Sydney – Australia’s Twenty20 Big Bash League has finally hit the big time, with enormous crowds, quality cricket and a dash of controversy putting it firmly in the public eye — in what could be a threat to the traditional Test format.
Midway through the fifth season of the five-week domestic tournament, interest has never been greater, with a whopping 80,883 people packing the Melbourne Cricket Ground for a recent clash between the Renegades and the Stars.
A Sydney derby this weekend between the Thunder and the Sixers is also expected to be a heaving 42,000 sell-out.
This contrasts sharply with waning interest in Test cricket, as seen in Australia’s recent series against the West Indies. Even the flagship first day of the Boxing Day Test, also at the cavernous Melbourne Cricket Ground, could only attract some 53,000.
“When you get 80,000 at the Big Bash at the MCG and it’s more than you’ve had on day one at the Boxing Day Test, you can see people saying, well, which way is this going? Are the scales tipping?” Cricket Australia boss James Sutherland told reporters.
According to Sutherland, it will be a different scenario when stronger Test teams are in town.
“In two years’ time when the next Ashes series (against England) comes around, people will understand the Big Bash is complementing and living in a symbiotic relationship with international cricket,” he said.
Federation of International Cricketers’ Associations chief Tony Irish is less sure, fearing Test cricket could slowly die unless action is taken as more stars opt for the lucrative, shorter format.
Already several high-profile players have preferred turning out in domestic T20 competitions — where commercial interests, and hence wages, are rapidly growing — rather than for their country.
The once-formidable West Indies are one of the biggest losers with Chris Gayle, Dwayne Bravo and Darren Sammy all showing off their talents in the eight-team Big Bash League rather than the Test series against Australia.
“ICC events are strong because they have context… but bilateral cricket is struggling,” Irish told London’s Daily Telegraph this week.
“Players are starting to turn away from the game because they have an alternative market now.”
He cited the Big Bash League as an example of the changing trend.
“Where are the crowds going? Where is the interest? Where do the players really want to play?”
– Big-hitting stars –
Illustrating its burgeoning pulling power, the Sydney Morning Herald reported on Monday that the Big Bash had burst into the top 10 most attended sports leagues in the world alongside the NFL, English Premier League and fellow T20 tournament, the Indian Premier League.
To keep Test cricket relevant and interesting in the face of T20’s rise, a host of former greats, led by Shane Warne and Greg Chappell, have advocated four-day Tests and abolition of the coin toss.
“I would make it four-day Test cricket, 100 overs a day,” said Warne recently.
“I’d have two half-hour breaks rather than a 40-minute lunch break and a 20-minute tea break, (and) I’d extend it by about half an hour to get those 100 overs in. I think that’s going to be more appealing for people and it’s worth a try.”
Former Australian captain Mark Taylor has also suggested a Test Championship, where three points were awarded for a win and one point for a draw, similar to football.
Powerbrokers, in Australia at least, recognise the need to liven up Test cricket and successfully hosted the first ever day-night Test, using a new pink ball, in Adelaide in November in an experiment which could give a new lease of life to the ailing five-day game.
Boosting the appeal of this year’s Big Bash tournament has been some scintillating cricket from big-hitting stars like England’s Kevin Pietersen, South Africa’s Jacques Kallis and Sri Lanka’s Kumar Sangakkara.
There has also been raging controversy over Melbourne Renegades star opener Chris Gayle, who asked a female TV reporter for a date during a TV interview, sparking condemnation and a social media meltdown.