The real blast in T20 cricket is found down under in the Big Bash

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Back in 2014, I wrote a piece on the relaunch of the Nat West T20 Blast and how the revamped competition still left me underwhelmed. I now write this article just having watched one of my favourite matches of cricket I have seen. The Melbourne Renegades hit a record score of 222 in their 20 overs only to have the Hobart Hurricanes chase down the target with Stuart Broad chipping a single over the infield for a historic victory. The match was thrilling, tense and felt like a genuinely big occasion. When you look at the show that the Big Bash puts on it isn’t hard to see why many are calling this the best T20 competition in the world.

I will openly admit that T20 is my favourite format of the game. I’m not a cricket traditionalist. When I was younger I played (not very well) the 20 over form of the game but watched all three forms – Test, 50 over and T20. Indeed, I remember when T20 was first founded and was still known by its original fuller name of Twenty20 cricket. For me, the show and spectacle that T20 cricket puts on is beyond anything else. The show isn’t just in the peripherals, every match feels like a main event. The world’s best T20 players (excluding players from India who are banned from playing by the BCCI) in a condensed, hyped competition where excellence breeds excellence. I doubt there are many other settings, if any, where you could see 445 runs scored in 40 overs in the way that the Renegades and Hurricanes did. It isn’t hard to see why such scores are achievable in the BBL. Each team mixes international heavyweights with homegrown Australian talent. The Melbourne Stars feature Kevin Pietersen and David Hussey, the Sydney Thunder, Shane Watson and England ODI and T20 Captain Eoin Morgan and the league leading Perth Scorchers, former England international Ian Bell and fast bowler extraordinaire Mitchell Johnson. I could go through the roster of every team and find multiple examples of these players. Seeing such players playing the best in the world leads to exciting viewing. It is something that I want to wake up for to watch on TV and it is clearly something that fans want to go and see down under. The New Year Melbourne derby between the Renegades and Stars at the MCG drew and attendance of 71,162. The rematch just days later at the Etihad Stadium still drew over 44,000 spectators. BBL average attendance in the 2015/16 compeition was 28,346. Then come the peripherals – the stadiums, flames and fireworks make the tournament feel so much bigger.

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Inevitably, I have to draw comparisons to England’s equivalent and the T20 blast looks parochial in comparison. Starting with the stadia, the average BBL attendance could not fit into all but one stadium or ground used in the T20 Blast. That one ground – Lords. Even the sell out attendance of 23,893 on T20 Blast Finals Day was, when compared to BBL attendances, underwhelming. That sellout attendance was less than that of an average BBL match and was only 1/3 of the attendance of this year’s Melbourne Derby. What is more, even the average attendance of the Hobart Hurricanes (16,640), the team with the lowest average attendance in 2015-16 would only be able to fit into the stadiums or grounds of seven of the eighteen teams that play in the T20 blast. (Lord’s, Kia Oval, Old Trafford, Headingley, Trent Bridge, Edgbaston and an expanded Rose Bowl). So, fundametally from an infrastructure point of view, the T20 Blast is off to a disadvantage.

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This is not to say that the T20 Blast doesn’t try – it does. At Finals Day, there are usually some nice fireworks when the final is won which add to the event but other things such as the “Countdown to Blast Off” are just gimmicks plain and simple and are more cringeworthy than they are exciting. There’s something else with the T20 Blast as well. In the past, it’s been long with the whole tournament lasting 3 months. The ECB have taken steps to reduce the duration now with the group games being played over a 6 week period. Each team plays 14 games in the group stages before four quarter-finals, two semi-finals and a final. In total, 126 group matches are played – when you add the seven knockout games that makes the tournament 133 games long. I think it is indisputable that in anyone’s eyes that is a lot of cricket. Compare this with the BBL which has only 32 group games, seeing each team play eight games before two semi finals and a final. My concern with that volume of cricket is fatigue of the fans. If fans know that there will be countless other opportunities to see the team you support play, it doesn’t make it as ‘must-watch’ as if there were only 8 group games where every result was therefore more important. This applies not only to attendances but to TV viewers also. The other huge characteristic that is missing from the T20 Blast that the BBL have is the accessibility of the game to viewers on TV. I don’t want to make this a pay-TV vs free-to-air argument either as it is without doubt that placing content behind a paywall reduces access. What I believe is also pertinent is that every single BBL match is broadcast live. The same cannot be said with Sky in the UK. Whilst T20 is broadcast through the summer, such is the size of the tournament and the scheduling, you are unable to follow a team’s progress from start to finish on TV. It is a possibility that this is by design, forcing fans who want to follow their team to do so not on the TV but by being there in the stands and contributing to the atmosphere and spectacle of the competition. If this is the intention, I must say that I can only see it as rather short sighted as it only works where there I believe two key underlying assumptions – 1. That fans are within travelling distance of the stadium/ground; 2. That fans have the disposable income to attend the games. Simply put, I don’t see how these can apply. For me as a fan living in Scotland, I love the T20 format and want to watch as much as I can – I’m waking up in the morning and the first thing I’m doing is putting on the Big Bash. I want to support the T20 Blast but the tournament, in its cumbersome, lesser spectacle and harder to access form is just not worth it.

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Given I have illustrated many problems, it seems only fair for me to try and tackle these. I don’t profess to have all of the answers, but in general terms my strategy would be – big stadiums, big stars, big spectacle. I like the idea of eight city based franchises. Where to place them would be the next question. The starting points have to be English cricket’s biggest stadiums (and not grounds… grounds brings to mind village parks or commons where gentlemen spend their afternoons playing before tea in the pavilion). This for me means Lord’s, The Kia Oval, Edgbaston, Headingley, Emirates Old Trafford, Trent Bridge and The Ageas Bowl (with additional seating). This places two teams in London, and one a piece in Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester, Nottingham and Southampton. This leaves one spot – I believe that both Manchester and Birmingham could sustain two teams but other alternatives lie in Cardiff and The SSE Swalec (with additional seating) or Taunton at the Cooper Associates County Ground. Somerset who play in the T20 Blast in Taunton receive good support so this is an option if the ground’s capacity could be expanded. Of course, if the reformatted tournament were to take off then there may have to be questions over using bigger venues with drop in pitches in place of traditional stadiums. Such venues in my eyes could include the Olympic Stadium in London. Have every game shown live on TV and work out the best way to maximise income whilst also maximising exposure. What would be a must is to have the biggest games on commercial free-to-air to maximise sponsorship opportunities. What is most important though is for the ECB and all teams to buy in to the new format. To promote it well and to take the lead from the best tournaments around the world to attract the best players in the world to create the best tournament the ECB can host. Will it ever be the Big Bash? Unlikely. The UK doesn’t have the stadiums or the climate to match 70,000+ fans in a Roses Derby. What we should be doing though is maximising what we do have to create a show like English cricket has never seen before.

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