Last week for the fifth year in a row I went with my family to see a Big Bash Twenty20 match at the Adelaide Oval. It has become a bit of an annual event for my family, as we always go back to South Australia for Christmas and the interstate Twenty20 competition usually starts in the first week of January. My parents and in-laws, uncles, aunts, cousins are members of Adelaide Oval (I was too before I left SA 15 odd years ago) and so it’s always nice to go along, sit in the pathetic excuse for a grandstand that is the Sir Don Bradman stand and watch some cricket. This year the new western stands were up and so I was quite eager to see how they compared to the old pre-war vintage ones (answer – they are brilliant).
Now five years ago I went along to the game with great misgivings. I hated Twenty20 cricket; thought it a mockery wrapped in a travesty inside a disgrace. I viewed it as only a small step up from the idiotic beach cricket that XXXX were putting on each summer for a while (seriously guys, any time you organise an event where Allan Border – old Captain Grumpy – is supposed to be the life of the event, you know you’ve got a dud concept).
The first Twenty20 game I saw was an international one between Australia and somebody at the Gabba back in around 2004. I hated it. It was a game in which I had absolutely no care who won, and all anyone in the crowd was caring was that any batsman (it didn’t matter which side) would hit a stack of sixes.
It took a while for the Twenty20 game to win me over as well. Back in 2008 I wrote this in a blog about test cricket:
I loathe Twenty20 - it's the only time I've ever been at a cricket match and realised the score was irrelevant.
That statement was true of the match I saw at the Gabba. By the 10 over mark I wouldn’t have been able to tell you without looking at the scoreboard how many were out – a situation that would never occur were I at a test match I didn’t even know how many runs were scored: all that mattered was someone was trying to hit a six.
And yet in the last three years my attitude has changed completely – solely through going to watch South Australia play other states each January.
Firstly a few things have happened during that time:
Back when the concept started it was all smash and bash – bowlers might as well have been replaced by bowling machines – and spinners? Fuhgeddaboudit. Now the game remains lots of smash and bash, but also has shots that are nowhere to be found in coaching manuals (yet) but are much more subtle – such as chipping the ball over the wicket keeper.
Bowlers have also become much savvier. They now employ constant changes of pace, have introduced new balls like a slow bouncer (as opposed to a long hop) and they are now more realistic. Bowlers know that going for 6 runs an over is excellent – so too do their captains and the crowds.
Last week at the match, dot balls were applauded – the crowd knew how valuable was each ball and each run. Of note as well – South Australian beat Victoria by playing three spinners. So much for the bowling machine analogy.
2. The competition has come to mean something.
First rule of any game/match in any sport – ask what are they playing for. If you can’t answer the question, whatever you are watching ain’t worth spit.
It may be a Round 2 match in early April but every footy fan knows that match counts for the same amount as does one in Round 20 in late August. Watching any test match played anywhere and you know what they’re playing for – the Ashes, the Border-Gavaskar trophy etc. They’re also playing for history – test matches mean something – the test average means something. Something that a one day average never has.
Ask yourself what are England and Australia playing their seven one day games for? What is at stake? I assume it is some sponsors trophy. But it is not like the Ashes which you know comes round every 18 months – sure in 18 months we’ll play England in some one-day series (if the concept still exists). But ask yourself this: Last time we lost the Ashes in England did we win the one day series? Did you think in any way whatsoever that winning that series compensated for losing the Ashes? Of course not.
The number one problem with One Day Cricket is that for a very, very long time now (pretty much since the Benson and Hedges Trophy was taken off to the oncology ward for old trophies) no one day series played between any nation has mattered one little bit. They have all become like soccer “friendlies”. They count for nothing, are forgettable, and thus all that anyone cares about (if they care at all) is the World Cup. But here’s my suspicion – most people don’t give a damn about the One Day World Cup either now. The last one in the West Indies was a boring dirge that ended as a farce.
But let’s now talk about the Twenty20 Big Bash. Last week watching SA v NSW, everyone knew those guys were playing for keeps. There was no joking around with players wearing microphones and chatting to the commentators between balls (as will happen when Australia plays England in their Twenty20 games – seriously Channel 9 you treat a game with contempt). Every ball was intensely competed. The crowd as well knew this was a contest – and as it was an SA home ground they wanted SA to win, and win big.
