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BBL or the bush

If traditionalists are alarmed at Cricket Australia's new thrust on Twenty20, they'll need to get used to it. Swayed by public research findings, the board has decided to go all out to pursue new audiences

Daniel Brettig

June 24, 2011

Comments: 19 | Text size: A | A

Daniel Christian celebrates a wicket with his team-mates, Victoria v South Australia, Big Bash, Melbourne, January 28, 2011
Cricket Australia brought their plans to expand the Big Bash League forward a year, reacting to market research forecasting a decline in the audience for cricket © Getty Images

Carbon emissions are making news again in Australia, on the anniversary of Kevin Rudd's removal as prime minister by Julia Gillard. Away from Canberra, in a pursuit more leisure than legislature, Australian cricket is having its own climate-change debate.

State associations are dealing with the implications of Cricket Australia's August 2010 epiphany that the game may be terminally out of step with the cultural climate of an evolving nation. While the states' attitude might be summed up by an irritated rendition of "The Times They Are A Changin'", CA's hymn sheet has a finality closer in tone to "Things Have Changed", that more recent glimpse of Bob Dylan's apocalyptic vision.

Players, coaches and support staff across the country are expressing puzzlement, and in some cases anger, at fundamental changes to the game, generally in the opposite direction to the one they think the Test team needs to head in. Western Australia's coach, Mickey Arthur, has even said state budgets for next summer are essentially the inverse of what is required for Australia to return to No. 1 in the world. Head scratching has become as commonplace in winter as indoor net sessions.

As far as Cricket Australia is concerned, this is old news. Almost a year has passed since CA board members were shaken to their core by the presentation of figures, at the Australian cricket conference, that argued the youth of 2010 were almost entirely lost to the game. Seven out of 10 Australian children, they were told, had no interest in cricket. Without significant change, cricket was likely to slip to the outer fringes of Australian sport within a decade.

Figures, of course, are never completely above suspicion, as any cricketer assessed purely by his bald averages will attest. CA's research asked parents about the leisure priorities of their children, and the findings said cricket had slipped behind not just numerous sports but also behind such broad activities as walking, swimming, and watching television. These samples said international Twenty20 was the most popular form of the game, though CA and other boards are adamant they would prefer Twenty20 to be a club product. Then there is the fact that participation numbers for cricket in Australia have actually swelled steadily over the past decade, handily outstripping the rate of population growth.

Whatever the merits of the numbers, they caused the wheels of the antiquated CA governance engine to grind noisily into reverse, after years of comfort about cricket's place in the Australian psyche were confounded. The board emerged from the conference having resolved to expand the Big Bash League a year earlier than previously scheduled. No longer feeling sure of their long-held stocks, CA would stake their future on a gamble. Tradition was out, and Twenty20 was in.

Now the results of that change in course are being felt, as the rushed roll-out of the BBL and its eight manufactured teams impacts on player contracts, state association staffing, and the resources available to aid the Sheffield Shield and domestic limited-overs competitions. State teams, for example, have been told that they will only be permitted three support staff on interstate visits for domestic matches. Australian players are also feeling the squeeze, in the way of a strong CA desire for Test match performers to make themselves available for the narrowest of BBL windows between series against New Zealand and India.

What is clear beyond doubt is that where once Australian cricket existed to produce a successful Test team, now it is subjugating that aim beneath what is perceived as the more pressing task: maintaining the game's income and its place among the nation's pastimes. In the simplest terms, the spread of cricket via the BBL and the aggressive pursuit of greater junior participation through format changes and investment now sit above the results of the Test team, even as a broad review into its sinking performance is conducted.

James Sutherland, the Cricket Australia chief executive, provided an indication of what was to come in his speech to Melbourne Cricket Club members on December 10 last year. The dinner took place in between the second and third Ashes Tests, and the thrust of Sutherland's words was lost amid the frenzy around Australia's abject defeat in Adelaide. However they demonstrated a significant shift in focus, directed at perhaps the most conservative cricket audience in existence outside of Lord's. One can imagine a few eyebrows being raised when he stated that the Ashes were not the most critical part of the summer.

