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BBL beats season of uncertainty: 'There are moments when you hold your breath'

Head of the Big Bash, Alistair Dobson, reflects on the season which brought strong viewing figures and what comes next

Andrew McGlashan
Andrew McGlashan
Sydney Sixers became back-to-back champions  •  Getty Images

Sydney Sixers became back-to-back champions  •  Getty Images

The players were centrestage at the SCG on Saturday evening, with Sydney Sixers the side celebrating at the end of night, but there were many behind the scenes for who it was a triumph as well.
A 61-game season, traversing across Australia amid Covid-19 outbreaks and ever-changing border restrictions, came to a conclusion in front of more than 25,000 people which took the overall ground attendances for the season to over half a million. And even the rain stayed away.
Right up until the final few days, there were hurdles to the overcome, the last of them the snap lockdown in Perth which forced the Challenger final to be switched hastily to Canberra and denied Perth Scorchers home advantage in the west. They overcame that against Brisbane Heat, but the Sixers were too good in the final.
After months in hubs and bubbles, more quarantine was awaiting the Scorchers players heading back to Perth on Sunday. Two weeks in managed isolation was next on the list for those in Australia's T20 squad flying to New Zealand.
"No doubt as borders closed and players got caught up different situations, there are moments when you do hold your breath but it comes down to a little bit of look and enormous commitment from everyone," Alistair Dobson, the head of the Big Bash, told ESPNcricinfo.
"It's huge credit to not only all the players but the staff. To commit to hubs and over Christmas then when the goalposts would shift at very short notice for everyone to continue to roll with it.
"And 500,000 people were able to attend Big Bash matches which when you look around the world that's an incredible number."
The reward for all the efforts was the most-watched BBL in the 10-year history when streaming numbers were added to the television figures which included an audience of 1.31 million for the final - up 12% on last year's figure.
With a competition that has expanded significantly, the overall viewership had to increase - there remains evidence that the audience is spread more thinly across the 61-games - but more than five million tuned in for the final series which began late last month. The delayed start to the Australia Open tennis worked in the BBL's favour.
The viewership numbers come against the backdrop of the ongoing battle between Cricket Australia and Channel Seven which is still due to head to court in March. The metro free-to-air audience for the final was the second-highest for Seven under the current deal.
"That shows not only we were able to deliver the games…that people love having it on every night over the holidays," Dobson said.
Dobson suggested that some of new timeslots tried for this season out of necessity - morning games before the day-night Test in Adelaide, matches ending very late on the east coast of Australia and a triple-header to finish the group stage - could be continued with next summer.
Like this season with the India series, there is also the prospect of the Ashes running much later into January than would traditionally be the case, but Dobson believes that can be a benefit to the BBL.
"Think overall it's positive in the sense that the more cricket there is in the public narrative then the more interest in the BBL we see, a spike in our TV audience comes off the back of a day's play in Test cricket," he said. "It doesn't present any real issues when a test series goes later into the season, the broad view is it's helpful."
Two key elements on the agenda in the off-season will be bringing DRS into the tournament after an edition where a number of poor decisions were obvious and an overseas player draft. Some version of a review system seems certain, although Dobson said there remained work to do.
On the draft, which was due to happen before this season but had to be held back to do Covid-19, one of the elements being worked through is how to allow clubs to show loyalty to overseas players, such as Rashid Khan who is a household name at Adelaide Strikers and James Vince who said he hopes to return to the Sixers.
"Think it's important that clubs are able to maintain that loyalty," Dobson said. "A key part of the model is how we allow clubs to do that while at the same time not taking away what we are trying to achieve in the draft which is a bit of uncertainty of who is going where."
There won't be, though, any further increase in the number of overseas players allowed in an XI following the move to three for this season.
Planning for the 2021-22 edition will begin soon on the basis that things will be more normal than this season, but with the knowledge of what was possible to achieve. "It's a really important question that we are spending a lot of time contemplating because there's still uncertainty around what we'll be dealing with come next season," Dobson said. "Think we'll assume it's business as usual knowing that we can adjust and we have confidence to move quickly if required."

Andrew McGlashan is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo