Half a Million Spectators – Is T20 Still Bad?

The end of the first expanded T20 Big Bash cricket series ended in exciting fashion, with a full WACA Ground and a winning performance from the Sydney Sixers – the only T20 franchise to not still have an imported player (Dwayne Bravo was injured, and was replaced with grade player and high school teacher Ian Moran). Not many rated them a chance to win, but won – partially due to the experience of Brett Lee (35) and Stuart MacGill (41). T20 gives players with great experience, but limited physical ability to continue playing good, entertaining cricket.

One of the great successes of the competition was in attracting spectators to a domestic cricket competition – over 500,000 people saw their local state teams. More encouragingly for cricket, a lot of those were children. As I said in a previous blog on this, my daughter loved going to the game and seeing the flashing lights, fireworks, big shots and listening to the music.

There has been, however, a great amount of criticism from established cricket journalists and commentators about how bad it is that the T20 Big Bash is the only cricket played in the school holidays. That it interferes with the possibility of blooding replacements in the Test Team, if they are needed. Typical of this attitude is the January 28 piece by Fairfax writer Greg Baum – which starts out negatively and continues – even the opening illustration by Jim Pavlidis shows that the view is that Test cricket is under threat if being swamped by the new form.  That is why I am looking at its approach and attitude.

Why T20 comes up short

Illustration: Jim Pavlidis
Baum starts out mentioning the positives, as well as the advertising superiority of one day cricket. I will go to Baum’s third paragraph, however, where he really starts belittling the quality of the new form of cricket –

It is problematic how often a game can be fined down, bastardised and bowdlerised before it disappears altogether. Taking the death notices at their word, Test cricket’s half-life was around 100 years, one-day cricket’s 25. It bodes poorly for the latest fad. I know Cricket Australia strongly maintains that there is a place for all three forms. The question is whether there is the appetite.

Already, despite its success – predicting its failure, largely because the Baum believes it is “bowdlerised and bastardised”. The difficulty with this thesis is that the early one day internationals took a while to take off – and featured international players. These great crowds have turned up for largely local teams – indicating that there is an sustained interest in the game. In addition, Baum doesn’t mention the fact that the crowds have grown throughout the season, indicating that there has been a sustained interest building in the game.  Both terms he uses are also poor choices of words. Bastardised is a harsh accusation to make, but Bowdlerised is an odd choice – it tells us that somehow T20 cricket is a less offensive, censored version of cricket. I’m not sure what is offensive about test cricket.

Two quirks of this season’s BBL surely will exercise the mind of promoters. One is the unexpected dominance of slow bowlers. This was thrilling for aficionados but I wonder if ultimately it will satisfy the market supposedly sold on combustible stumps and bolts of lightning flashing out of their television screens. Fast bowlers as often as not had their pace turned against them, devastatingly. But slow bowling is so, well, Test cricket. Slow bowlers were quickly called upon in Tests in Adelaide and Abu Dhabi this week, and in both instances took early wickets.

Baum here makes the mistake of underestimating the intelligence of the audience and judging the qualities of the games just by its decorative edges. Slow bowlers have been celebrated and made in folk heroes by crowds – especially Hogg in Perth and MacGill in Sydney.  The crowds liked seeing competitive games and good shots, not fast bowling all the time.  When Baum says “supposedly”, it suggests that he isn’t looking far beyond the marketing – like a number of the critics of the league.

The other quirk, overlapping the first, was the prominence of superannuants. Forty-pluses Shane Warne, Matthew Hayden and Stuart MacGill all played leading roles for their teams, and Brad Hogg proceeded in one month from retirement to a place in the Australian team. Brad Hodge must have been tempted to change his name by deed poll; it wouldn’t take much.  Hogg’s story is appealing but it also raises a disturbing question. If a 40-year-old can rise from his hammock and claim a baggy purple (or whatever it is), what does it say about the game? The least it says is what the players well know, that it is not especially hard, not in any way a Test. As T20 competitions proliferate around the world, the game is looking more and more like an elaborate pension scheme.

This statement shows more than the necessary amount of snark from Baum.  No, the game isn’t physically difficult like a test. It does require a good cricketing brain that is able to quickly adapt to the changing nature of each game. This is why experienced players went very well. It was great to watch. Normally if players of advancing years perform well in sport, we celebrate them – Jack Nicklaus comes to mind. However, Baum makes comments about a “rise from the hammock” and the game being an elaborate pension scheme.  A strange hypocrisy.

At the same time, a teenager and casual cricket fan loose in the Adelaide press box this week was overheard to say that all Ricky Ponting’s accomplishments and decorations meant nothing to him; he was too old. Ponting is 37.

In this paragraph, Baum seems to be basing an entire generation’s attitude towards cricket on the comments from one ignorant person.  It’s lazy stereotyping. Ask a cricketer playing for his or her school or district – they will tell you exactly what Ricky Ponting means to them.

The T20 format has other limitations that were not readily apparent in the excitement of the BBL’s inaugural season. One is that the scores in most matches fall in a narrow band, generally between 150 and 200. It tends to make each match look like the last and the next. What was true of one-day cricket is even truer of T20.

This also smacks of a generalised, unspecific criticism of the season. To many people, like me, the games didn’t end up looking the same, with variations between teams and approaches to chasing scores, even if the scores ended up being similar. To just look at the scores and say “gee, they all look the same” is forgetting the other elements that make up any cricket game. Baum needed to provide more detail of the “boredom” quotient in order to make his point valid.

It means matches quickly are lost to memory in the endless sequence. It also means there is never any sense of the Herculean effort it takes to turn around a Test match that has gone awry. And it means that even a team that plays abysmally is only ever three lusty, shut-eyed blows from being back in it.

