Gideon Haigh, in the Weekend Australian 17-18 December 2011
“KFC T20 Big Bash League is the most talked about event in the country. Fans love their teams and families and kids of all ages pack grounds around the country. Dressed in their team’s colours, they come every week to watch the best T20 players on earth.” “The Vision” for the Big Bash League, Cricket Australia’s new-fashioned domestic T20 tournament which began at the SCG last night, reads like rather a lot to do with the BBL, as though composed in half a minute by someone carrying on two telephone conversations at the same time (“Mate, have you done that ‘Vision’ yet?” “Sorry mate, I’ve been flat out. I’ll bash some crap out now.”)
It does, though, encapsulate CA’s sky-high hopes for what in a cricket sense is really old fast food in a new wrapper: more or less the same players as in the old domestic T20 tournament spread a little more thinly among eight city-based rather than six state-based teams, albeit sprinkled, like Colonel Sanders’ herbs and spices, with New Improved Warnie.
There are some reasonable arguments for it. CA presents the league as integral to rewinning the apparently forgone allegiance of our youth, which is an appealing sales pitch because everyone worships at the shrine of their children nowadays — myself included. And while CA won’t divulge the market research on which this assertion is based, let us take them at their word.
Of course, it’s a tad less philanthropic than that. In commercial terms, the BBL is geared to developing a new television revenue stream to wean CA off its dependence on international cricket in general andIndiain particular.
When CA shops its broadcast rights around as the expiration of its current contracts approaches in two years, it wants a new product to sell. This is fine too, by the way. Everyone must earn a living. There remains a quaint conviction, however, that anyone nursing any misgivings about the BBL must be one of those obdurate souls, descended from Charters and Caldicott in The Lady Vanishes, prone to spluttering “it’s not cricket”.
Quite the contrary. T20 is cricket. It’s CA that’s pretending otherwise, by pimping the BBL as though the rest of the game does not exist. Notice how “The Vision”, for instance, neglects that CA already promotes in the same period what are the country’s most talked-about and best-patronised sporting events, the Melbourne and Sydney Test matches.
Not even India, whose T20 Indian Premier League we are basically trying to imitate, dares schedule clashing international engagements. Nor has anyone at CA tried explaining how they see the relative rewards available for T20 not affecting the rest of cricket.
An Indian cricketer can now earn many times as much as he earns in a Test match from games a 10th the length and a fraction of the quality. If the BBL succeeds as CA wishes, that situation is perfectly foreseeable here.
Already in modern cricket, as Ed Cowan puts it succinctly in his new diary, “you can be paid a lot more for not being as good as you used to have to be”. Has any other sport embraced this with such innocent enthusiasm?
The BBL also expresses covertly a contempt for the existing cricket fan.
One of cricket’s worthiest aspects is the generosity of its devotees, driven not only by local attachments but sporting ones too; they attend big games not merely to see their country win or their favourites prevail, but to be moved by the struggle.
This summer’s Tests have already been little classics, from the thrilling pace of James Pattinson to the technical travails of Ricky Ponting, from the noble perseverance of Chris Martin’s bowling to the slapstick comedy of his batting. One of my Kiwi colleagues during the Hobart Test fell into a reverie while describing a Martin cover drive at Basin Reserve five years ago and the ensuing standing ovation.
CA’s marketing guru Mike McKenna dismisses this, arguing that cricket’s future is tribal, like AFL, where he used to work, the “club-versus-club competition” being “where the passion is”. McKenna’s notion of “passion” clearly extends no further than 10-year-olds in face paint and replica gear apeing attitudes seen in other sports, and poring over the chuckleheaded BBL websites that read like they’ve been written by, well, other 10-year-olds.
“His incredible pace has seen him selected to play ODI’s [sic] forAustraliaand has him set for a hopeful future,” pants the Sydney Thunder website of Mitchell Starc in a randomly-chosen example.
“A movie buff (Shawshank Redemption is his favourite), Mitch says he might consider a tattoo in the near future. Like most cricketers, he’s hooked on PlayStation’s Call of Duty, and also spends much of his time tapping away on his iPhone: either Tweeting or Facebooking.”
That makes Starc, to the Thunder website’s way of thinking, “somewhat of an overachiever”. An underachiever scarcely bears contemplation.
Doubtless some of this air of the thrown-together and thrown-up will fade now there’s cricket to watch. The BBL will feature a few great and many good cricketers; T20 offers them limited scope, but quality should stand out, and I would watch Warnie in a Christmas pantomime if he promised to bowl a flipper.
Perhaps the immediate risk, however, is the cricket will be drowned out by the “booming tunes, fireworks and entertainment” McKenna promises will “reposition” the BBL “among the competitive environment of 3D movies, video games and music festivals”. (“reposition . . . among the environment?”) From its inception nearly a decade ago, T20 has been lashed to a concept called “cricketainment” that is perhaps as naff as the word itself, involving essentially a non-stop cycle of extraneous activity meant to enrich the spectacle but actually betraying administrators’ sneaking equivocation about their game’s pleasures and charms.
“Cricketainment” is essentially a form of apology. Sorry for taking your time. Sorry that cricket is gradual, subtle, and sometimes not utterly obvious. We know you’re very busy. We know your life is replete with “3D movies, video games and music festivals”. But will you please accept this little morsel of shortened cricket if we slip it into an “entertainment package” alongside some boy bands and dancing girls?
The trouble, of course, is this process is potentially endless, while also subject to diminishing returns. There is only so much packaging a sport can tolerate before the inauthenticity cloys, and the activity becomes a bit of everything and a lot of nothing.
We know the T20 vision. I wonder if we’ll look back in a few years with T20 hindsight.