The constant theme through the last two decades of sport in Australia has been the attempt by various codes to try and make the pro version of sport what people think of when they think of each code.
When people think rugby (not often anymore, I grant you) they want them to think Wallabies, when people think Aussie rules they want them to think AFL, and when they think cricket, they want them to think of the Australian cricket team.
This isn’t without merit or reason. Interest in codes has long been linked to the performance of the national side, rather than the overall health of the game.
A lot more people watch cricket on TV than actually play it, certainly once they get into adulthood. An investigation last year into the numbers of cricketers came to the conclusion there were just under 250,000 registered club cricket players in Australia once duplicates and inactives were discarded, while viewers of the 2017-18 Ashes numbered in the millions.
So it’s fair to say the audience is there.
For serious, consequential cricket like an Ashes series, anyway.
Were cricket these days limited to perhaps what people’s experience of cricket was several decades ago – infrequent Test series, with long droughts for the viewer in between gulps of white flannels and leather on willow, this would be a much shorter article.
Scarcity creates its own demand. Test cricket is actually the format of cricket that I’d argue has in fact most improved over the last few years with the advent of the World Test Championship.
Previously pointless two-Test series between minor nations have now been given some long overdue context and relevance, and, provided it is continued post-rona, the Test Championship should undoubtedly leave fans looking forward to an epic Test finale in a year or two’s time.
But too much Test cricket I think was never really the issue. Certainly not for me, anyway. The dizzying, perpetual fixturing of limited-overs cricket though – that, I think has been the issue when it comes to discussing saturation of the game.
Every cricketing nation’s governing authority got a good long look at the IPL when it first launched in 2008 and thought to themselves – gee, I’d like some of that money. In Australia, we have the Big Bash.
England has the T20 Blast (and now the Hundred, because apparently Twenty20 is still too long – good luck with that), we have the CPL in the West Indies, New Zealand has the Super Smash, and on it goes.
Some of this extra cricket has come at the expense of ODI cricket, which is gradually disappearing behind paywalls, to be only dusted off every four years for the World Cup, but most of it has just been crowbarred into an already fairly busy schedule.
I don’t want to go too broad with this because, frankly, you could probably write an article about too much cricket on TV in virtually every cricketing country, even a place as cricket-mad as India claims to be.
So at this point let’s just take it as established that this isn’t a problem unique to Australia, and focus on Australia from here on out.
Because this is an opinion site I’m perhaps going to spend a bit of time talking about my own experience, rather than trying to analyse trends on a more macro level, but I’m hopeful that some of what I say will strike a chord with other fans who find themselves in the same boat.
My main beef with cricket these days is that it has become common. Common to the point of being uninteresting. Routine. Inconsequential.
Who cares if Australia loses some T20 matches against England these days on Foxtel? Certainly not I. Nor the ODI’s.
To be honest it’s actually got to the stage I had to google the 2017-18 Ashes when writing this to remind myself what happened (Australia won 4-0, the pitch and rain killed the contest in Melbourne).
I would consider myself someone with an excellent recall of cricket in the past – I could tell you all about the 1936-37 Ashes, in detail, to choose a series at random, from eons ago – and honestly, even the 2013-14 Ashes stands out.
Nothing will ever come close to the gutted disappointment after 2005, but the visceral enjoyment of watching the hostility unleashed by Mitchell Johnson, knowing I was finally understanding what everyone who lived through the summer of Lillee and Thommo in 1974-75 was going on about was truly extraordinary.
But something for me has changed in the last few years in terms of my views on elite cricket in this country, and not for the better.
Some of it can be chalked up to sandpapergate. I must admit I consciously decided to spurn the Aussie side for a good long while after that all went down.
The realisation that these guys were so detached from why they’re paid to be out there that they would willingly embarrass the nation by deliberately cheating on the big stage made me determined to register some sort of protest – an emotional reaction to a decision that was just patently dreadful in every sense of the word.
Not since the Brisbane Lions dumped Daniel Bradshaw to sign Brendan Fevola have I felt so powerless as a sports fan, watching a clearly terrible decision unfold with nothing to be done about it from my end apart from suck it up or stop watching.
But there’s only so much bile you can hold over something like that – this current distaste or disinterest I have for the elite level of a sport I have loved for close to three decades ever since as a six-year-old I was first entranced by the 1989 Ashes goes way beyond vindictiveness and principle.
A big part is the clear and obvious attempt by Cricket Australia to squeeze every last dollar out of the game. The constant chasing of new eyeballs, where barely interested fans who might come to one big bash game a year, or who might flick it on a couple of times a summer, are seen as more important considerations than the feelings of the rusted-on fans, whose eyeballs are taken for granted.
I know that it’s tremendous vanity to insist the world stands still to keep you entertained and to complain that the world is leaving you behind, but I can’t for the life of me fathom the decision to persist with the current bloated length of the Big Bash League, as a prime example.
In 2016-17, there were 35 games played. It went for a month and a week. Audiences at games and on TV were never higher.
This year – assuming it goes ahead, the season will run for over two months (including a one week break after a week of play – a pointless first week of games, just what you need to confirm early on in the minds of the punters this is a cash grab, pure and simple) and it will consist of 61 games.
And then finals after that. It starts December 3 and won’t finish until sixth February (assuming fixtures not changed by rona) – honestly, I can’t imagine anything worse.
I used to flick the BBL on most nights when it started – it was always on channel 10, and there was always a game on every night. I am not someone who can be stuffed checking a TV guide to see if a game is going to be on free-to-air or behind the paywall, and certainly not someone who is going to spend a single dollar on propping up News Limited – again, that’s on me, but I know I’m not alone in taking that stance.