Here, Baum continues his theme and goes back to the original point that T20s aren’t as good as tests – that blind heaves can get a team back in the game. That did not happen in the Big Bash as often as Baum suggests, where “shut eyed blows” didn’t really get as much reward as is stated. The bowlers in the T20 series did pretty well and to hit many of them for 6 was a difficult task – except at the ANZ Stadium and Etihad Stadium, where boundaries were a little short. It also makes the claim that games of cricket has to be memorable in terms he defines. He discounts the possibility that certain shots and innings don’t stick in the mind of an 11 year old in the outer, remembering the shots the Sydney Sixers’ Nic Maddison played on a particular evening.

None of this matters if the premium is purely on entertainment and all that counts is the next six – accompanied by Brendon Julian’s exclamation about how that has ”gone all the way”, when mostly it hasn’t even gone as far as the fence – or the next splattering of wickets, or the next firework. I don’t discount this. But if the major objective is to ”entertain”, people are likely to be attracted to it instantly, but also bored by it all too soon. That was the history of one-day cricket. Now so yesterday. Historically, Australians have looked for deeper meaning in their sport, reflections of themselves, or who they would like to be. But perhaps that also is a dated construct.

The patronising attitude continues with judging the game by the commentary from Fox Sports and the fireworks. That is a dangerous exercise – if one judged test cricket by the standard of its coverage in Australia, it would be considered a facile, narcissistic exercise where the commentators relive past glories while current players remain poorly analysed. It also judges the new form of cricket by the decline of one day cricket – which is not the most helpful form of assessing its long term future. It is then we read an astonishing claim about Australians and sport – that we “look for deeper meaning” in sport – unlike those in other nations, presumably.  This is leading to an insinuation that being interested in T20 makes us as shallow as other nations that like sport delivered in short, 3 hour bites. Like India, England, the US – indeed anywhere that likes football, baseball, volleyball…

The reason T20 cricket will kill 50 over cricket is simply a matter of timing. It is much easier for families, workers and amateur sportspeople to get a 3 hour game of cricket on a weeknight or weekend evening – it’s not as big a commitment. In addition, the ticket prices make it a much more attractive evening.  It’s the reason baseball has stuck in the American consciousness – and why T20 has flowered in England and India.

But then we get to the real reason Baum doesn’t like T20 cricket – because he believes it threatens real cricket, test cricket.

Finally, the suspension of all other interstate cricket for the duration of the Big Bash creates a structural weakness in Australian cricket. It has been disguised this summer by the galloping success of the Test team against India, necessitating minimal change from the start of the series to the end.  But imagine if this was last summer and Australia was crashing to one inglorious defeat after another against England. From what pool would reinforcements come, and in what form? Phil Hughes and Usman Khawaja have been lost to sight since they were dropped by Australia. Hughes forewent a BBL contract and Khawaja seems ill-suited to the format. Nic Maddinson looks the goods but hasn’t played a first-class game for six weeks.

In Baum’s logic (and not only his), the purpose of domestic cricket is not to service their states, be watched, enjoyed, shared by crowds. It is merely there to service the national test team – by maybe supplying a replacement or two into the national team.  It is, I think, a waste of a national cricketing resource – the state teams – to just run for that sole purpose. Reading Ed Cowan’s In the Firing Line, he speaks of playing for his state and there is a sense of a state player like Cowan not really having a lot of TV exposure or contact with cricket supporters.  He also speaks of the frustration of being left out of his state T20 team. The new form of Big Bash, however, has provided more opportunity for state players to play. It has also added a level of appreciation and a following for state players that hasn’t been there before.

The timing has also been important. To have a bits of pieces, shortened Big Bash like our previous forms took away the chance to really connect with a team playing over a season. Losing two games in the old format often meant that was the season over. That wasn’t the case in this, where the Brisbane Heat, after a terrible start, almost made the semi finals, giving its big Brisbane crowds something to hope for. To have the games in the school holidays mean that families could build a connection with their teams.

That highlights the biggest plus for the Big Bash League – the games will help children develop a bond with cricket and cricketers that test matches can’t provide. Tests are too long and expensive for most families. This concept of putting crowd considerations first is something Baum appears to have little interest, watching as he does in the Members’ Stand, not having to pay for his ticket, food or having to keep an 11 year old mind focused on 6 hours of a game.  That misunderstanding of the context of the game continues to the last two lines –

For Australian cricket, it has been six exciting weeks. To the Trojans, that horse looked pretty exciting, too.

It’s a sarcastic end, with the “six exciting weeks” contrasted with the metaphor that T20 cricket will have the same impact on cricket as a sport as the Greeks had on Troy. It’s an exaggerated, poorly drawn conclusion, to suggest that T20 will somehow destroy test cricket as a sport. It’s a similar apocalyptic conclusion many drew with World Series Cricket was launched. It’s hyperbole without substantial support.

If anything, T20 can expand the success of cricket, so we have players who are specialists in one or both forms – as well as expanding the audience. We will continue to see players emerge who are more suited to 4 and 5 day cricket, no matter how many T20 players get the easy cash.  The fact in our marketplace, though, is that test cricket has been the preserve of certain privileged professionals of Anglo-Celtic or sub continental background, who can afford to spend days watching a test. T20 allows cricket to appeal to those in the community who like their sport shorter. It should be here to stay – it has a purpose and it should stay in its current form. Domestic 4 day matches should stay to before and after the school holidays. Writers like Baum can continue to sneer at T20 cricket. The fans of their own domestic cricket sides won’t care, and nor should they.

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