There were mixed reactions to the BBL and mixed views about where exactly T20 should sit in the programming. Some of us who had had experience of some earlier changes to the game, for instance when India fell head over heels for 50-over cricket after the 1983 World Cup, knew that there would inevitably be some cost to the interest in and quality of Test cricket. The logic went that if we, as administrators, denigrated Test cricket with our programming or commercial decisions, we couldn’t expect the general public to retain the love of the long game that we were trying to sell to them.
There was duly a level of fear about exactly what the BBL would take away, relative to what it added. Even so, CA had concluded, not unwisely, that too few cricket followers were actively supporting their traditional state teams during the domestic Big Bash that had started in 2005. While the contests between the states are still avidly followed by many, it is a long time since a significant number of those followers had been anything more than passive – listening to radio, getting online updates and reading reports on a day’s play. New identities, shared across six capital cities with two teams apiece in the biggest centres of Sydney and Melbourne, would offer a fresh start.
Over the first 10 years of the competition, the record would suggest that this was the right move. Particularly in the smaller markets of Perth, Brisbane, Adelaide and Hobart, populations have latched onto their local team in a much more active way. The dual-club models in Melbourne and Sydney have not been without their problems, but they can also point to a good degree of success on the field and also moments like the biggest single crowd for a domestic game in Australian history, when 80,883 spectators descended on the MCG to watch the Melbourne Stars host the crosstown Renegades on a warm January evening in 2016.
Something that should always be made clear is that the advent of the BBL was for reasons both directly and indirectly financial, as opposed to cricket reasons. In direct terms it created the opportunity for more revenue through broadcast rights fees, and indirectly it afforded the chance to grow the game’s audience beyond its traditional base and thus expand the number of ‘customers’ that cricket served in Australia.
The cycle that CA was attempting to break in terms of revenue was the fact that when India tours Australia, the governing body makes a lot more money than any other season, including the Ashes, because of the value of selling the rights to that tour back into India. While CA is a bigger and healthier board than many around the world, it was still in the same boat as all those other nations equally dependent on the extra money flowing from an India tour. But by creating the BBL and lavishing resources upon it in its early years – a significant proportion of which came from a joint stake in the short-lived T20 Champions League – was able to sell a purely domestic product to broadcasters for a significant sum of money separate to international rights. That had never been possible before, as even a figure as keen on cricket as Kerry Packer never showed much interest in non-international matches. In one move, the BBL increased the value of domestic broadcast rights and reduced CA’s reliance on rights from an India tour.
That reliance had been at the front of many minds on the CA board in 2008 after the ‘Monkeygate’ saga, where for several days a touring India team might have upped sticks and flown home in the middle of a tour, with the financial ramifications that would have had.
The decision to invest so much in the BBL, over the grumbles of the states who had wanted the investment to be balanced by the sale of at least some of the clubs to private owners, has paid off, and it is to CA’s credit that it went down that path. But ‘paid’ is the operative term; the BBL is a tournament that exists for commercial reasons and so has never been considered in the cricketing terms that might otherwise have influenced much of its shape.
There were some scary demographics developing in the mid-2000s even though the national team was the world’s best at the time. ‘Pale, stale and male’ was the catchphrase, with white males over the age of 40 comprising the vast majority of Test cricket’s audience, while anyone under the age of 40 couldn’t give a hoot about it, even more so if those people were female. Consequently there was a need for new ways to attract spectators and players, in the same way 50-over cricket brought a younger and wider crowd to the game in the 1970s and ’80s.
Had we only played Test cricket over the past 40 years, cricket would be a niche game played by so few countries it wouldn’t matter: in India it would probably sit a distant third behind football and hockey. On the flip side, South Asian immigration to Australia has only made the BBL more vibrant, as it attracts lovers of the game who are not automatically drawn to the traditional image of the baggy green cap. India, by its sheer size, is not only a giant on its own terms but it has the capacity to create other cricket nations around the world simply through large-scale migration.
The subsequent expansion of the BBL into a full home-and-away competition, occupying more than two months of prime summer real estate, has been about chasing ever more of this and other audiences for broadcasters.
Ultimately, this is the biggest worry I have about T20 cricket in general and the BBL in particular. Ever more expansion of an entertainment product like this runs the growing risk of killing the golden goose through over-saturation. The pressure is there from broadcasters for ever more content during the summer holidays, causing offshoot conversations about growing the number of games or even the number of clubs from the current eight. That in turn creates a danger of over-exposing the flaws in T20 cricket, particularly the fact that by fielding eight teams, it is already stretching the talent resources available in Australia.
This is an edited extract from Greg Chappell: Not Out, published by Hardie Grant.