Australia’s game-changer returns for another innings

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The night of the tournament’s life: 80,883 fans packed into the MCG on January 2 © Cricket Australia

Only the most cynical traditionalist – you know, the ones still calling themselves cricket’s fustiest word, purist – could have failed to be impressed with the manner in which the Big Bash League, the bold, brash Big Bash League, strode into 2016.

The last night of 2015 saw Travis Head pull off an outrageous heist – compelling cricket, whatever your favoured format – for the Strikers against the Sixers in front of 46,389 adoring Adelaidians, supporting a team (with genuine gusto) that did not exist six years ago. The next night, Hobart Hurricanes hosted their first-ever sell-out at Bellerive Oval (by season’s end, they had had two more).

January 2, however, was the whopper, with 80,883 (breaking the competition’s record by more than 30,000) at the MCG and over 20,000 more at the Waca. At the G, vendors were out of food by half-time, conservative estimates suggested 1,500 people gave up when queuing for tickets, and A$80,000 of merchandise was sold. Only three of the 45 games hosted by the MCG in the 2015 AFL season – a veritable Melbourne religion with 150 years of tradition and deep-seated rivalries behind it – drew a larger crowd.

When placed alongside a Test summer against weak opposition on dreary pitches (and, in Sydney’s case, under rainy skies) these numbers were arresting evidence that the BBL had changed Australian cricket in ways greater than simply succeeding in encouraging fans – young and old – to don a literal cardboard bucket, meant for housing fried chicken, on their heads.

No, the impact of the competition, gearing up for its sixth season for men and into its second for women, has been profound, and the landscape altered for good. It has muscled its way to the very heart of the summer; in every sense of the word, the BBL is primetime. When the holidays start, the BBL starts; when the holidays end, the BBL ends, and for 40 days, there is cricket on almost every evening – it pauses for thought on Christmas Eve (although Sydney Sixers want to play then too), Christmas Day (when Melbourne Renegades fancy a game), and the days that Australia play their January ODIs. The trick has been in its regularity, and sheer simplicity.

There is no doubt the BBL has brought new fans to the sport, particularly kids, women and ethnic minorities
Administrators argue that the BBL’s schedule sits neatly alongside the summer’s international calendar, and that the shortest form is the gateway drug that is conscripting the next generation of Test obsessives. In essence, the BBL extended the cricketing day; Australia play Tests, then their fans switch the channel at the close of play and watch the shorter stuff. Those administrators may be right – and there is no doubt the BBL has brought new fans to the sport, particularly kids, women and ethnic minorities – but whether that translates into sold-out Tests in years to come, it really is far too early to tell.

For players, opportunities are greater, and deeper. Six teams became eight, providing more slots, with Channel Ten’s free-to-air broadcast elevating their profiles; non-international players are household names, playing before large crowds and huge TV audiences. A new type of star emerged too, like Craig Simmons, from outside the mainstream – for some, this will lead to highly lucrative careers in leagues around the world, without ever playing an international. Among professionals, Test cricket remains the pinnacle of the game, but do kids now grow up dreaming of playing BBL, not international cricket?

This has come at a price, with the less lucrative or marketable – and thus popular – Matador Cup and Sheffield Shield shunted to the summer’s margins. If Australia’s Test fortunes do not pick up, the BBL is likely – rightly or wrongly – to be blamed. As one player says: “they have probably been the victims of the success. They are hotly contested but the wider public aren’t really interested and they are also increasingly treated as sort of talent-development competitions by administrators. This can’t help but flow down to how the players feel about them.”

TV has made stars of those players, and the BBL’s newfound power in the broadcast market was indicated by American giants NBC showing 10 games this year. In the UK, BBL was a key plank in BT Sport’s decision to snap up the rights for all Australian cricket, but things will be most interesting at home: later this summer, the next batch of rights (the current lot expire at the end of the 2017-18 season) for Australian cricket will be sold. Network Ten paid $20m for the last round of BBL rights, while Channel Nine paid $80m for international cricket; industries experts anticipate that the gap between those figures will narrow significantly, with the BBL’s value at least trebling. Channel Seven may want a slice of the pie, while it is thought Fox Sports may set up a dedicated cricket channel.

Perhaps, though, beyond the increased participation, crowds and players’ opportunities, the shuffled shape of summer and economic expansion, the BBL’s greatest impact has on the sport’s image. CA were brazen in their belief that cricket was too male, pale and stale and have targeted non-traditional audiences with abandon.

While some of the BBL’s gimmicks pursued to this end have been excruciating, the atmosphere at games is welcoming and seldom boozy (unlike T20 in England or international cricket in either country), the crowds are diverse and, most eye-catchingly, full of families and kids – at whom everything is aimed. It is these values that mean young girls now have cricketing role models through the WBBL and underpinned CA’s absolute conviction that Chris Gayle, the human with more runs in the competition’s format than any other, would not return this year having compromised the BBL’s values last year.

Image matters and, as a result of the pursuit of these ideals through the BBL, cricket is a broader, bigger sport. The game has changed for good.

BT Sport is your new home for Australia’s home international matches and Big Bash League, including the 2017-18 Ashes series. For more info please visit sport.bt.com/cricket

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