Four or five years ago were SA playing NSW, the crowd would have been in raptures to see Dave Warner hit sixes for NSW against the local lads. Last week however, while there was applause and appreciation when he put one on the roof of the Chappell Stands, there was also a good deal of groaning. In the past three years, for spectators the game has moved from being a spectacle to being a contest.
Three nights ago I watched SA play Victoria on Foxtel and I found myself doing the same dopey routines I do when watching the Adelaide Crows play an AFL game. I was tense. I was angry and abusive at the TV screen. I was criticising bowling changes being made; I was picking apart batting as I would the Crows’ goal kicking. I wanted my side to win, and I didn’t give a stuff how many sixes were hit.
The players of course know that the rewards for winning the competition are huge – as it means entry in the the world club competition. It is easy to suggest that such a thing devalues the competition – that it only means something because of something external. And yes that is true, but it is a bit like suggesting the Division One football league in England doesn’t really mean anything because clubs are most excited about winning because it gets them promoted to the Premier League.
The fact remains that this is a competition which goes somewhere. The one day interstate competition goes nowhere. The players know it, and the crowds sure as hell do as well – which is why 17,000 showed up to watch the SA-NSW Twenty20 game and when the two sides play a one day game it’ll be family, friends and cricket tragics only.
This is the big one. The Indian Premier League throws around more money than Kerry Packer at the Vegas baccarat tables. The players know it is the one form of cricket which can land them a big pay day, and thus they have quickly come to realise that the game is not something to be taken lightly – work hard at this game and you can set yourself up for life.
Now in many ways this aspect is the most dangerous for cricket, but while we may like to deride the disgusting greed of it all, there is no doubt that the public also likes big money. It is something that raises the interest for fans. When you know that Cameron White was bought for $1.1 million in the latest IPL auction that grabs non-cricket fans’ attention in much the same way as people who are not particularly art lovers will pay to go see art work that they know is worth tens of millions of dollars. If someone is paying a million dollars for a guy, people are interested to see why he is worth so much, and they also feel comforted that they are going to get their money’s worth.
For me the good thing about the money is that finally young cricketers have something to aim for other than making the Australian 11. To me the narrow nature of the pinnacle of the game has done more than any other aspect to bring Australian cricket to the current state it finds itself. In the past 10 –15 years any young talented sports player would have looked at the Australian cricket team and realised there was bugger all chance they were going to get in, and so the lure of AFL (especially) and basketball (to a lesser extent) was too great. Why play state cricket with no/little hope of playing for Australia when you could get drafted by an AFL team at the age of 18 and within a year be playing at the highest level?
Now… well, here’s the list of Australian players who got bought in the IPL. Those who played in the Ashes tests are in blue:
* David Hussey - $1.5 m
* Cameron White - $1.1 million
* Daniel Christian - $900,000
* Adam Gilchrist - $900,000
* Andrew Symonds - $850,000
* David Warner - $750,000
* Doug Bollinger - $700,000
* Dirk Nannes - $650,000
* Brad Hodge - $425,000
* Michael Hussey - $425,000
* Shaun Marsh - $400,000
* Brett Lee - $400,000
* James Hopes - $350,000
* Brad Haddin - $325,000
* Ryan Harris - $325,000
* Callum Ferguson - $300,000
* Shaun Tait - $300,000
* Aaron Finch - $300,000
* Mitchell Marsh - $290,000
* Tim Paine - $270,000
* Steven Smith – $200,000
* Clint McKay - $110,000
* James Pattinson - $100,000
* Ben Hilfenhaus - $100,000
* Matthew Wade - $100,000
* Andrew McDonald - $80,000
* Andrew McDonald - $80,000
* Michael Klinger - $75,000
* George Bailey - $50,000
* Luke Pomersbach - $50,000
* Moises Henriques - $50,000
* Stephen O'Keefe - $20,000
* Aiden Blizzard - $20,000
* Chris Lynn - $20,000
Yep – Doug Bollinger got the highest amount for test players. For some that may merely serve to highlight all that is wrong with the game, but for any teenager who plays the game at a high level it will only serve to get them to think “Clint McKay is getting a $110,000 for six week’s work? That could be me… and Dan Christian? Well hell, give me some of that action!” And thus they’ll be more likely to stay in the game rather than try and get drafted in the AFL (it is astonishing how many good cricketers are also good at another sport).
Players will always follow the money. Sure Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke will give up the IPL riches in favour of test cricket (yeah that strategy worked well) but they will be in the minority.
