3/16/2017 0 Comments
It has been seven months since the counties voted in favour of a franchise style t20 tournament that will revolutionise and reconfigure the cricketing landscape in England forever. Over this period, the debate around its feasibility has not subsided and the repercussions are suddenly being felt as we travel into a new season that will for the last time, it seems, go uninterrupted by t20 cricket played until the cows come home.
At present, this competition - its groundwork, its structure and how it plans on selling itself to the out-of-favour counties, but more importantly, the fans - is still very much an unknown. What we are certain of is that chairman Colin Graves, who has envisaged the many financial benefits and growth opportunities that a city-based t20 tournament can bring the ECB since he first laid eyes on the Big Bash, is fed up with being the black sheep of the cricketing world; operating a t20 league with little appeal to both fan and player. The ECB, Graves, Strauss and Harrison now have their foot in the door following that grim evening in the Lord's Long Room that, to this day, threatens to tear at the fabric of English cricket and divide the counties into two distinct categories – the powerhouses and the financially unstable.
Around the time the counties voted in favour of the radical changes to t20 cricket in England by a margin of 16 to 3, Graves was accused of a conflict of interest involving his family trust and Yorkshire County Cricket Club, who owed over £18 million to the organisation in October last year. Earlier that month, Durham were handed a penalty for failing to pay back the 7.5 million pounds worth of debt that the ECB themselves are in part responsible for. Many believed the punishment didn't fit the crime and the unanimous cries of fans that protested against Durham's treatment served as the ultimate proof. But one overriding theme endured - Durham would be playing in the Second Division in 2017 with little hope of returning to the top flight for at least the next few years thanks to the wrongdoings of the ECB.
First, there was the Chester-le-street stadium that the ECB recommended be built away from any other major landmarks, and urban hot spots, in a town with a population of just over 25,000 on the last count. Not only does this make little business sense as far as getting fans to attend the ground is concerned - which they are essentially relying on to increase cash flow and cover the construction costs - but it also shows how unreliable and self-orientated the ECB are when it comes to providing financial advice to the administrators of small counties. Which is interesting when you consider that those counties are, if not in the traditional sense of the word, a member of the ECB and the financial decisions they make have flow on effects for English cricket.
Then there was the scheduling of test matches and other international events spanning right back to just after the 2013 Ashes test held at the ground. And this is where Graves' conflict of interest begins to take shape. Last year, Chester-le-street held a test match between England and Sri Lanka - a game best remembered for Alastair Cook's milestone surpassing innings - to which few fans attended, leaving Durham to lick their wounds, cut their losses and, you’d suspect, reach out to the ECB for financial support. Only three test matches have been held at the ground since 2009 and this trend is set to continue following the ECB’s decision to strip Chester-le-street of test match status as an add on to their already harsh punishment, leaving Durham with one single source of revenue that will likely originate at domestic level, not international. It also remains unlikely that Chester-le-street will host any Cricket World Cup matches featuring full-member nations, given that it will have little funds available to outbid the well-endowed counties. This has left Durham with but one option to break the cycle of debt without falling into further trouble - accept the ECB's terms and buy into whatever get out of jail free enterprise they are offering.
Compare the treatment of Durham to Yorkshire, for in which Colin Graves has helped out during times of financial stress, and the conflict of interest concerns become blatantly apparent. Headingley has held test matches year in, year out for as long as I can remember and have almost always featured the likes of India, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. These high profile nations attract crowds of significant size, generate greater revenue, and thus allow the big counties to make a profit, not haemorrhage money in the way Durham and Hampshire do when they cannot cover the operating costs involved in staging a test due to the quality of opposition. And by awarding Headingley with a test match each year, not to mention the occasional ODI or international t20 match, Graves is able to increase the speed at which the repayments are made to the Graves Family Trust by Yorkshire. To top this off, the ECB have also been accused of an uneven distribution of funds.
Bearing the above in mind, there can be no question as to why the smaller counties such as Durham have voted in favour of a city based t20 competition. It is the only way they foresee an escape from the crippling cycle of debt that will affect their county on the field as much as will off it. They really had no other option but to jump on board the good ship ECB, that played a starring role in their demise, and ride it into the sunset in the hope that it may bring them some kind of financial security and see them return to the first division of the championship free of a burdening salary cap that immediately places them at the back of the field. But it could well be an empty promise if the re-branding sees fund distribution reach another extreme.
A colleague, visiting Australia from England, more specifically Kent, once told me that a Big Bash style competition couldn't work in the old country because, quite simply speaking, it is not Australia; it has 18 counties that must all be represented, not six states. His logic, while simplistic and based solely on opinion, rang true. In this revenue driven cricketing economy the fan often goes unconsidered or is there simply for the purpose of monetization. Whether he/ she wants to see their county, and the championship, put on the back burner for the sake of a domestic t20 tournament bereft of context is often dismissed by the ECB, but it is a factor that must be considered if they want franchise cricket to strike a chord with the English public. The fan is their most important asset and ultimately decides whether it goes up in smoke or gains traction like it has in other parts of the world.
