By Jordan Crick
If you’re not a fan of switch hits, midgame firework displays, or any of the T20 fanfare, and would much rather tune into a test match with a copy of Wisden in hand and a cup of tea by your side, look away now. This is going to get ugly.
I’m not going to patronise you, for I too am a traditionalist. I’d much prefer to watch a patient test ton than a T20 slogathon. For me, there is less glory in the shortest form of the game; matches are quickly forgotten and the performances within them fade swiftly from memory.
But this is the direction cricket is headed. What was once seen to be revolutionary is now the norm. T20 has connected with a generation of cricket fans that must be entertained to remain invested. The ECB and counties that voted in favour of ‘revolutionising’ cricket in this country are simply following a well-trodden path.
What concerns me most about this new tournament is that it will run in conjunction with the ‘Blast’. Already there are 133 games of T20 cricket played during the summer. If the new franchise tournament is to follow a four-match home and away structure, this figure will balloon out to 165 - and that’s without considering the extra finals matches.
If these numbers don’t get your blood boiling as a cricket purist, nothing will. The truth is, in another 10 years, this will seem perfectly normal. The County Championship and One-Day Cup will have shrunk significantly by then. Just ask Adil Rashid and Alex Hales. Both have pulled up stumps on their respective red-ball careers in favour of the shorter formats. And fair do’s to them both. They have identified that going on the T20 circuit is the best way to earn a crust in an era of reduced test match scheduling and vast franchise riches.
With the emergence of a second T20 tournament, the prevalence of short form specialists like Hales and Rashid will increase year-on-year. Since the days of World Series Cricket, players have gone in search of rock star-sized paychecks. In many ways, the players of that era are responsible for normalising the contract processes - such as IPL auctions - we now take for granted.
In that spirit, let’s take a look at what the new English franchise competition can learn from one of the biggest T20 tournaments in the short history of the format.
Why the BBL works
Believe it or not, the BBL hasn’t always been as successful as it is today. In its early years it struggled to draw crowds and attract a television audience. When free to air network, Channel 10, bought the rights for $100 million on a five-year deal in 2013, the competition suddenly gained traction. In 2016/17, the BBL averaged 1.03 million television viewers per match; there was a slight fall in viewership this year, with 947,000 tuning in each night. Compare these figures to the ‘Blast’, and you begin to see why the ECB had no choice but to implement a franchise competition – and why it was necessary for a FTA broadcaster to obtain the rights to show some games. T20 Finals Day in 2015, which saw Lancashire take out the crown, averaged an audience of 388,000 on Sky Sports. Attendance figures in the ‘Blast’ are also smashed every year by the BBL, which sees well over 1.5 million people pass through the stadium gates each season.
In addition to exposure on FTA television, the BBL can attribute some of its success to the popularity of its high profile overseas stars. As is the case in several sports around the world, the superstars of the game bring with them an extra element of excitement. Afghanistan leg-spinner Rashid Khan stunned the Adelaide Strikers faithful in the most recent season of the BBL. He, along with other big name players like Dwayne Bravo, Tymal Mills, Shadab Khan, David Willey, Carlos Brathwaite and Kevin Pietersen, develop interest in the tournament; they are the BBL’s major selling point and are indirectly responsible for increases in grassroots participation.
While the ‘Blast’ also features a whole host of international players, they are spread across 18 counties, rather than 8 franchises, and are scarcely able to commit to the full two months of competition. But this is all common knowledge by now, and no doubt contributed to the ECB’s push for a franchise-based tournament. Nevertheless, in order for the new competition to flourish, international stars must take center stage. In the BBL they are the face of marketing campaigns and television advertisements. Without them, many would see tournaments like the BBL as little more than a glorified version of the fatiguing one-day cup.
The ECB will have no trouble selling a franchise competition to the masses, especially if it is played during the school holidays. The BBL runs across the summer break in Australia, with all games played at family friendly hours, and tickets sold at family friendly prices. This is important, and has been a contributing factor to the tournament’s longevity. There are concerns, however, that expansion is counter productive to T20 cricket. The tournament was extended to 40 matches plus finals in 2017/18, and was met with a subsequent drop in television ratings.
The T20 paradox
One of the problems with T20 cricket is that it quickly becomes repetitive. Most matches follow a similar storyline by virtue of their brevity. Seeing a ball sail into the grandstand every night at 6 o’clock can only remain enjoyable for so long. T20 doesn’t ebb and flow the way test matches do either. If a team limps to a first innings total there is no time to put things right.
There is a school of thought amongst Australia’s leading scribes that the BBL has been pushed to its breaking point as a result. Any further changes to the way the product is sold and packaged will turn fans away. The ECB’s new competition must avoid trying to oversell itself the way Australia has in recent times. With two tournaments running in tandem, there is a good chance fans will suffer fatigue. How are the ECB going to deal with this? It’s an important question and will ultimately decide how long the tournament remains relevant.
In this day and age, cricket must move with the times. CA has done this exceptionally well; the BBL is still among the best supported sporting ventures in the country. Can the ECB find a balance between its thirst for cash and the limits of T20 cricket the way Australia has? Or will it fall into the trap of pushing it beyond its limitations and be flogging a dead horse before five years are up?
In an age where most retired cricketers are pursuing the riches of T20 franchise cricket, there is something special about watching Sri Lankan maestro Kumar Sangakkara weave his magic in county cricket. His twin tons against Middlesex this week were, like every Sangakkara innings, constructed with poise and as pleasing on the eye as they were frustrating for the opposition. Most other cricketers of his age have joined the globetrotting elite. A group of cricketers who were once at the top of their tree internationally, but are now chasing multi-million dollar contracts by offering their services to the numerous franchise sides around the world. While Sangakkara has thrown his hat in the ring and played in as many of these lucrative tournaments as the next man, his artistry is suited more to the intricacies of four-day cricket. An indication that, perhaps, he will be around the County scene for a few years to come.
It was fitting that, on the day of the IPL final, a tournament Sangakkara could well still be participating in, he raised his bat to acknowledge a small gathering of MCC members at a ground as far from Hyderabad as you can possibly get. There was nothing overly flashy about his celebrations beyond a customary waving of the willow and subtle nod of the head; a sight we have become accustomed to witnessing yet are still gracious to receive. Though there probably should have been given that his century in the second innings was his 6th in a season that is only two months old.
The astonishing thing about these innings, in particular, is that they came against a quality bowling attack featuring the hero of last year’s title race, Toby Roland-Jones, and Steven Finn; who is still pushing to reclaim his spot in the English side after a number of failed attempts previously. Sangakkara, like the consummate professional he is, punished anything over-pitched; sweated on anything short; and didn’t let the calamity of a run-out temper his spirits. There was a lesson in his innings, as there always seems to be when he surpasses another milestone – if you remain patient and play to your strengths, the only way the bowler is a chance of dismissing you is if they deliver an unplayable delivery. All the rest will take care of itself.
Amazingly, Sangakkara, like a fine wine, appears to be getting better with age. Not long ago now we were marvelling at his brilliance during the 2015 World Cup, where he scored 4 consecutive hundreds and helped Sri Lanka qualify for the knock-out stages of the tournament. Now he is retired and the weight of the world is no longer on his shoulders. He is free to cash in on his talents, like many of the players he played with and against during his time on the international scene have done, but instead insists that he continues playing for the love of the game, not the extra coin. And what a choice it has proven to be both for Sangakkara and Surrey.
This season he has played a crucial role in Surrey’s rise to the upper echelons of the Championship table, scoring hundreds against Lancashire and Warwickshire in much the same fashion as the two he scored at Lord’s. Now they will be relying on him to take them all the way to a championship crown (again), just like overseas players in the IPL and BBL are relied upon to deliver their side a trophy and the accompanying prize money. Mitchell Johnson did it last night for Mumbai by taking three scalps, including the prized wicket of his fellow countryman Steve Smith, who was, at the time of his dismissal, steering the Supergiant towards victory. Kumar Sangakkara is doing the very same thing now for Surrey. Though, there will no doubt be a greater reward in winning a division one title, Surrey’s first since 2002, than there is in hoisting the IPL trophy after a few sleepless weeks of wall-to-wall cricket played on pitches manufactured to produce high scoring contests. Which would you rather? One is steeped in prestige and history or the other that is guaranteed to make you a millionaire overnight. These days cricketers opt for the latter, and it is hard to blame them given the lack of money circulating around some of the lowly ranked nations like the West Indies and Pakistan. But for players like Sangakkara, the dream is quite evidently to win a Division One title and mark yet another achievement off the cricketing bucket list; one that is shrinking with every game he plays.