"Cricket Australia is convinced that our main contribution to Australian cricket will not be about this summer's Ashes campaign - very important as that is. Cricket used to be able to take for granted its place as a natural part of the Australian way of life. It is no longer a simple matter of assuming that Australian kids will wake up on Christmas Day to a cricket bat under the tree and be fans for life.

As administrators, my colleagues and I will be judged by whether or not Australia's kids of today become cricket fans of tomorrow. We have to earn our relationship with young Australians of all backgrounds and cultures by showing them that cricket is a choice they should make, rather than something they adopt simply because it's there.

We often say, at Cricket Australia, that we need to work to ensure cricket is a game for all Australians, for males and females, for young and for old, for city and for country, and for fans of Test, of ODI and of Twenty20 cricket."

Test cricket, Sutherland concluded in his toast to the game, was but one of three "fabulous" formats.

What is clear beyond doubt is that where once Australian cricket existed to produce a successful Test team, now it is subjugating that aim beneath what is perceived as the more pressing task: maintaining the game's income and its place among the nation's pastimes

Twenty20 is viewed as the key to growth among future generations, but also among women, a corner of the market that cricket has never wooed completely. Much of CA's logic of the moment is drawn from weighing the game against other sports, particularly the youth and female following enjoyed by Australian Rules football. While the AFL as a league does not yet enjoy the nationwide recognition in winter that cricket has in summer, it is growing at a rapid rate, helped by domestic television rights deals that make a pittance of anything negotiated for cricket.

No one feels this more keenly than CA's management axis. Sutherland; the head of cricket operations, Michael Brown; and the head of marketing and BBL project owner, Mike McKenna are all former football administrators, with mixed records. Their attitudes have been greatly influenced by envy of what they see springing up at AFL House, which might colloquially be described as money growing on trees. That envy has fuelled what one state official termed "paranoia" about the creeping of the AFL into cricket's territory, in seasonal, financial and publicity senses.

That leads to the fiscal imperative. The BBL is designed to provide a reliable income stream for an organisation that over the past decade has become hugely reliant on Indian television rights money. While India can be seen as a bottomless well of funds, thanks to its vast size and apparently insatiable appetite for cricket, no other country has anything like the same security. The sale of broadcast rights to England for the next home Ashes series is expected to be far less lucrative than the current deal, which was swelled by the 2005 Ashes epic - "cricket is the new football" went one UK catch cry - and the entry of new competitors into the pay television market. Paradoxically, a strong Australian dollar does not help cricket in a country where the sport is bankrolled by funds from overseas. More local revenue is needed.

Beyond the numbers, the BBL is an optimistic stab at appropriating club culture for cricket in Australia. To that end, each side will market the availability of membership packages in the vein of football teams. The eight new teams are of precious little interest or worth to those who follow the game, but they are being designed for those who previously would not have gone near cricket. The abandonment of familiar colours is about forging fresh identities for new followers of the game who may have no great attraction to the national side.

It is a fact that some immigrants to Australia who do go to watch international cricket invariably find themselves barracking against the home side, and thus cannot be expected to encourage their offspring to enter the game with the ultimate intention of playing for the team of Bradman, Border and Ponting. So it is that the competition will dovetail with a new emphasis on Twenty20 and similar variations as a junior format, allowing parents to introduce children to a game that sits more neatly within the 2.5-hour timeframe of most other sports, and that offers an alternative pathway to success.

Broadening the audience is a priority for any sport. But the contention that the cricket audience in Australia is shrinking has brought about a most fundamental change in how to approach that priority. If traditionalists feel left out of the new regime, they had better get used to it - change will be the only constant for quite some time. The vast gamble CA is taking is to presume that its core of support will not be turned away by the headlong pursuit of something new. As Dylan put it in "Things Have Changed": "I've been trying to get as far away from myself as I can. Some things are too hot to touch, the human mind can only stand so much… you can't win with a losing hand."

