BBL and the changing landscape of Australian Cricket

The BBL is here to stay but what does that mean for the rest of the Australian Summer of Cricket?

It was a carnival atmosphere at the MCG on New Year’s Day as 71,000 people flocked to the BBL’s Melbourne Derby between the Stars and the Renegades. Marching bands, cheerleaders, and Star Wars characters, were all on hand to welcome the expectant throng as they arrived at the storied sporting arena. For T20 Cricket, once derided in Australia as a gimmick that wouldn’t last, the public were voting with their feet and sending another strong statement that BBL was here to stay. In only its sixth season, the Big Bash League has forever changed the cricketing landscape in this country.

Storm clouds sat ominously over the cavernous amphitheatre as the crowd, the second largest in the history of the fledgling competition’s history, were entertained pre-game by a concert and fire shows. The whole scene this New Year’s evening would have been beyond the wildest dreams of those in charge of the first T20 competition staged in Australia 11-years earlier. The first incarnation of the Big Bash was held between Australia’s six First Class teams. The low expectations and the regard with which T20 was held, was evident in the boutique venues chosen to stage the matches. It was further highlighted by the stunt that involved Rugby League Legend and cricket novice, Andrew Johns being awarded a Baggy Blue Cap of NSW to play in the second tournament held in 2007. 

With 8 of the last 10 Renegades matches won by the team batting second, it was perhaps no surprise that Stars Captain David Hussey elected to bowl upon winning the toss. Visiting skipper Aaron Finch, the holder of the highest individual International T20 score and the number two ranked T20 batter in the world and Cameron White, the one-time holder of the highest ever T20 score strode out to the middle and their experience meant the possibility of a large Renegades total.

With an explosive batting line-up at his disposal, led by T20 Heavyweights like Glenn Maxwell, Luke Wright, Kevin Pietersen, and himself, Hussey had reasons to be confident in his team’s ability to chase any total the Renegades could post. It made for a mouth watering contest; if the rain stayed away the crowd were bound to get their money’s worth from this star-studded cross-town clash.

It’s these head to head contests and the compact nature of the contests that has seen the Australian public tune in each night of the ‘holiday season’ competition. The regular exposure to the tactics, skill, and drama exhibited via the shortest form of the game has slowly turned the initial reticence of the Australian cricket public, the BBL now a TV ratings bonanza for Cricket Australia’s  broadcast partners. The frenetic nature of the format has also sent the turnstiles spinning too, the BBL average crowd of 29,443 making it the seventh best-attended sporting competition in the world.

Amidst the on-field fireworks provided by White, Finch and Tom Cooper as the Renegades built a competitive total of 4-171, there was non-stop entertainment. The crowd was kept busy with music and were invited to participate in cheesy and family friendly activities like a kiss, dance, and dab-cam’s. All this makes for a completely different match day experience to that at the same venue only days earlier for the traditional Boxing Day Test Match. As a result, the BBL is also attracting a crowd previously untouched by far more experienced and traditional forms of the game. The sight of the number of families being drawn to the game would be the most heartening aspect of the BBL revolution for Cricket Australia.

On any measure, the BBL has been a success for Cricket Australia but as Newton’s third law states, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The English physicist may not have known the difference between a googly and a doosra but his centuries-old law has yet again been proven true by the BBL and its effect on Australian Cricket’s season schedule. For a month to be devoted exclusively to the Big Bash something else must give. 

The first victim was Australia’s Domestic 50-over competition. What was once a summer-long 10 game-a-side competition is now shoehorned into a 3-week carnival before the summer starts. Also affected is the Sheffield Shield, Australia’s First Class competition is forced into a month-long hiatus to allow for the BBL season. The effect of these moves means the biggest victim is Australia’s National selection panel. While the most important Test Matches of the summer are taking place, any potential replacements for the Test side are playing T20 rather than longer form Cricket. 

Without First Class Cricket the NSP have a difficult task when making changes to the Test Side as any proposed inclusions have no recent exposure or have no current form against the red ball. This was evident with both of Australia’s inclusions for the Third Test with Pakistan. Hilton Cartwright stepped onto the SCG not having played First Class cricket for nearly a month and Steve O’Keefe hadn’t played for nearly two. Hardly the ideal preparation for a test match against a team recently rated the world’s best.

While willing to stage the T20 mega carnival for a month each year and welcome the youngsters and families to the sport that it brings, the relationship between Cricket Australia and T20 appears to be more of convenience than devotion. In a situation where Australia’s Test and ODI Teams are ranked second and first in the world respectively, the T20 team is ranked a disappointing sixth. The Australian public throng in large numbers to view the country’s best players strut their stuff each night of mid-summer, yet the National Selectors can’t put a competitive team on the park. 

Further illustration of CA’s actual indifference to the game is the fact that Australia will take on Sri Lanka in a T20 in Adelaide on February 22nd and a test Match against India in Pune the following day. A dilemma is obviously on the cards. David Warner, Steve Smith, and Mitch Starc – how can they play both games? Unless teleportation is invented between now and then, one Australian side will be severely under strength as a result of this scheduling lunacy.

One flaw in T20 cricket nearly marred the Renegades and Stars match when the clouds, ominous for so long, finally brought interrupting rain. When the teams left the field, the Stars were 2/50 after 6 overs in pursuit of the Renegades 4/171. Had the match not been able to resume, the Stars would have been declared the winners of the match despite having scored at a lower rate than their opponents. At present, there isn’t a better system out there, but the Duckworth-Lewis system used to determine the winner of abandoned matches, or revised targets in the event of rain interruptions, heavily favours the team batting second. 

Fortunately for both teams and the big crowd the match could resume, with only two overs lost to the elements. Despite having a target revised in their favour and a long and imposing batting line-up, the Stars had no answers to the Renegades spin twins, Sunil Narine and Brad Hogg. The Renegades claim bragging rights over their cross-town rivals and Hogg, a spritely 45 years-old, again stakes his claims to be part of Australia’s T20 team later in the summer. With that the Renegades and Stars are left to prepare for their next engagements later in the week, while the BBL caravan sets off for Perth for the following night’s battle between the Scorchers and the Thunder. 

Before the fans leave the famous old ground, they are treated to a spectacular fireworks display. As the 71,000 meander their way back into the Melbourne night, it is early enough for many to enjoy the cities nightlife or for families to get home early enough for children’s bedtimes. In the end that is part of the T20’s appeal, 3 hours of high octane cricket and entertainment. It’s a night at the cricket but unlike many have had before.

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