In the post Big Bash, pre Indian Premier League vacuum all the talk is of how successful the former has proved, leading to much conjecture over the English domestic equivalent. Is the much discussed, much proposed city franchise league a means of growing the game or simply a means of growing bank balances? T20: Growing Pains discusses the problem of T20 cricket in England, its future and its raison d’etre.
Thirteen summers previous I took the plunge and attended my first T20 match. Back then it was known as Twenty20, before the IPL and the marketing men gave the format a re-brand. There was a sense of excitement, a sense of curiosity. Most of all, there was a sense of fun. Nobody was taking the format too seriously, it was a happy way to engage people into the sport, make it a little more sociable. Hampshire’s new Rose Bowl ground was resplendent in the late afternoon sunshine as the hosts prepared to take on Middlesex. An atmosphere of bonhomie and light-hearted joy pervaded the circular seating area as supporters, having paid just ten pounds for a ticket, enjoyed their four cans of beer (or a bottle of wine) that were permitted without question upon entry whilst kids bounded up and down the bouncy castles and other fun fair rides. The hinterlands were ringed with various eateries, confectionery stalls and beverage outlets, not an inch was spared! Available seats were scarce but, no matter, spectators simply stood at the top of the seating area to watch the match. The occasion seemed innocent, carefree. This was a brave new world and no-one was quite sure where it was heading. To be honest, no-one seemed too worried about looking too far ahead.
The hosts batted first and, despite possessing a batting line-up that included Shane Watson and Michael Clarke, dawdled through the first two thirds of their innings; only a late salvo from Dimitri Mascarenhas (52 runs from 22 balls including 4 sixes) helping the hosts reach a respectable total of 170. The England international, in combination with Chris Tremlett, then outfoxed Middlesex’s powerful line-up to win the match comfortably. The result was, in some respects, secondary though to the occasion and the atmosphere. Supporters enjoyed themselves, discovered that cricket wasn’t quite as staid as they previously thought and pondered the idea of returning for another match, although such thoughts would need to be acted upon quickly due to the size of the crowds and the burgeoning popularity of the contests. (At one point myself and a friend moseyed up for a Sunday afternoon contest only to discover that it had sold out! An astonishing occurrence for domestic cricket outside of London)
Thirteen years on and the contrast is marked. Hampshire’s pleasant, modern Rose Bowl has morphed into a concrete monolith built for international cricket (or to be precise Ashes test matches) whilst the whole T20 (name changed by deed-poll) experience has ventured down the road of Oscar Wilde’s cynic: the price of everything and the value of nothing. Ticket prices have more than doubled, bringing alcohol into the ground was outlawed a few years back whilst the bouncy castle and fun fair have largely disappeared. Somewhat gallingly, the Egregious Bowl has changed from a cricket ground into a multi-use stadium. The impact is that the venue now hosts any number of wedding fayres, tattoo festivals, vintage sales and fireworks displays, all of which are advertised with zeal and relish throughout the year. Sadly, cricket, the raison d’etre of the construction of the ground, seems to receive short shrift and little advertising, particularly those involving the host county. The necessity to sell the ground to the local authority, as a result of some financial dire straits, has likely dictated the shift in priorities.
The atmosphere seems to have changed as well. Gone is the carefree joie de vivre which emanated those early, formative years of Twenty20 cricket to be replaced with marketing bluff and bluster (it’s now the more dramatic, dynamic sounding T20 Blast as opposed to the humble Twenty20 Cup don’t ya know) whilst the spectator experience seems less turn up and enjoy yourself and more ‘give us your money’ in a highwayman sort of ethos. The number of food stalls decreased as the Ageas Bowl’s own outlets took command whilst prices have skyrocketed and the smells taken on that pungent stench so associated with the cheap fare on offer at Football grounds.
The contest itself remains interesting and, at times, absorbing, particularly if both teams possess a chance of victory. Twenty over cricket, played by whomever in whatever ground or stadium, still possesses the ability to entertain and enthral even if, like a trip to certain fast food outlets, it is quickly forgotten. Interestingly, the score of 170 which underpinned Hampshire’s success thirteen summers previous would still prove a competitive score. For all its shifts in tactics, marketing and faux drama the currency of quick runs remains paramount. Unfortunately the currency of quick pounds triumphs over all.
The problem with McCricket is that it doesn’t attract new interest in cricket as a sport, but, rather, new interest to a specific format from the event crowd. Said types seem interested in having a good time, normally with copious amounts of alcohol, with only a passing interest, at most, in the sport taking place in front of them. Learning and understanding the tactics and the nuances of the game, those aspects that make it so enjoyable to the cricket fan rather than the T20 fan, is not part and parcel of the experience. Similar to the good time gang that now frequent the PDC darts tournaments, who drink plenty and then chant maniacally at either those in the tables or the chairs (delete as appropriate depending on where one is sat) the new T20 followers are unlikely to be concerned with the number of runs conceded in the power play, detecting how the off spinner has stalled the flow of runs with clever variations or noticing that the late-order biffer has been promoted to number three in pursuit of quick runs. Their prime pursuit is of a good time and seeing a few sixes smote over the boundary. Apparently Hampshire need to win in order to keep their feint hopes of qualification alive. Really? Which colour shirts are Hampshire?
Of course, as long as the punters stream through the gates such developments are largely deemed inconsequential. It is all about the money after all. If plenty choose not to watch, who cares? As long as they are in the ground and parting with plenty of cash. And isn’t T20 cricket financially safeguarding the cherished County Championship? One significant problem with such a modus operandi is the inherent danger that the event crowd, possessing fairly short attention spans and just out for a good time, may well soon grow tired of T20 cricket and / or find a cheaper outlet for their pursuit of a good time. New supporters attracted to cricket as a sport are more likely to enjoy the sport as opposed to the fripperies and watch for years to come. Those not really interested in the sport but in enjoying themselves are likely to soon find another outlet at which to enjoy themselves. The danger is that T20 cricket becomes so last year.
Another potential danger surrounds the knowledge that cricket is a place where drinkers can enjoy themselves liberally. But the reins could potentially be tightened as those previously liberal policies are threatened by unsociable behaviour, the occasional pitch invasion and general mindless buffoonery. It’s all starting to sound a bit Football. Heck, I can even text a specific number if your behaviour is proving an irritation and potentially get you thrown out. How long before the event types, in pursuit of a good time, realise that twenty plus quid for a ticket and seven quid for a pint just ain’t worth the hassle anymore? Or clubs have to start clamping down on persistent offenders. There are only so many new supporters T20 cricket can keep attracting through the gates, particularly if it needs to lure a new batch each summer.
Pleasingly, attendances for the T20 Blast in recent summers have proved encouraging and improving as the competition has become a staple of the summer. But the grass is always greener maxim has again reared its ugly head as the startling numbers of the Big Bash and the Indian Premier League have got the eyes of the mandarins in charge of English cricket rolling with pound signs akin to a cartoon character from one of Warner Brothers’ best creations. English cricket needs a parallel competition to keep up apparently. Not to keep up in terms of on the field ability, as England have proved rather handy at T20 cricket of late, but rather in the avarice department. The latest hair brained scheme is to launch a second T20 competition in addition to the Blast. Not even the BCCI have attempted such a gamble. (Although they tried the Champions League which proved a catastrophic failure from a spectating point of view) City based franchises is apparently where it’s at and the untapped market of those who have shown not an iota of interest in cricket in the past (not even in the rapidly beleaguered Twenty20 Cup / FPT20 / T20 Blast. That tournament is so last year) is apparently going to fill the stadia in order to pay the handsome salaries on offer for the have bat will travel players. One assumes that the present crowds who have generously supported the twenty over competition in England for the past decade and a half are just expected to turn up and fork out some more cash for the cause whether it’s the Birmingham Badgers versus the Nottingham Numpties or the London Lotharios against the Kensington Klowns. Or simply not bother. Thanks for your support but we have a new toy now. In truth, a new competition may well achieve a considerable level of popularity. The overriding question surrounds whether the popularity will be as a result of isolated novelty or whether it can be sustained year on year.
Of course, those championing a city based, franchise league talk about the new competition helping to grow the game. Such an expression is surely little more than a half-truth, a euphemism. Just what is growing the game? Is it trying to get people interested to expand the sport at all levels or simply just a case of luring more pounds into the coffers? Should a crowd of new people turn up to watch a match and actually enjoy the experience, is the preferred consequence that they go on and play the game and immerse themselves in the beauty of the sport or simply that they just turn up again and keep paying? The two are, of course, not mutually exclusive but, akin to the imbalance between bat and ball, there seems to be an inherent dichotomy presented by those claiming to want to ‘grow the game.’ One is reminded of Gideon Haigh’s question from a few years previous about whether cricket is making money to exist or existing to make money.
Those championing a city based, franchise league also pooh-pooh any criticisms made of the new competition, proclaiming any such criticisms as merely the comments of cricketing Luddites and of those who wish to keep cricket to themselves and a select few others. Reality dictates otherwise though. Those criticising the plans care deeply about the sport and don’t want to see a catastrophic mistake effect English cricket. The Big Bash and the Indian Premier League have proven that city based, franchise leagues can be a success but there is no guarantee that such success would be replicated, particularly with a tournament played alongside the T20 Blast during the same summer. The threat is of T20 overkill. Those cities likely to be chosen for franchises are already playing host to seven T20 Blast fixtures each summer with potentially a further four matches from the new league. The much compared Big Bash only proffers four home matches per campaign to each team. Less is more after all.
Overkill is certainly a real danger regarding these proposals. One only has to remember the T20 Champions League to see how one can have too much of a supposedly good thing. India was besotted with T20 cricket but, despite four of the half dozen editions being played in the country, the public proved particularly ambivalent to the tournament and it was poorly attended, eventually leading to its mothballing after the 2014 edition.
Even the thorny, yet dull, issue of statistics and demographics rails against potential success. On top of the thousands of people that already attend the near saturated T20 Blast (lest anyone forget the competition that is already in place) the proposed new league is attempting to prove comparable to the Big Bash. The last edition of the BBL averaged just over 30,000 punters attending each match. Only one cricket ground in England can achieve holding that many spectators on a consistent basis. Talk of the Olympic Stadium being coerced in to service has been bandied around but the reality is that English cricket stadiums cannot hold the capacities of their Australian equivalents whilst the demographics of Australian society lend themselves to greater attendances in cities as 62% of the Australian populous live in the five largest cities (Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, Brisbane and Adelaide) compared to just 33% in England. And that figure is beefed up by use of urban areas (Greater London, Manchester, Birmingham-Wolverhampton, Leeds-Bradford and Southampton-Portsmouth) as the issue of defined cities is a little more fluid in Britain. Admittedly, in terms of population the two figures are comparable (approximately 17 million in England compared to approximately 20 million in Australia) but a large concentration of the English 17 million are based in London. There isn’t enough to go round elsewhere. Such a spread of the populous also requires people to travel significant distances to matches across these urban areas, not particularly appealing on a Friday evening in the rush hour traffic when attempting to reach the ground for a 6.30 or 7.00 start. Add in the restrictions of stadium capacity and having to attract spectators on top of those who already attend the T20 Blast and the statistics prove somewhat eyebrow raising. Don’t even mention the uncontrollable factors such as the weather. Crucially, not one of the thirty-five matches that comprised the sixth edition of the Big Bash was washed out whilst only one lost time / overs due to inclement weather. Those statistics are little more than a pipe dream for English cricket. There could be nothing worse for potential new fans than turning up to a cold, windy ground on what should have been a summer’s evening.
The new competition will also be partly played at the same time of year currently occupied by the Caribbean Premier League. So the potential to attract top billing overseas stars could potentially be further limited (assuming the BCCI continues its policy of not allowing its players to play in other T20 leagues) by the absence of West Indian stars. Throw in a team touring England unlikely to release their players and England players similarly unavailable and the number of quality stars on show is likely to be dramatically reduced.
And what effect will the new competition have on the current status quo? Diluting the 50 over competition to a virtual second XI event and effectively downgrading the T20 Blast will surely corrode the county finances that are supposed to be bolstered by the new competition but are already dependent on the revenues from the existing competitions, in particular the T20 Blast.
In essence, these are the lessons that should be learned from the success of the Big Bash. Australian cricket has been sensible enough to re-invent its existing T20 domestic competition, not add another one into the calendar. Each contest matters and each contest is an event, both from a cricketing point of view and from a social equivalent. Try and shoehorn too many into a short space of time and the whole concept runs the risk of overkill and becoming irrelevant. Keep the T20 Blast, fine. Implement a city-based franchise league, fine. But keeping both would very much be a case of two’s a crowd.
For the record: Arguably one of the most memorable and most enjoyable, there is a correlation between the two, T20 match that I have attended was a contest between Middlesex and Glamorgan from the 2010 summer. The aspects of the contest that are memorable are not the result or any particular performance but, rather, the venue and the atmosphere. The match was played not at Lord’s but at Old Deer Park in Richmond, one of Middlesex’s favourite outground haunts. With no floodlights available the match began during the late afternoon and attracted a sizeable crowd, including many who arrived after finishing work. Such an occurrence was important as it dictated that many enjoyed a beer or three whilst watching the cricket rather than downing pint after pint in pursuit of drunkenness. The atmosphere was convivial, social and engaging rather than brash, obnoxious and leering. In essence, the occasion was a cricket match rather than a cricket match trying to ape its footballing brethren.