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

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Posted by ygkd on (June 26, 2011, 8:53 GMT)

Thanks to Cricinfo for the link to the Sydney Morning Herald article, "Why we will never catch India in tests". I too am dismayed at the effect the T20 revolution is having on mid-teens' cricket in Australia. I've seen and heard young batters asking their coach over and over "How do I hit the ball harder?" when they have quite a bit more to work on first, like not lofting the ball all the time, like tightening a defence and getting footwork right. I'm not against T20 per se, but I am against it at junior levels.

Posted by Meety on (June 26, 2011, 7:17 GMT)

@VivGilchrist - like the idea - except it is cost prohibitive. Also playing in November is right when I want players to be concentrating on 1st class cricket. I wish the BBL could be played in February - but it really starts to come into conflict with the Football codes. I would actually prefer the BBL go the way of the Ryobi cup & is played before or after a shield game. Some shield games could be taken regionally, I think the states that have played away from their test ground the most are NSW & Vic & Tassy.

Posted by VivGilchrist on (June 26, 2011, 1:07 GMT)

Turn the Domestic 50 over comp into a month-long tournament played at regional centers starved of cricket. So rather than tacking a FR game on the end of a Shield game it can be played like a mini WCup sort of thing. Maybe the month of November or wherever suitable. Play in places such as Newcastle, Canberra, Bendigo, Geelong, Gold Coast, Mt Gambier etc etc. Bring in a Associate team to join in such as Ireland, Netherlands, Afghanistan etc and I think the comp will generate genuine interest.

Posted by Winsome on (June 25, 2011, 12:34 GMT)

I can understand CA trying to make cricket more high profile. Test cricket is not a sustainable beast for them and goes on for too long to get kids spending much time following it. Also, in the wider world of the game, it is not played by many countries. If Australia wishes to be part of the promotion of the sport outside the narrow interests of the test playing nations, it will have to be through supporting the short formats. CA have had 2 years in a row of financial losses. They must be hoping like hell that this coming summer means bumper TV viewings in India for the test series and that the BBL takes off immediately. I can't see the second happening. It will take a while to build fan loyalty if they manage it at all.

Posted by Meety on (June 25, 2011, 2:08 GMT)

@youngkeepersdad - yes thats a good idea re: Vic v Sth Oz - or local derbies. Not sure if its practical for WA. I know a shield game was played in Lismore about 15 yrs ago, it had a far better attendance then if it was played in Sydney. I think Woollongong & Newcastle need to have more 1st class & international fixtures. Maybe a return to the old quadrangular tournament where Oz A played with Oz - but not against each other. Those matches can be played regionally. -- -- -- List A (Ryobi Cup), games should go back to free to air TV!

Posted by ygkd on (June 24, 2011, 18:18 GMT)

The bush was mentioned. Years ago I went to 2 domestic one-dayers here in the country. The first one had a decent enough crowd, despite a website giving an incorrect starting time. It was Vic v NSW, held in Wangaratta near the Vic/NSW border. The following year, in nearby Shepparton, a similar fixture flopped. Why? There was another big sporting do on, but it wasn't just that. Vic were playing WA. WA in Shepparton? How many of their supporters would take a flight over to regional Victoria for that? The southern NSW ones could have driven down. Bush games can work, but you have to be sensible. Put a SA v Vic game on in Mt Gambier, a Qld v NSW one on in the Gold Coast, Tas v Vic in Launceston (the denizens of which city must surely be smarting over the Hobart Hurricanes moniker). If we must have city-team T20s, send more of the 50 over stuff to the regions and it may yet keep its relevance by re-engaging an old supporter-base.