Besides, it’s still not worth it.
For all the excitement of T20 cricket, my chief complaint remains the same that I and others said when it first kicked off – the game is too much of the same thing, over and over and over.
It’s not a full-length thrilling drama, with betrayals and twists and highs and lows – it’s more akin to a formulaic sitcom. The nature of T20 cricket means the game can be irredeemably won or lost in a few key moments, with almost no chance of recovery.
We all know Test cricket can and does write epics, but even limited-overs cricket was capable of outstanding novellas. For this rusted-on fan, the greatest moments of cricket from my youth remain those epic comeback wins in ODI matches where a game seemed lost, but the format allowed time for a twist.
I clearly remember running screaming around the lounge room in Mt Isa on New Years Day 1996 as a 12-year-old when Michael Bevan hit that four to win a game that looked absolutely dead and gone at 6/38 chasing 173 – you just could not, would never have that sort of twist that built and built to an unbearably tense finish in a T20 game.
A team hacking their way to victory over a couple of overs and 20 minutes even with most of the wickets in the shed could never compare to a two-hour gradual slow burn with swings and twists every step of the way.
They say T20 is striving to be like baseball, but the restrictions on cricket compared to baseball mean that the game is railroaded to a conclusion and winds up being nothing of the sort.
You can’t have a team circumvent a finisher by bowling a wide to get him off strike. You can’t change the bowler during an over when a wicket falls.
Bowlers can simply be seen off or batted out of the game with their fixed quota of overs. The game is heavily weighted towards batsmen, with big bats, roped in infields, as opposed to baseball, where home runs and big scores are often like gold dust, which again, creates its own sort of tension.
Imagine a T20 type contest where the average score was perhaps 80-100 runs, and sixes were hit perhaps only 2-3 times an innings. It’s a different sort of game altogether.
I know traditionalists like myself have been screaming for more balance between bat and ball for years now, but the croaking cries of us are dismissed in an orgy of six-hitting, flamethrowers, obnoxiously loud music blasted over the PA at the ground, fireworks, cheerleaders, ad breaks for KFC and commentators desperately trying to find as many synonyms for huge as they can cram into a three-hour broadcast.
I don’t have children of my own, so I acknowledge I’m not the target audience of a lot of this stuff – the gambling ads are more what they’re trying to fire in my direction, but I remain utterly unconvinced that CA’s current strategy of throwing the kitchen sink at attracting kids until about 13 and then leaving them to find their own way forward from there is going to translate into long term interest in the game.
There’s only so much of the same thing as you can find interesting. I am not sure what the sweet spot is in terms of maximising audience attention to T20 cricket in Australia, but I would wager a fair sum it’s far closer to one game a night for a week for just over a month than double the number of games over double the time.
By the end of recent Big Bash seasons, I’ve found myself tuning out altogether for the last month and switching back on for finals once I actually give a stuff again. Even those can be absolute fizzers – the rain-affected farce that was the BBL final for 19-20 was testament to that.
The key mistake in my view that Cricket Australia have made over the last few years is one that other codes have made – they’ve vastly overestimated the mainstream appeal of their product. Undoubtedly Cricket Australia remembers a time when the Aussie cricket team dominated the summer – and indeed, in the pre-internet age, they undoubtedly did. But with so much more choice now for time-poor people to watch for entertainment, the current saturation levels of cricket are just unsustainable.
I’m not surprised at all that crowds and TV numbers are down. The new viewers aren’t coming on board – I think at this point anyone who doesn’t watch cricket already isn’t going to be convinced to sign up by anything that Cricket Australia plans to do in the future, and those who already do are, like me, slowly turning off in a mix of boredom, dismay or disillusionment at the endlessness of it all.
For me – my view on cricket now is that they don’t need or care about my eyeballs anymore. I know I’ve been taken for granted for a long time, and plenty of others like me as well. The only way to protest this sort of high handedness by a governing body is to stop watching and stop paying.
But it helps too that I can undertake a sort of grassroots act of rebellion and remind Cricket Australia that they don’t own the sport, just the TV rights to their employees.
I’ve umpired and been involved in local cricket in the social comp LastManStands for years.
I get to see the battle between bat and ball most weekends between individuals I know well, in games that are always played in the right spirit, where it is a meaningful contest between evenly matched individuals. People aren’t swearing and threatening broken f##king arms, it’s still taken just seriously enough to make it a game of consequence each and every week, and not a flamethrower or betting ad in sight.
As Australians, it’s important to remember that cricket as a sport belongs to all of us who are involved. It is entirely our right and our privilege to enjoy the game however we see fit, and if that involves making a very conscious decision to give Cricket Australia a giant middle finger and telling them and their corporatised cash grab to go rot in hell, unwatched on our television screens the length and breadth of the country – well, no-one should feel bad at all about doing that.
I certainly don’t and won’t feel any remorse about doing that this summer.
Cricket’s contemporary diminishment as a distraction was perhaps first remarked upon last summer when our Prime Minister attempted to cite the performance of the Australian cricket team as a convenient source of inspiration and escapism for people whose homes were at risk of disappearing in giant firestorms, to much derision from the wider public.
If cricket fails this summer to pull eyeballs away from rona and everything else going on in people’s lives, as I well suspect that it might – well at this point I’d like to say something about prompting a change of tack from Cricket Australia, but we all know that’s a fanciful notion.
When they cut the Big Bash back to a month, and make a conscious decision to start focusing on quality rather than quantity, for fans who know and appreciate the difference in what quality cricket is, that’s when they will begin winning me back as a fan.
I won’t hold my breath.