you're a fan of the league it is worth considering the fragile premises upon which the whole tournament is built.
As Australia plummeted to a 3-1 Ashes defeat at home in 2010-11 and the public riled in the aftermath of the then unpopular Michael Clarke being appointed captain, it appeared that support for cricket in Australia was dwindling. Cricket's more attractive rival, Aussie Rules, was stealing the countries sporting talent. One newspaper even blamed the teenage-distraction of Facebook for the declining results on the field and plummeting ticket sales - cricket was being left to rot they claimed.
Then, the revamped Big Bash League was unveiled. While the cricket, obviously, remained the same, a mass of energy had been thrown into a total overhaul of the league's appearance. New teams, new players, new kits, new gadgets, new gizmos, more fireworks, more dancers, more music, and more adverts than ever before. And so the entertainment was increased... Fans flocked to matches in greater numbers. More families sat in front of their TV's watching the action and coverage of the league reached new heights.
So did Cricket Australia succeed in lifting cricket's profile? They have and may well continue to increase the number of people following cricket. That said, the BBL has so far been distanced from the more traditional ODI and Test formats insomuch that as opposed to expanding the fan base for the sport generally, Cricket Australia have simply created a fan-base for a whole new side of the sport. A side totally detached from 50-overs and five-day cricket. A side that ultimately doesn't benefit the Australian cricket team in any shape or form. Moreover, as scheduling demands are increased and the traditional domestic cricket calendar is thrown off kilter by the BBL, you'd be forgiven for thinking the league is in fact doing more harm than good.
Yes, for many people the BBL provides short, sharp bursts of colourful, fun and exciting cricket and entertainment, and for many that is all they desire. But for the life-long follower of the sport and, more specifically, the Australian cricket fan, the positives thrown up by the BBL are few and far between. The improving standing of the country's international T20 team may well prove to be a positive outcome, but that's hardly an earth shattering result is it?
What the BBL is really about is pure, plain and simple: it's about money. Other ideas can of course be argued, but at the end of the day that is what this boils down to. Cricket Australia is yet to bag the huge TV deal it so desperately craves and, until it gets it, the crass hyperbolic advertising and manufactured sense of worth looks set to continue.