Is T20 Cricket suffocating the Test arena?

Will Swanton, in The Australian, & January 2016, with the title “Will T20 kill Test Cricket?” …

The first international Twenty20 match was a joke. Australia faced New Zealand at Auckland’s Eden Park. Kiwi players wore wigs and fake moustaches. Glenn McGrath replicated Trevor Chappell’s underarm delivery. Umpire Billy Bowden issued a mock red card. Players organised an in-house competition for the best retro 1980s outfit. It was the unveiling of the cartoonish format of a trad­itional and earnest sport.


Eleven years later, T20 ain’t no joke. What did Voltaire reckon? Give the people what they want? Diehards cling to their five-day Test matches that unfurl in the manner of a studious game of chess. Yet 20-over-a-side fixtures have gained a fanatical, football-like following in Australia through the Big Bash League. Its success is replicated in every Test-playing nation. Which raises a question to be asked with the urgency of an LBW appeal. Is T20 here to complement the trad­itional format or kill the old bastard off?

“We’re very conscious of what we want the Big Bash to be,” Cricket Australia boss James Sutherland tells The Australian. “We’re still sticking really tightly to that original strategy. We’re unwavering in our commitment that says the Big Bash is about bringing new people to the game. It’s about kids, it’s about families and it’s about females. It’s not targeted to the trad­itional cricket fans. If they want to come along anyway, that’s fantastic and we’ll always embrace them. But we’ve been really intent on bringing new people to the game through T20 and the Big Bash and even if the competition is going through the roof, which it is right now, that’s what it started as and that’s what it remains. It’s been designed as an introduction to the game of cricket.”

First impressions are strong. It’s like a Test highlights package. Matches are run and won in three hours. A result that doesn’t take five days. Eureka! Players are mic’d up for interviews during the run of play. Helmets have cameras on them. Batsmen are intent on attacking. Bowlers are forever scheming and double-guessing and ducking for cover. It’s not better than Test cricket, but it’s different. And if it’s all you know, why go anywhere else? Grandstand finishes are the norm. And unlike in Test cricket this summer, the grandstands are full to overflowing. The best-case scenario is that T20 finds a niche market and grandpa Tests retains his pre-eminence. The worst-cast scenario for traditionalists is that T20 becomes the major attraction and the Tests become antiquated and ignored.

“The traditional fans have said from the start, ‘This T20 stuff isn’t my game,’ ” Sutherland says. “They’ve said, I don’t like the hit and giggle of the Big Bash, I’m a Test man or I’m a Test woman and I’m going to focus on that. And yet it’s just kept growing on them. Last week I was at a park in Melbourne, going for a run, and there’s always this guy walking his dog who wants to have a bit of a chat about the cricket. He said to me, ‘I love Test cricket but this Big Bash, I can’t stop watching it.’ And I said to him, ‘Mate, I knew we’d get you in the end.’ ”

Bill Lawry is a respected former Test captain of Australia. He played in an era when 50-over-games and coloured clothing were unheard of, let alone the Big Bash with its flashing bails, on-field player microphones, helmet cams, cheergirls and fireworks. The 78-year-old Lawry might be expected to be anti-T20 because of its inroads into the heartland, but while he firmly regards Tests as the premium product by the length of Dennis Lillee’s run-up, not even the esteemed Lawry, who played 67 Tests between 1961 and 1971 alongside the likes of Richie Benaud and the Chappell brothers, could find a downside to the upsurge in T20’s popularity and credibility.

“It’s a tremendous boost for cricket at just the right time,” Lawry says as the rain tumbles down at the SCG. “The market has changed and that’s a good thing for the game. When you sit back and watch all the young families going to matches, they’re going to be the spectators at Test matches and one-dayers in the future. It’s been a tremendous boost.

“Test cricket is always where players are going to be graded. Test cricket is where the most meaningful statistics are going to be. But T20 has become incredibly popular and I’m not worried about that at all. It’s not a threat to Tests. I see it as a kindergarten course for people who want to move on to watching Test matches in the future. It’s a wonderful marketing tool for cricket because it does just enough to catch a person’s eye at a time when there’s a lot of competition for people’s attention.”

The BBL is in its fifth year. Attendances are larger for T20s than for Tests. Matches and individual performances may mean nothing in the big picture, but for one night only the Big Bash can suck you in quicker than a McDonald’s drive-thru.

“It’s still new,” Lawry says. “It will settle into its level. It’s a real shot in the arm at the moment. It’s surprised cricket officials. It’s surprised me. It’s good for television. It’s getting into the homes of a lot of Australians. I’m certainly not complaining about that. It’s exposing more people to cricket and I think there’s a bit of a revolution going on because you see all the young faces at Big Bash matches and they might not have a clue about what’s going on, but they’re having fun. The important thing is, they’re having fun at the cricket. They’re in.”

