Taking cricket to the bush
In the aftermath of ‘Howzat’, there’s much to reflect upon. A lot will centre on the historical position Kerry Packer holds and the influence the venture had on Australian and world sport.
In a cricket sense I’m sure there would be some heads in Jolimont who wished that Channel Nine had held on to the series a little longer and run it through October to generate excitement about the upcoming season.
While that may have been a perfect scenario, the TV series – and most likely the subsequent reading or re-reading of Gideon Haigh’s definitive account by any administrator worth their salt – upon deeper analysis will prove instructive for a number of reasons in the context of today.
Necessity, as the mother of invention, gave rise to World Series Cricket’s most heralded innovations (night cricket, colour clothing) as well as some of its lesser known triumphs.
The Country Cup for example, was effectively a competition to keep players outside the main XI’s cricket-ready. The Cup was born out of the banning of players from first-class cricket and the best metro facilities falling under state board controls, who were unwilling to allow their grounds for use, so they played matches in the bush.
The accidental affect was that country kids, starved of big time sport, became lifetime cricket fans as no other major sport had ever taken its product to the bush in this manner.
The hard-sell of WSC and ability to use players on contracts for any purpose meant that promotional activities became part of the circuit, hence this brilliant spinoff that all of cricket benefitted from – a generation of more players, more fans, more TV ratings, more attendees. Like any simple marketing plan, the product was actually being taken to the consumer.
The sports landscape has changed over the last 35 years but, with a few exceptions, no sport has taken its product to the bush in a meaningful manner. And quite rightly so, given the simple economics. How could you take events to places where there are less people and therefore less money? Well… what if nobody goes to these events anyway, what if they already lose money?
So using the past as our template, let’s think of some cricket matches that need to be run to service the top tier, but ones that don’t attract any spectators and may well lose money – yep, that’s right, all of state cricket.
So let’s just float into this scenario, two or three Sheffield Shield games in each state were thrown open to interested regional centres starved of sport. Some quite simple criteria would be used as the sell on local governments (along with the Liberal-National Party state governments that reside in four of the six states).
Firstly, meet a designated cost figure for Cricket Australia (for argument sake, let’s say a conservative $75,000 per match).
Secondly, upgrade local facilities to reach first-class standard.
Would that pique a regional centre’s interest? Absolutely.
The local government would get the gate and all concession sales, local cricket in the entire region would get the weekend off and at $10 entry per adult, I think you could pass the $75,000 in revenue comfortably over a Friday-Monday or Thursday-Sunday.
Over the life of the deal, the facility upgrade would mean it could act as a high performance centre for the region. Throw in staging of a state youth championships each year and the funding is being turned into usage and tourism.
Oh and almost forgot to mention the fact that cricket people in the bush are inherently more passionate about state cricket than their city counterparts. Why? Well, what other national competition in a profile sport actually represents them? It’s the whole state those teams are representing, so if nobody cares in the city, the bush deserve it.
On top of the cost-saving for cricket, cricket will also gain a promotional foothold in the bush ahead of all other sports, garner facility upgrades, while giving some new life to an almost forgotten competition.
Yes there would be many hurdles, but the ones about players playing in the best possible conditions is a contradictory one, given the varying standard of facilities across the world and the upgrades.
Games in front of a crowd that want to see them, as opposed to empty stands at the major grounds – for a player I think the former would excite more. Players are training day-to-day in the supposed elite environments so they are being exposed to that in a sufficient manner.
There’s no television coverage of Sheffield Shield matches as it is, so no effect there – but with simultaneous regional matches going on, would there not be opportunities for regional affiliate news to put together clip packages? They may even get a half hour round-up clips show shown through regions each week.
As for the One Day matches backed on to Shield matches and broadcast by Fox, there would be no change to those, the teams would simply return to the capital city on the night of day four of the Shield contest and play the typically Wednesday match (or vice versa prior to the Shield match).
Which then makes you ponder the interstate One Day competition and its context. While it remains a staple of summer pay-T V broadcasts, the downturn in One Day International popularity gives it lesser meaning. Given the last few years of very late and/or short term commercial naming rights deals, it seems the commercial world, despite the potential high brand exposure, is also not sure of its place in hearts and minds.
So while we make some changes, albeit ones that point towards a sense of tradition in the bush, let’s shake things up a bit.
Do we think our developing players should be equipped with the skills to play One Day and Test cricket? Given the advent of Twenty20 cricket, the skills of One Day and Test cricket are more attuned than ever before.
Is it healthy in a financial and development sense that we would have state teams picking markedly different four day and one day teams? Now that Twenty20 is in a franchise model, could the states’ development model be much more streamlined if four day and one day cricket were not treated separately?
Now look at every level below interstate cricket, club level, where cricket’s rank and file play or support and are passionate and engaged. These competitions consist of a mixture of one and two day cricket, nobody splits the competitions as it would cheapen the club premiership.
The sum of its parts at club level equals a much greater whole than if you split the formats. So would we care more about state cricket if there was only one undisputed title winner? I say yes. It’s the Australian sporting culture that there is only one winner.
When we turn on Fox Sports on a Wednesday night, would cricket people care more if the match we were watching had a bearing on who took the Sheffield Shield, the last bastion of anything symbolic in state cricket? I say yes.
But what about traditionalists, when awarding the Sheffield Shield for a completion that includes one day cricket?
Oh, that’s right, we didn’t even bother with the Shield for the best part of ten years, so no issues there.
So, just like the system every park cricketer plays under (and realistically, the ones that could care about state cricket), let’s have one winner with a fixture of four and one day games.
Commercially it of course reduces one property to two however, using the sum of its parts theory, it has the potential to have much more longevity and potency in a new format.
From the international team perspective, there would more continuity in playing the same group of developing players in both forms at state level and, combined with the BBL changes, there would be quality over quantity in a contracting sense.
I for one would like to care about state cricket again, so why don’t we go back to the future, learn from WSC and show some creativity.