Australia expanded its Big Bash competition from six states to eight franchises six years ago, with each state having at least one team for which the local fans could follow. Since then it has not dared look back. Queensland, for example, is represented by the Brisbane Heat. NSW by either the Syndey Thunder, if you live in the western suburbs or the Sydney Sixers if you hail from the city. No state goes unrepresented, or stadium unused, and the expansion has in many ways covered more ground than it might have lost. The revenue has of course increased, but it is equally distributed amongst the states given that the franchises are not privately owned as they are in the IPL.
The ECB, with their city based competition, are essentially condensing the playing field and cutting off its blood supply when it should be doing the exact opposite. It isn't modelling itself of Australia at all. If it was to follow the Big Bash’s blueprint, Cardiff wouldn't be representing Somerset because, not only are they separate entities, but its fans have never had an allegiance with Glamorgan, where Cardiff would likely play the majority, if not all of their matches. So why should we expect them to start now?
I've long been an advocate for the t20 competition remaining in its current form with some slight remodelling, and if the initial plans to run the two tournaments in quick succession does indeed eventuate, I might just get my wish. But it would be ignorant to suggest that both will operate swimmingly alongside each other without conflict caused by a competition for supporters and sponsorships. When one features the counties and the other cities - potentially giving one county more exposure and allowing them to operate independently - there is bound to be some friction as far as revenue sharing is concerned. If Manchester, for example, was to become one of the new city-based teams in the lets call it 'Super Slog’, taking players only from Lancashire and playing their home games at Old Trafford, would this not upset the balance and ratio of revenue distribution? Why not continue calling them the Lancashire Lightning?
If all counties are equal stakeholders and receive the same amount of money from television rights, sponsorship etc, then fair game. But this seems like an unrealistic expectation. Manchester would play games at Lancashire's home ground, receive the windfall from ticket, merchandise and food sales, and the other counties wouldn't see the light of day because the revenue would be divided up among one county. They would also take many of the current England stars playing for Lancashire – the likes of Jos Buttler and James Anderson - and reap the extra benefits from that, leaving the other city franchises, comprised of multiple counties, to fight among themselves for an even distribution of the revenue that would, more often than not, lie with the dominant county - Hampshire if Southampton was to be made up of Sussex and also Kent as The Cricketer has suggested in the past.
The ECB simply would not be able to police or enforce an even distribution of funds when so much is generated by the counties that have access to test match venues, and as such, are the most likely candidates to house one of the new city based teams. Not to mention that a few of these counties will have an entire franchise to themselves, giving them the perfect opportunity to grow their brand while the others are left in the dark. All of this big county favouritism is extremely unsettling and shows that the ECB are handing out special treatment in the knowledge that these counties are the major players as far as the generation of revenue is concerned. This in itself could lead to a seismic shift in the balance of power amongst the counties that would likely cause irreparable damage to the way we currently understand domestic cricket.
The Blast would stick around for a few years following the launch of a city-based tournament, but if it was to be hidden behind a paywall, as it has been for a number of years, and the franchise tournament took off abroad as well as at home, it would die a painful, yet swift death. The ECB would likely push for an expansion meaning extra games are played throughout the year, leaving no time for the Blast to take place. It's happening in Australia already and there is a push for extra teams to be added to both increase revenue and raise the value of television rights. Oh, and to reach more rural areas in the hope of getting kids involved in cricket. This is something the Big Bash does extremely well.
We mustn’t underestimate the effects a city-based league would have on the longevity and popularity of the County Championship either. With players flying in and out of one city and into another to take the field for their franchise, there is the possibility that those particular players, possibly key members of their respective sides, could miss entire games. Apart from bitter feuds between the counties, franchises and the ECB, this has the potential to weaken a county side to the point of relegation from the first division, and you can hardly expect the fans to take notice of the Championship if their team’s best players aren’t on the park and struggling to win games as a direct result.
Then there’s the issue of scheduling and the reduction of Championship fixtures if the t20 juggernaut takes off in England like it has done elsewhere. What would Graves be inclined to do when one competition is heavily outweighing the popularity of the other? Reduce its size of course. Just like the BCCI has done in India.
There would be a few losers if these circumstances were to arise but the biggest would undoubtedly be the English test side. Keaton Jennings and Haseeb Hameed were discovered in the Championship last year and found themselves on a plane to India soon after. They were fine additions to the England side and will likely take over from Cook as England’s opening pair when father time catches up with the journeyman. But if the breeding grounds to foster young players are no longer in place or dropping in quality, finding future test cricketers becomes increasingly difficult.
The ECB have plenty to weigh up before they make a decision that has the potential to change more than just a few team names and logos. Imagine a world in which Sussex, Leicester and Hampshire played in an entirely different league to Yorkshire and Lancashire; with its own independent board and separate scheduling. Now think about how this would affect the Championship or the One Day cup in their current form as well as English cricket at large because it just might pan out this way if the ECB lets financial status dictate whether a county has to operate in conjunction with rival clubs, or independently.
By Jordan Crick - @Cricky_1997
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.
By Hector Cappelletti
This post was first posted on https://yahooovercowcorner.wordpress.com
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