BBL03: How cricket's Big Bash is winning tug of war within Aussie sports

Money-spinning T20 league is helping to turn fans’ attentions back to the old national game

Cricket Correspondent

BBL03 began last night. It followed the big hits, in many senses, that were BBL01 and BBL02. Australians are almost as agog as they are about the Ashes being recaptured, though they might have been perplexed to see that the stars of the opening show in this season of all seasons were two Englishmen, Luke Wright and Joss Buttler, with a significant contribution from an old sparring partner of the country, Muttiah Muralitharan.

BBL is the Big Bash League. Strictly speaking, it is the KFC T20 BBL but that is too much of an acronymic mouthful even to accommodate FMCGs, or fast moving consumer goods. This is its third version. The first and second went some way to transforming cricket in Australia and indisputably took the game to a fresh congregation and a new generation.

In the inaugural season, 10 per cent of the audience had never been to a cricket match before (21 per cent in the case of females), last year 13 per cent were attending one for the first time. With average attendances of 18,000 and 15,500 in the opening two years, domestic cricket Down Under has not had such crowds, since the Sheffield Shield, the four-day, first-class competition, was in its brief pomp 70 years ago.

SS112, as it is not called since chronological numbering is the preserve of modern tournaments, has been interrupted for the Big Bash League, to be played over the next four weeks. Cricket Australia, after a few seasons of diffidence, has picked up the Twenty20 baton and is running like hell with it.

The Melbourne derby, between the Stars and the Renegades, which launched this season’s competition, attracted 46,851 supporters last year, a record in Australian domestic cricket and both unthinkable and impossible in England. A mere 25,266 were there last night on one of those cold Durham-like Melbourne evenings but it was a sparkling occasion.

Wright bashed – no other word for it – 70 from 32 balls which Buttler’s 49 from 28 for the Renegades could not quite match. Stars won by 76 runs, although Muralitharan rolled back the years by conceding only 23 runs in four overs for the Renegades. The crowd could still not resist shouting “no ball!” as he came in to bowl, reminding him that he was once called for throwing in both Test and one-day matches here.

“I suspect that the regaining of the Ashes by Australia may give the BBL a boost in terms of numbers,” said Mike McKenna, Cricket Australia’s executive general manager and one of the competition’s driving forces. “We certainly expect the impetus it has gained in the first two seasons to be continued.”

The tournament is making money, which is welcome, but not its sole objective. All the profit is ploughed back into the game to ensure that cricket remains high on the national agenda. Its initial success has been confirmed by the selling of television rights for this third season to the free-to-air Network 10.

In some ways, the BBL is a triumphant marketing exercise as much as a sporting competition. It was launched in a kind of controlled panic because all the indices showed that cricket was slipping from Australia’s national psyche.

Nobody has watched the Shield for decades and while international cricket was holding its own – Test match crowds have increased in the past 20 years – there was reliable information that cricket, once the country’s most popular sport, had fallen to seventh place.

Twenty20, highly commercialised and promoting star power for all it is worth, was seen as the saviour of the game in all its forms. It is hard to avoid the feeling that the Australians have used it in a way that the England and Wales Cricket Board have been wary of doing or been persuaded was not the appropriate course.

When it saw the warning signs, CA wasted no time in establishing city rather than state teams and defeated traditionalists. It has been relentless in publicising the competition even as the drama of the Ashes was unfolding. BBL team messaging is used in promoting the T20 schools tournament.

T20 in England, the country which invented the format, is not only still based on the old county structures but from 2014 is also to be played over the whole season rather than in a block. BBL may be seen as a poor relation of the much-trumpeted but derided Indian Premier League, the daddy of them all in terms of garish, shameless, cricket-as-showbiz tournaments. But it has quickly established its own cardinal rules.

The marketing of it is based solely on cricket, although dancing girls and cavorting mascots are de rigueur. Some seasoned followers continue to insist that it is not cricket as they know it – the illuminated, flashing wickets known as zing stumps, for instance, give that argument credence – but McKenna passionately and clinically puts the case for BBL both as an entertainment in its own right and for its existence as a tool to promote the wider cause of the game.

All this is part of a delicate balancing act. The Big Bash is part of the whole, not the whole itself. There must be a worry that the new audience will settle only for Twenty20 and will not give a fig for Test cricket, which will therefore eventually wither and die.

McKenna, fervent about old and new, agrees that part of the BBL’s role is to ensure that Test cricket continues. He understands the dilemma.

“It is our job as administrators to see that all forms of the game will continue,” he says. “The one that we have to be concerned about, strangely enough, in this country isn’t Test cricket, I believe, for which attendances have been on a small upward curve, but 50-over cricket.”

BBL has not been engulfed by the controversies of the IPL, which faces a serious examination of its status and probity when stumps are drawn on its seventh edition next April. But international stars have been lured by the money and the glamour, real and perceived. So important is it considered that Ashes heroes Steve Smith and David Warner were re-routed direct from their celebrations to play, respectively, for Sydney Sixers and Sydney Thunder in the derby match on Sunday.

That would not have happened had the Ashes still been alive but it is still a measure of the BBL’s significance. CA wants the big names to play, the big names want to play: some might call it a win-win situation. The Big Bash appears to be what it says.

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