Big Bash – Setting the Trend?

The Big Bash concluded on Sunday with Sydney Thunder taking the spoils after another exceptional batting performance from Usman Khawaja. Living in Australia these days I’ve caught a fair bit of it (on TV mostly, sadly I didn’t make it to a game this year) and it’s fair to say the tournament has been a staggering success.

The attendances for the tournament have been astonishing across the board, but the real disbelieving figure was the 80,000 who turned up for the Melbourne derby between the Stars and the Renegades on Jan 2. Considering the BBL is only in its 5th year the numbers almost beggar belief. Melbourne is famous as a sporting city, true, but that attendance dwarfs even most Aussie Rules games, a sport with fanatical support in these parts. Indeed, support for all the games combined was greater than for the 2015 World Cup, the pinnacle short-form tournament of the game.

More impressive was that the attendances for the inaugural Women’s Big Bash League were so high that a couple of games were upgraded to free-to-air TV, such was their popularity. This is not be sneezed at.

The success is down to a number oi things – free-to-air TV helps entice more viewers in, franchise rivalry is starting to develop, ticket prices have remained within the realms of reason, and the weather always helps. Importantly, the series is played in a clear six-week window in the height of summer in the school holiday season. Derby games are organised for the weekend and heavily promoted and marketed. All this has the crowds flocking in.

As an Englishman, I look upon this tournament with some bemusement and some envy. The English invented the T20 format after all, but our national tournament, the Natwest Blast, pales in comparison compared to this. The problems are obvious – solutions more difficult.

For a start, the Blast is played mostly on Friday nights throughout the season, rather than in a block. This decision was taken after a comprehensive survey of fans was undertaken – the argument being that people would come down after work, bring their kids, and with games on at the same time every week, there was a distinct niche carved for the matches. All well and good, and indeed attendances did improve in 2015, but the players are not too happy with the change, preferring to play the games in a block rather than switch between formats on a daily basis. Which is a reasonable argument, and one the ECB may have to look at again.

Where we really get into murky waters is the franchise idea. A number of ECB members have put forward the idea of having a city-based competition instead of the county system. The arguments are solid – less matches, shorter tournament, big name players more likely to play, better to market – all the things the Big Bash is doing so well. But the traditional side of the English game is strongly resistant – as some of the counties would have to merge or miss out entirely, you can understand their resistance.

So where to go from here? The success of the Big Bash will have many more eyes looking this way to see where the Blast can improve. What is clear is that English cricket, rightly or wrongly, is a different animal to anywhere in the world, and trying to emulate other tournaments may be folly. What should happen, as soon as humanly possible, is for some form of cricket to be available free-to-air. It is no coincidence that the Big Bash is so popular due to its availabilty on FTA, where exposure allows the game to seep into the public consciousness. There have been murmurings of a highlights package being shown on FTA in England, but with SKY pouring money into the ECB’s coffers in its latest broadcasting deal, it would take some hefty negotiation for it to happen. It would only be a small step anyway, but a vital one.

With the World T20 Cup around the corner, thoughts on the relative merits of the Blast format will only heighten, particularly if England do badly (for what its worth, I think they have a good chance of doing well). The changes brought forth by the IPL and extended by the Big Bash have sent shockwaves through world cricket, and English cricket must adapt or fall behind. Time will tell to see if they do.


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