Test cricket will remain the premium product only while players regard it as such. Cracks have ­already appeared. The West Indies Test side has been weakened by the absence of world-class players who preferred to become T20 guns for hire. With every departure, the institution of the Test weakens.

“The challenge has become the future of Test cricket,” Lawry says. “Because some of the other countries are falling off dramatically. I’m all for T20 but you need to see Test cricket stay successful. If it doesn’t, we won’t see the really great achievements over a long ­period of time in the hardest format, of someone like Shane Warne getting 700 Test wickets. If Shane Warne was playing T20, you’d see him bowl four overs and that would be the end of that. Can you imagine? No long spells. No substance over the course of a really intense Test match.

“We look back over cricket and we talk about the Bradmans and Lillees and Warnes. We talk about what they did in Test cricket. Even with Warne, we don’t talk about his one-day record. Tests have the weight. There’s a lot of players making a lot of money in T20 at the moment, and good luck to them. But they’ll probably be a distant memory in a few years’ time. Cricket needs to keep that status symbol of Test cricket at the highest level.”

The crowd of 80,883 at the MCG last Saturday night confirmed T20’s raiding of the market. The peak TV audience of 1.52 million confirmed it. It was such a rude shock to Cricket Australia and BBL officialdom that about 30,000 fans were stranded outside the ground when the first ball was bowled. Insufficient security staff had been hired in expectation of a maximum turnout of 50,000.

“I don’t see it as Tests versus T20s,” Lawry says. “Like I said, T20 is the kindergarten you go to before you go to proper school. That’s where you go for your first day, your first year. T20 is wonderful in that way but you’re not seeing the best players in the country in the Big Bash. Half the T20 players are average. The best cricketers are in the Test team. The very best cricketers might also be in the Australian T20 team. Test cricket is the elite. But you’ve got to get people to turn the knob on to watch them.

“If T20 makes people want to tune in for the first time, some of those will definitely go on to watch Test cricket when they understand the skills of the game a bit better. It’s horses for courses. They’ll learn pretty quickly that Test cricket isn’t easy.”

Sutherland says of the Stars-Renegades match at the MCG: “I was getting text messages with updates on the crowd, updates on what was happening outside the ground, it was pretty phenomenal to see it brewing as the night went on. Once it got to 70,000 and there were still people outside the ground, I knew we were on our way to a big number. I remember saying, imagine if it topped 80? And it did.”

And the death of Tests in broad day-night? “I don’t see any risk of that at the moment,” Sutherland says. “New people are coming to the cricket before they will graduate their interest to the traditional and older formats of the game. The Big Bash is in a symbiotic relationship with international cricket. Test cricket and representing your country is still the ultimate. A lot of people thought one-day cricket was in decline and there’s no doubt, in some ways, it’s been caught in the middle between Test cricket and the rise of T20 cricket. But if you look at our research, it says each of the three forms are equally supported in Australia, equally popular. It’s just that a different demographic favours each one of them. One-day cricket still rates extremely well even if, inevitably, some of the crowds are a ­little bit off when it coincides timing-wise with the BBL. “

Back in 2005, in that first international T20, Australia beat New Zealand by 44 runs at Eden Park. Ricky Ponting was man of the match for his unbeaten 98 off 44 balls. “I think it’s difficult to play seriously,” he said at the time. Now Ponting is an enthusiastic and conscientious Big Bash commentator for Network Ten. No more fake moustaches. No more wigs. It’s the biggest mover in Australian sport. “Test cricket is always going to be the pinnacle,” Australia’s former Test player Shane Watson said after linking with the Sydney Thunder this season. “T20s are going to find their place over time. They’re both great, why does anyone have to choose?”

Twenty-20 facts

First played = England’s inter-county Twenty20 Cup in 2003.

Format =  20-over innings per team.

Match duration =  Three hours.

First T20 International = Australia v New Zealand, Auckland’s Eden Park, 2005.

Big Bash League began in Australia in 2011-12.

Largest crowd this season = 80,883, Melbourne Stars v Melbourne Renegades at the MCG, January 2.

Largest peak TV audience = 1.53 million, Sydney Sixers v Sydney Thunder, December 17.

Innovations = Player microphones, mid-match interviews with captains, bowlers, batsmen and fielders, helmet cameras, music between deliveries, fireworks, ramp shots, reverse sweeps, coloured bails.

Big Bash Final = January 24

T20 Internationals= Australia v India in Adelaide (January 26), Melbourne (January 29) and Sydney (January 31).

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