And anyone who criticises the players for taking the money – such as those like Rod Marsh who had a go at Shaun Tait for not bothering to play test cricket – need to ask themselves when was the last time they turned down $300,000. Someone should also ask what the hell Rod Marsh was doing in the 1970s when he turned his back on test cricket to play World Series Cricket?
“We've become too professional – we've got to get back to basics.”
To which I say, bullshit Rod – the basics of the game has always been (at least for Australians) about making money. Dave Gregory – the first Australian test captain – made damn sure Australians got a share of the gate on the first tours of England (Malcolm Knox’s excellent history – The Captains – relates all the details).
There is a stupidity applied by people to sportsmen that seems to suggest they should act different to everyone else – that they shouldn’t leave a footy club to play for another because they can get more money, or that they should forgo financial security in favour of the vagaries of the Australian test cricket selection panel.
There was just one reason Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall et al stopped playing Wimbledon and other Grand Slam events and representing Australia in the Davis Cup in favour of playing on the professional tennis circuit in the 1950s and 1960s. Money.
Sure the tennis players went from amateur to professional so the money issue was more stark, but at the end of the day it is their profession – and like any profession the best will go wherever they can get the best security and pay. Bemoan it all you like, but spare me talk of the good old days when playing for the baggy green was all that mattered. There have been a hell of a lot of excellent state cricketers who never got the glories of the baggy green because of subjective choices made by the selection panel. Boof Lehmann spent his best years in state cricket all because guys like Mark Waugh could have the longest run of bad trots and still not lose their spot. Why put your livelihood in the hands of 4 guys when you can become a millionaire representing the Mumbai Indians? (Ask Brad Hodge just how subjective the baggy green selection can be…)
Twenty20 will keep the best young players in the game. Sure they may not all become great Test players, but it will broaden the sample.
So in three years I have gone from an ardent critic to and ardent supporter of Twenty20. Perhaps some of this can be reduced to one final aspect:
4. It is great for families.
My seven year old daughter (try though I might) could not give a stuff for test cricket. I would try and tell her about the players, try and get her excited by the play, but to no avail.
Two nights ago she jumped out of her bath and ran into the living room holding onto her towel and leaving a trail of wet footprints in her wake because she was worried she was going to miss seeing Kerion Pollard bat for the Redbacks.
She loves the game.
It is three hours long, it is in the evening and not in the heat of the day, and every ball matters, so your attention is focused the entire time.
Now you may say I am foolish to encourage a game based on the fact that it suits a seven year old’s attention span, but really my point is more that the game suits families. It suits people who work – they can still go to the game. It suits parents because they only have to keep their kids excited for three hours. A one day game goes for ten hours. Ten hours. Try keeping kids sitting and being excited for that long.
I love test cricket, but it’s got to be a damn good match to have me wanting to pony up the money for me and my family to go see a day’s play. Australia versus New Zealand ain’t going to cut it (which happens this November-December). I’ll watch the day’s play on TV, but usually it’s on in the background – I’ll come and go, be doing other things, and then concentrating only during certain periods. (I won’t even bother with the one day games – I’ll be watching the Australian Open tennis).
But the Twenty20? I’m there glued to the screen, and if possible going to see the game live.
I don’t agree with those who think Twenty20 is the enemy of test cricket – sure there will need to be care to ensure the two can co-exist – but for mine the only game to be worried about Twenty20 is one day cricket, and that is no loss.
My ideal scenario is October-November-December is for Tests at the international level and Sheffield Shield at the domestic. Then the New Year’s Day Test in Sydney marks the end of international cricket for the season. From then on for 6-8 weeks the domestic Twenty20 competition takes over – with all the test players playing. The Aussie comp will never get the big money like the IPL, but it will allow many to earn a living, and it will provide a great competition for many to follow and enjoy. Have one or two international Twenty20s at the end – but only as friendlies for the Twenty20 world cup – the key is to ensure the domestic comp is the main focus – make sure every game actually means something.
We can put our hands over our ears and eyes and hope the Twenty20 fad goes away, or we can see the future and ensure there is a decent competition in Australia which provides an avenue for Australians to play at the highest level. The IPL might have the money, but Cricket Australia should be aiming for the Australian Premier League to have the bigger crowds and the better standard of play.
And also for there to be lots of young Australians on both sides of the fence.