Posted by   on (June 24, 2011, 16:15 GMT)

All the Indian fans commentating that cricket is "dying in Australia" have no clue what they are talking about. FACT: Test cricket is played to almost completely empty stadiums in India. FACT: Test matches in Australia attract crowds the envy of EVERY test playing nation. No cricket playing nation gets the crowds that are taken for granted in Australia. FACT: Cricket participation rates amongst youngsters has actually increased at a HIGHER percentage than natural population growth. Cricket Australia are merely insane with this latest Twenty20 inspired plan. I suggest that Indian cricket fans better have a good look in their own backyard. That Indian team that took the field at Sabina Park is a snap shot of what the Indian test team will look like post SRT, VVSL, GG and VS in 3 years time...no offence, but India will hit the bricks faster than Australia did.

Posted by HatsforBats on (June 24, 2011, 15:50 GMT)

When the Aus test team started to slide down the rankings I assumed that 1. it would be semi-permanent, 2. that our administration would do the right thing, and 3. that it would be good for the game. I now realise that these 2 of these 3 things will not come to pass any time soon. Our administration is woefully misguided and is blatantly chasing the dollar with no regard for the long-term welfare of the game. Shield cricket needs to be free-to-air in order to prosper; for most it is just too remote. The CA attitude of deferring priority to 20/20 over test/shield cricket harms young developing players. Is there no avenue for

Posted by hyclass on (June 24, 2011, 14:41 GMT)

Im reminded of Ford Australias' recent attempt with the FG Falcon, to be all things to all people. The silence in the showrooms has been deafening. The traditional market was alienated and the perceived target market, who represent a far smaller percentage,failed to have the necessary traction. Sutherlands' mistake is to assume that there needs to be a city-based 20/20 competition. Without the quality to attract patronage, how will intelligent people be persuaded to invest their time and resources? Falling interest in test cricket is symptomatic of two failures. The first, to successfully administer in an accountable fashion, the offices and resources of australian cricket, based upon results. The consequences have been the falling fortunes of our national side,the breakdown of a peerless system and the complete frustration of the cricketing public with CA. The second is the communication of play, by tv, by radio, by highlights. If its out of hearing and sight, then its out of mind.

Posted by D.V.C. on (June 24, 2011, 13:10 GMT)

You mentioned the bush in the title. WHY ARE THERE NO TEAMS IN AUSTRALIA'S 6th LARGEST CITY: NEWCASTLE??? Why can't we get any international or domestic cricket of note!? Somebody, anybody, please tell me!

Posted by   on (June 24, 2011, 12:39 GMT)

I think there is a direct relationship between the Australian team"s poor performance and the declining interest in the game. I also would like to believe that the Australian cricket fan, spoiled by the team"s success has become intolerant of the team"s poor performance. No team can stay on top for ever and other teams, some with Australian coaches have moved forward whilst Australia has declined. Maybe the Australians should look at English supporters and the barmy army which has been staunchly loyal despite heavy and often frustrating defeats over the years. The public needs to be patient and Cricket Australia needs to be smart. T20 is not the answer. You can"t throw the baby out with the bath water and that means realising that test cricket must have a big role . sridhar

Posted by mally_northenfieldcc on (June 24, 2011, 12:09 GMT)

It's an interesting position that CA has taken here. For so long, cricket in Australia was held up as the model to follow - pyramid club system, international matches on free-to-air TV etc. T20 has started to decline in England due to overkill - too many matches with cost of tickets almost doubling in the last few years. Give kids access to the game on TV and at school level, and they will play! Is it the way to go to bring a new audience? It's a start...the point about new immigrants kids cheering on the opposition is nothing new - in England, a huge number of Pakistani and Indian-origin players even though born here support the team of their heritage - Norman Tebbitt's infamous 'cricket test' as to the success or otherwise of immigrant communities to integrate, sport being a prime example of where previous generations integrated into existing teams and the modern day where teams of one origin or the other form.

