June 24, 2011

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

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