So it’s back. Twenty20, T20 call it what you will. We’re supposed to call it ‘The Blast’ – which is either the optimistically hyperbolic description of the excitement it brings, or the expletive uttered in certain quarters upon the format’s return to the summer game. I for one, for a long time belonged in the latter club, however recently I have been persuaded of its merits. The light bulb moment was when someone (I forget who) said T20 isn’t cricket, it’s entertainment based on the game but a million miles from proper cricket (or words to that effect). Alas, we live in an age where for the younger generation instant gratification rules and attention spans are shorter, and for many others, there is too much demand on time to devote a lot to watching proper cricket. T20 addresses these issues.
Either way, you won’t escape it, and whatever you think about T20 we might as well recognize that it is now pivotal to the future of the county game and test cricket. Introduced in 2003 by the ECB to generate interest among young people in cricket and re-generate sponsorship income, like so many sports invented by this country the rest of the world, well India and Australia mainly, grabbed it and turned it into a national phenomenon, supported by massive broadcasting rights. The revenues generated by the IPL and Big Bash (an even sillier name than ‘Blast’ but an accurate descriptor of the cricket) are such that arguably it is propping up domestic and especially test cricket in those countries. Whilst interest and attendance at test matches in England have been high as crowds in other test playing nations continued to dwindle to almost invisibility in some cases, there have been recent signs that this might not be the case forever. Hence, the ECB are scrabbling around throughout this summer in recognition ‘that something must be done’ and have turned their finest minds (no laughing at the back) to revamping T20 which is seen as the saviour of the county championship and longer term test cricket.
Colin Graves, Chairman of the ECB cheesed off the counties and quite probably NatWest by describing, on the eve of the competition, that the Blast was ‘mediocre’ compared to the IPL and Big Bash. To be fair, I think he was taken out of context a bit and if one looks at the bigger picture it’s easy to see why. There seems to be a view in some quarters that all we have to do in the UK is replicate the IPL or Big Bash, but of course, anyone with half a brain should see it ain’t that simple.
Both the IPL and Big Bash comprise a competition played between 8 teams or, and beware if you are of a delicate disposition, as I’m about to use the ‘F’ word – franchises. Australia’s eight comprise six cities from each of the six States. Similarly, the IPL comprises eight teams from eight major cities spread right across India. Both exist in vast countries so captive support for each team is relatively easy. Games are played in big stadia, even the smallest team in the Big Bash – Hobart – plays in a ground that holds 19,500. And because there are few teams, live screening of each match is feasible – and that is the holy grail for the broadcasters. If they are paying top dollar they want maximum exposure, and they want the best players in the competition to attract the audiences.
It’s estimated that of cricket’s global revenues, 80% comes from broadcasting rights with under 10% coming from punters paying on the door. And herein lies the problem for the ECB as it tries to find a way to find a way of maximising TV deals and revenue.
As we all know we have 18 counties. Some are ‘haves’ – they have tests status grounds with large capacities; some are ‘have nots’. Some are in perilous financial straits relying on ECB handouts. All of them, understandably wish to preserve their status, identity and history.
Sky cannot broadcast every T20 game unless they are spread out over a long period – this wouldn’t work for the television audience, nor for spectators actually going to games I suspect. And one thing broadcaster do like is a full house to be shown on TV, atmosphere and the feeling that the viewer is at an ‘event’ are important. So the ‘F’ word raises its ugly head in an attempt to mirror the IPL and Big Bash. How would that work? At the moment, it wouldn’t and no amount of trying to find an alternative word eg ‘City’ will help. Why?
Picture the ECB think tank over lunch at Lords. “How about going regional? North, South, East, West and Midlands. Not very exciting is it and only five teams? OK, expand the regions into ….er…..counties. Ah, yes…..right there’d be eighteen of those and we already…………ok forget that.
Cities then (whatever you do don’t use the ‘F’ word)? Let’s see……………… London (Middlesex, Surrey, maybe Essex at a push); Manchester (that’ll be Lancashire then); Birmingham (Warwickshire obviously, and Northants and Worcestershire); Nottingham (Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire); Bristol(Gloucestershire and Somerset); Cardiff (that’ll be Glamorgan then);
Newcastle (ah…that’s Durham taken care of); and what about Hampshire, Sussex and Kent sir? Well, we only want eight teams so call it Southampton (Hampshire and Sussex – they’re next door to each other so that’s fine).”
“What about Kent?”
“Hm, bits of it aren’t far from London so bung Kent in there.”
“Sir, what about Yorkshire?”
“They’re an independent republic aren’t they? Anyway, they’ve already said they’ll enter as long as they’re called Yorkshire.” ‘’Sir Surrey have also indicated they’ll be happy to play for London as long as it’s called Surrey. And it seems that Essex, Northants, Derbyshire, Leicestershire are forming an armed brigade ready to march on HQ at any time.”
“I see…right get on the phone and call off tomorrow’s meeting with the county chairmen.”
“What about two divisions?” “Move the whole thing to the UAE?”
“Any other ideas?.......Anyone?”
The point is the Counties know there’s a need for radical change to ensure their future existence. However as I’ve pointed out none wish to be sacrificial lambs, either losing their individual identity, the smaller clubs don’t want to be swallowed up by the bigger ones in some franchised carve up, none want to miss out on the TV revenue. The fact is, we are a small island with eighteen counties and not enough geographical spread to sustain an IPL or Big Bash model. I think it was Jonathan Agnew who recently said it’s all very well trying to ape these competitions but we have to face up to the fact that we are different by virtue of our county structure, and you know what? I think he’s right.
Something will have to give. I’ve no idea what. Anyone out there who does I suggest you send your answers on a postcard to the ECB sharpish.
Written by Bob Bowden (@54Bobb)
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