Surrey have the list to fulfil this fairy tale. Stoneman, the classy left-hander who plays every innings without fear, and Borthwick, who has changed himself into a dependable top order batsman since making a rather inauspicious appearance at international level as a fresh-faced leg-spinner, are both sorely missed at Durham and there can be no greater compliment than this. They, alongside Curran brothers Sam and Tom, as well as ageless warrior Gareth Batty – who picked up valuable experience in Bangladesh and India last winter at the ripe old age of 39 – are the kind of players that can make or break a season. They offer plenty of potential, but, at times, fail to deliver. If they can all hit their straps at once, they will convert more draws into wins and, with Sangakkara steering the ship, this is a far less arduous task than it appears. That is the value of an experienced player. He mightn’t be getting paid a quarter of what Stokes received for his services in the IPL, yet he boasts one of the finest test and first class records the world has ever seen. On top of this, he has rubbed shoulders with history’s greatest cricketers and been coached by some of them too. These experiences and his expertise cannot be measured by any sum of money, because if they were, Sangakkara would be unaffordable. Yet, a player with half his experience, talent and knowledge nets a giant IPL contract worth in excess of a million pounds. This is one of cricket’s great injustices.
Day four promised to be a difficult day for the Rey with just a 96-run lead in the bank and with just six-wickets in hand they knew someone had to go big or support the legendary Sri Lankan in the Home of Cricket sunshine. As it was the visitors lost their talismanic run maker soon after the restart with Sangakkara falling for 120, adding only four to his overnight total. That left the task of adding vital runs to the in-form Ben Foakes and the lower order. Foakes struck an unbeaten 67 and he found able support from Sam Curran (51) and Tom Curran (22) as the Rey managed to bat the game away from the Championship holders. The Rey were eventually dismissed for 339 it left the hosts requiring an unlikely 242 to win with just 39-overs remaining. The hosts though lost two wickets early and the draw was agreed soon after tea with Middlesex on 92/2. Surrey drop to second in the Championship but will be the happier of the two sides in this pulsating London Derby at Lord's.
5/13/2017 0 Comments
Last Wednesday marked 40 years since the Kerry Packer circus revolutionised the game forever. In many ways, Packer and Channel Nine are in part responsible for cricket as we know it today: flashy, colourful, high-octane and perhaps most importantly, giving players the opportunity to accrue wealth beyond their wildest dreams. The television rights for the IPL are so expensive that broadcasters in Australia, who have already outlaid a great deal of cash for home test matches and the month-long BBL bonanza, simply cannot afford them. Elsewhere, in countries such as the UK, New Zealand and even the United States, you’ll need to pay a pretty penny for a pay TV subscription to gain access to the marvels of a Rising Pune Supergiant run chase, or to see a young, uncapped Indian spinner being blasted to all parts of the ground by Virat Kohli, much to the delight of an adoring crowd.
The point here is that television, and its vast riches, rule cricket and has done so for some 40 years now. The IPL, BBL and every other t20 franchise tournament around the globe would be nowhere without the revenue generated through exorbitantly priced television rights deals negotiated between cricket boards and broadcasters. Take away the popularity of the shortest form though, and those television rights would be worth a duck egg. Packer, gifted with a once in a generation business mind and the kind of stubbornness that would rarely see him fail to close a deal with favourable outcomes for Nine, identified 40 years ago that the fan should be the television networks biggest priority because without them, he would be at a loss and, though this wasn’t his modus operandi, so would cricket.
So he got to work designing a competition that would suit television and benefit his media empire. Shortly after losing out on securing the rights to Australian test cricket in the 1970’s, he realised that the game was falling behind. Television audiences were down and, for a businessman as sharp of wit and money obsessed as Packer was, saw to it that these circumstances be rectified.
Limited-overs cricket was soon conceived, a format that promised to maximise viewership through its television friendly sessions of play. Unlike a Test match, fans could park themselves in front of the TV and take in a game in just a few hours, rather than having to wait five days for a result to eventually be reached. This made perfect business sense. Nothing would hook the viewer in more than a game featuring multiple flashpoints that reach a crescendo shortly before tea time. It was a television goldmine, but further tinkering was still required.
Not yet content with the outcomes of his newly formed competition, Packer and his associates at Nine decided they needed to try something rash, something that would completely change the complexion of cricket and dramatically increase viewing numbers to a level that would sustain profitability. They achieved this by introducing white balls, coloured clothing, floodlit cricket and, perhaps most notably, by giving players rock star paychecks to secure their signatures and tie them down to World Series Cricket. To this day we are still seeing large sums of money lure players away from their commitments at county and international level. Ben Stokes was paid 1.7 million pounds at the last IPL auction and missed two matches for England against Ireland just over a week ago, as did Jos Butler and Chris Woakes. They chose instead to stay on with their IPL franchises, a contentious decision but one that is becoming less so as a result of the regularity with which it now occurs.
