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Test cricket to prop up launch of 10th edition of Big Bash

A lengthened tournament will allow for more matches to be played in the evenings

Daniel Brettig
Daniel Brettig
Cricket's oldest format is to be used as a launchpad for its newer offspring, after Big Bash League chief Alistair Dobson candidly admitted the decision to start the 10th edition of the tournament as early as December 3 had much to do with giving it the helpful lead-in of Australia's first Test against India at the Gabba that same week.
After a period of more than 40 years in which cricket's shorter formats - ODIs and then domestic T20 - have come to be seen as bankrollers for the traditional game played overs five days in whites, the recently ailing fortunes of the BBL have turned this notion on its head, with CA hoping to kickstart the T20 competition by running its launch off the back of the Brisbane Test.
CA and the BBL clubs are increasingly desperate to find a way to get the tournament trending back up again in terms of broadcast viewers and crowds, with 2020-21 marking the halfway point of a six-year, A$1.18 billion deal with Seven and Fox Sports for which around half the value was drawn from an optimistic picture of how the BBL might grow.
This scheduling decision more or less answers the question of why the Gabba won out over Perth Stadium for the first match of the series against India, despite inferior facilities and seemingly a less helpful time slot for the vast subcontinental broadcast audience. A Perth Test would have finished too late for an ideal broadcast slot for BBL openers on the eastern side of the country, beginning with the Adelaide Strikers facing the Melbourne Renegades at Adelaide Oval on the Friday night after Tim Paine tosses the coin opposite Virat Kohli at the Gabba.
"That fast start off the back of that first Test at the Gabba is going to be huge," Dobson said. "All our numbers from a TV point of view suggest that BBL games off the back of Test matches are really strong. Our clubs have really bought into the idea of a really creative and innovative week of matches where we've got a home game for every club in those first eight, it presents some really interesting opportunities for us to work with our players and clubs around a theme and events.
"That said, it also allows us to create a powerful core part of the BBL season in that central school holiday period with a run of prime-time matches and a spread of home games. BBL09 was full of highlights, there were a number of things that impacted our season that were out of our control. Innovation and entertainment are really important things for us to work towards for this season and if we can deliver on those things we're on track to have a great BBL, inevitably with some bumps in the road to come."
All seven of Adelaide Oval's Big Bash League fixtures will play out in prime-time evening slots in one of the standout features of a fixture list that has lengthened the 10th edition of the tournament to 65 days to appease broadcasters while also creating more room to move amid the Covid-19 pandemic. One of the chief complaints about last summer's BBL was a proliferation of afternoon matches to squeeze the tournament's 56 regular season games into a tighter window, with the Strikers suffering one of the biggest drop offs in terms of attendances due to getting far more early starts compared to Melbourne and Sydney in particular.
However, the schedule for the 2020-21 tournament, subject to changes forced by Covid-19, has created room for the vast majority of matches to be played at night, with only eight earlier starts on double header days this time around - of those, only two matches start any earlier than 5pm eastern daylight time. As part of the carve up between broadcast rights holders Fox Sports and Seven, the pay TV network will get exclusive access to 10 evening matches.
Among other changes, the regional component of last season's fixture has been stripped back considerably after complaints from broadcasters about costs, while the problematic nature of the pre-Christmas period has been underlined by the use of the boutique-sized Junction Oval for a match between the Melbourne Stars and Adelaide Strikers on December 20. Dobson confirmed that CA would not be shifting from a 61-game tournament during the current broadcast deal with Fox Sports and Seven, lest it open up a negotiation that could only lead to a rights fee discount.
"I know the length or the number of games is a topic people like to talk about, but we think the way we've set it up this year is really strong and people will be really engaged with the competition," Dobson said. "Absolutely our commitment is to get all 61 games away and we've got a schedule that we think gives us the best chance to do that, but there is a whole range of scenario planning around making sure all the different options are considered.
"We've got nothing but admiration for the way the footy codes have been able to adapt [to Covid], and we're learning a lot from them and learning a lot from our broadcast partners, who are in the thick of it at the moment as well."
Issues around overseas players remain to be resolved, while a raft of other in-game tweaks will be formally announced by CA in coming weeks. "The prospect of bringing overseas players into both the WBBL and BBL is really important to those leagues," Dobson said. "So we're working really closely with internal experts to make sure the protocols and relevant exemptions and processes are in place. We're optimistic of having overseas players part of both competitions again and there are a number of things we've got in place to give ourselves the best shot to do that.
"Flexibility is going to be the key word. The ability for clubs to bring replacement overseas players in is obviously going to be more challenging on a short-term basis than it has in the past, the key is that we have to be really planned and organised. The list management strategies for clubs need to be in place ahead of time and we're confident we'll get the players in that we think are important to the league."

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig