Australian cricket is on course to top two million spectators at matches this summer, as the expected success of the Ashes series and the limited-overs matches that follow combines with the continuing growth of the Twenty20 Big Bash League.
Including day one of the SCG Test, total Ashes attendance has now reached 729,527, putting the series in line to top the record crowds of 2006-07, when the preceding 2005 clash in England had raised interest in the ensuing battle. That was the only Australian Test series on record to have topped 800,000 spectators, with the previous Ashes series in 2013-14 being attended by more than 753,000 spectators.
This summer's increased attendances have been aided by the greater capacity of Adelaide Oval, and also the fact that each match so far has run into the fifth day. James Sutherland, the Cricket Australia chief executive, said the rising tide of crowds was being matched by the growth of the BBL, as the two contests feed off one another in terms of drawing people to cricket.
"It's been a great series in terms of putting on an event, an Ashes series in our cycle of future tours programme is always a really important summer," Sutherland told ABC Radio. "We're heading towards crowds of over 800,000 for the Ashes Test matches. I think when we get to the one-dayers, T20s, we'll be over a million.
"Add another million for the Big Bash League, then for the first time ever we're going to see attendances of over two million for cricket matches in Australia. So far so good, it's been fantastic and I'd have to say the performances of the Australian team have been very pleasing as well.
"This year we're buoyed by the Adelaide Oval being at full capacity. It was only at half capacity last time, it's one of the great assets of Australian cricket in that we've got these magnificent stadiums. We've got the Perth Stadium coming online for a game on the 28th of January, already pretty well sold out, and that in itself is just another way in which we can meet the demands of people wanting to come along to the cricket, which is fantastic to see."
Sutherland said that CA had seen evidence of Test match crowds becoming younger and more diverse, a shift he attributed to the use of T20 in general and the BBL in particular to bring new audiences to the game - a key plank of CA's recently released strategy for the game down under. While there are inevitable grumbles about overlaying the BBL across the international summer, Sutherland has long been a proponent of co-existence rather than distinct windows.
"The focus we have around T20 is bringing new fans to the game, particularly with kids, females and families, but at the same time what we're seeing - and you only have to look around the SCG today - is kids graduating their interest into Test cricket," Sutherland said. "Some people think that BBL is sort of counter to Test cricket, but it's actually designed to be complementary. All of our research suggests that people still understand that the pinnacle of the game is Test cricket, the aspiration for young people is to play Test cricket, that's the ultimate.
"They'd love to play BBL, but to take it a step further and play at the highest level, and play for your country. I think this time of year I often say 'more cricket is never enough' and that's been demonstrated by the way the Big Bash League has continued to grow. We also forget that Test matches are played in one place. They're here for one week, we're here in Sydney for one week, and that's where it is, but at the same time, Big Bash League matches are being played in other parts of the country.
"Previously in other summers gone by, we haven't been able to feed the appetite of the Australian cricket community with other matches that they wanted to go to. We saw last night there was a game down in Hobart, great crowd, fascinating game, and again just another example of cricket being able to spread itself around the country."
As for the recent "poor" rating given the MCG for its lifeless drop-in pitch, Sutherland said the venue had been fortunate to miss out on the new ICC regulations - enforced from January 1 this year - that would have meant it faced a ban from international matches in the event of a second consecutive "poor" rating.
"I think now with the new regulations that are in at ICC level, the consequences of that are quite severe," Sutherland said. "The new regulations that came in on the first of January mean that once you've got a first strike, the second strike means you've actually got to have matches taken away from you. We're not at that stage with the MCG, but it's all about improvement and this is an opportunity to get better.
"Ultimately it's very disappointing to receive that rating. I think it's probably a moot point as to where it lands and whether it was poor or the next category up, which was below average. But it's an indicator either way - below average or poor - and it's a rating we're not comfortable with, and I know the MCC and the MCG aren't happy with it either.
"I think that will be the catalyst for us to work closely with them to respond and ensure we know and understand exactly what we're looking for in an MCG pitch. And to define that, and to then make sure that's rolled out with regularity and confidence."