It is quite clear that the old school values and practices Packer introduced all those years ago as part of his master plan still live on in the t20 age. He was well before his time in this regard, which probably explains why many believed he was the godfather of cricket and the games’ most influential figure. But we shouldn’t overlook what allowed the humble ‘Supertest’ to develop into the world renowned one-day phenomenon that is still in operation today. The links that can be drawn between what made the Packer empire tick, and what is currently allowing the T20 format to flourish and reach the untapped markets, are there for all to see.
Television is, of course, cricket’s single greatest asset and the ECB must realise that the wealth boards around the world have made from T20 has not been gained through sponsorships and ticket sales, but through broadcast rights. If they take one lesson from Packer and the success he had, it is this: cricket fans of all classes, as well as those with only a rudimentary understanding of the game, must be exposed to the sport on a regular basis otherwise it will ultimately fail in its pursuit of increasing revenue and garnering interest amongst the general population. Whether this is achieved through airing it on terrestrial television, or by selling subscriptions at a low cost to the owners of smartphones and/or tablets on an app dedicated to county cricket, one thing is certain – Sky can no longer hold the monopoly. For far too long cricket lovers have been forced to pay through the nose to watch Alastair Cook open the batting for England or to see up and comer Mason Crane master his craft at Hampshire. If not, they might catch a short glimpse of the days play on Channel Five’s one-hour highlights package. What this has achieved though is not of benefit to the ECB, nor the marginalised supporter base. How can the game grow if up to two-thirds of the population cannot access it?
While Packer did not have to co-exist with Pay TV in the 1970’s, he still understood that if nobody is tuned-in, the product is worthless to corporate investors or sponsors and will eventually die off. That is the direction the ECB is headed. And that is why they must ensure the new city-based competition is made available to all audiences on terrestrial television. If the fan, or the channel surfer looking for some entertainment over dinner, is not aware that a game between London and Southampton is on because it has been hidden behind a pay-wall, then the outcome for the ECB is an obvious one: the tournament will not earn enough money to continue operation and will be worthless to television broadcasters, which, as we know, play an enormously influential role in the game’s popularity. It’s a loss-loss situation for the ECB.
When the BBL came into existence six years ago, Foxtel, Australia’s number one Pay TV service, held exclusive rights to the tournament. After a brief period of success during the opening season, interest began to fade, signalling the end to a short-lived honeymoon period where, despite disappointing viewership figures, CA caught a glimpse of what this league was capable of. In 2013, the rights were secured by free-to-air television network Channel 10, and the potential CA saw in its brief vigil on Pay TV was finally realised. Since its transition to the FTA network, the league hasn’t looked back and interest continues to peak. It is any wonder it took CA close to a decade to realise that making the Big Bash available to just over 50 percent of the population would mean it would struggle for an audience. You have to question whether changing it from a state-based competition to a tournament played between contrived and bizarrely named city teams made any difference whatsoever, or whether it was purely the fact that the whole of Australia now had a means by which to watch it. Common sense seems to get thrown out the window a lot these days by cricket boards when it comes to growing the game.
The counter-argument to all of this is constantly repeated by cynics: “If the competition is worth the same amount on Pay TV as it is on FTA, what incentive does the ECB have to offer it to a terrestrial network? The answer to this is, of course, dependent on how you define worth. Sure, the monetary value of the television rights might well be equal no matter who purchases them, but its worth to the viewer decreases dramatically when hidden behind a pay-wall. And without an audience, the television rights will not appreciate in value nearly as much as they could if it was televised for free. Just like interest in the theatre would decline if there was to be a sudden hike in ticket prices, or if certain blockbuster movies were only screened in a select number of cinemas. This is what the ECB is doing – confining it to the households of a small minority, effectively reducing how much it can make at the box-office.
When Channel Ten purchased the rights to the BBL five years ago, they paid just $100 million for a five-year deal. That value has now more than doubled, with the rights expected to be sold for around $250 million when they are put up for sale next year. Exposure counts. Packer realised this forty years ago and yet cricket boards are still in the dark over the fruits of free-to-air television. The t20 game is built for broadcast, just as World Series Cricket was during the 1970’s, so why can’t it be a driver of growth?
Some may say that by taking this approach we risk selling out the game and turn it into something no more attractive or unique than a Wednesday night soap-opera. But the ECB must stop stalling and take a risk that will see them rejoin the pack of cricketing boards who have welcomed the broadcast of t20 on FTA with open arms and reaped the rewards.
Our talented Australian writer pens his thoughts on the county game all the way from the other side of the world. You can follow Jordan on Twitter @Crickey_1997.