Posted by ygkd on (June 24, 2011, 10:21 GMT)

I would hope that the way back is to offer a better product - ie. to produce better results on the field, not offer circuses. As for T20 in the junior ranks, our local comp offered it last season as part of a mixed season. I saw no rush to embrace it by new players. Indeed, there had been such oportunities before when the first of the two mornings/evenings were washed out and the 2nd became 20-overs a side. But how can a 15yo improve making 20 retired or bowling 18 balls? The reality is, our local comp already offers teens the chance to play after school or on Sat. morning for a few hours one week, then the same the following week (unless they choose to be subbed out for whatever reason). It is not a lack of flexibility or a problem of long-hours that causes our local comp to lack junior numbers. And it won't be simply seeing some massive sixes in the BBL that brings the numbers back. Most would want to hit sixes themselves but wouldn't be able to. Not yet. Hard work is required first.

Posted by   on (June 24, 2011, 8:51 GMT)

The article clearly suggests that the CA is mainly trying to attract the non followers. Cricket in Australia is in serious trouble and that can be gauged simply from TV coverage of last year's MCG Ashes test when thousands of Aussie fans simply abandoned there team upon capitulation. When the so called fans cannot support their team for even one bad day, then there is somthing wrong with the fanbase and all the more reason to search for new fans even if that is for the so called " anti format".......

Posted by vswami on (June 24, 2011, 8:16 GMT)

Part of the problem with test cricket is the lack of unpredictability in results. Better teams on paper more often than not win or atleast draw and upsets are rare. Beyond results the interest merely lies in tracking individual performances which is unsustainable. People will follow scores but may not pay to watch a predictable result play out over 5 days. It was okay in an era where alternate entertainment choices were limited but test cricket needs to exist in the context of alternate choices presented in society. Test cricket desperately needs to be made more unpredictable.

Posted by Chennaified on (June 24, 2011, 6:35 GMT)

It is hard reading indeed.Not sure what the right answer is or if there's a right answer. Australia as a team have fallen a lot in performance and ranking over the past couple of years. The only way for things to improve that I can think of is for Australia to reign supreme once more and that will get back the fans, viewers and inevitably the money as well. Everyone loves a winner.

Posted by Impactzone on (June 24, 2011, 6:21 GMT)

A generation of kids lost to the sport can be traced to dad not having time to play in the back yard, nor the mums having the inclination to sit by the sidelines watching. Junior T20 will do well because of social changes. It is needed to round up any of the kids interested with a ride to the pitch.

What CA has missed in its bull charge is building a new market that is separate to the current one at senior level. By mixing them it does become an unnecessary gamble.

My own kids see T20 as fun. They also know its not the "real game".

Posted by redneck on (June 24, 2011, 4:27 GMT)

well i would have thought that majority of australians follow the tradition forms of cricket in summer, but apparently they dont??? i want to know where cricket australia are getting their stats from???? and they going to schools and asking the kids??? perosonly i see the australian cricket team as the pinnicle of australian sport, as aussie rules has no international flavor. i would there for assume when it comes to cricket that one would have more interest in seeing their country win on the international stage rather that a fabricated city team beat another fabricated city team??? i think the new big bash will crash and burn and will see the 6 state teams back in 20/20 within 5 years. cricket australia are underselling the value of their current product, they do somethings better than anyother sports body in australia like take the national team right round the country where as other sports only ever consider playing in sydney and melbourne. hope this whole experiment proves as much.

Posted by PeteB on (June 24, 2011, 4:19 GMT)

My this is depressing reading. The continual promotion of the anti-cricket that is T20 is driving this fan away from the game. A game that has existed for a few years should not be on the same pedestal as a game with a rich pedigree like test cricket. Money seems to be more important than the game itself.

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Daniel Brettig Assistant editor Daniel Brettig had been a journalist for eight years when he joined ESPNcricinfo, but his fascination with cricket dates back to the early 1990s, when his dad helped him sneak into the family lounge room to watch the end of day-night World Series matches well past bedtime. Unapologetically passionate about indie music and the South Australian Redbacks, Daniel's chief cricketing achievement was to dismiss Wisden Almanack editor Lawrence Booth in the 2010 Ashes press match in Perth - a rare Australian victory that summer.

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