Australian cricket fans are not used to losing frequently — at least until recently. And with the resumption of the Ashes Tests coming so soon after our 3-0 drubbing in England, we’re preparing for yet another long hot summer at the crease. Why has it come to this depressing state of affairs? Who’s killed Australian cricket?
Some blame the South African Mickey Arthur, who was sacked a fortnight before the last Ashes series. Others point the finger at the Decision Review System, or DRS, which threw up several moments of controversy and confusion during the recent Ashes.
But it is Twenty20 cricket that cops the biggest whack. Dismissed as ‘hit and giggle’ cricket with loud music and reckless slogging to keep the punters happy, Twenty20 has become the lightning rod for all that’s wrong with the sport.
But the purists, who all too often fret and wail about the state of cricket, are not actually defending the real purity of the game’s history and traditions. Nor are they championing the hierarchy of grade and first-class cricket rooted in community-based clubs and representative regional, state and national teams.
Nor are they defending the traditions of fair play, such as giving batsmen the benefit of the doubt when a dismissal is unclear. From Lord’s and Singapore’s Padang to the Melbourne Cricket Ground and Ferndale Reserve in the suburbs of Perth, these are the traditions on which the game and its history have long been built.
No, what the purists bemoan is the end of their era. It is the era defined by the ‘settlement’, which shaped how the game has been played in the decades following the end of the World Series Cricket dispute in the late 1970s. This settlement repackaged cricket for television, and focused almost exclusively on elite Test match and international one-day cricket. It has provided the purists with gainful employment for a generation, offering the security of the bully pulpits, from which they now decry Twenty20.
Cricket was transformed in this era into an elite team sport with blanket media coverage every summer. It gradually crowded out grade and state cricket in the eyes of the public, who chose to support the form of the game offering the biggest bang for their buck. First-class state cricket in particular has suffered. While there is no shortage of players padding up for weekend grade matches watched only by family and friends, state players are lucky to have anyone other than national team selectors show up to keep an eye on the next level of talent outside of the elite teams.
The decline is hardly new. In early 1992, I sat as one of only a handful of spectators at the WACA Ground watching Western Australia take on New South Wales in the Sheffield Shield final, even though the former was going for its fourth title in six seasons.
But Twenty20 has arrested the public’s declining interest in cricket below the elite levels. When I returned to the WACA last December to watch the Perth Scorchers play the Melbourne Renegades in the Big Bash, it was in front of a near capacity attendance. Similarly, healthy crowds attended other Big Bash matches throughout the summer.
The post-World Series settlement has proven that cricket grows and thrives in Australia when built around one long version of the game and one short. The emergence of Twenty20 has destabilised this equilibrium, and clearly points towards the need for the current settlement to be revisited. That is the reality that the purists cannot countenance.
Using crowd numbers as evidence, the only thing that Twenty20 could be accused of killing is one-day cricket. If not for the noisy and colourful visiting supporters of the Indian and Sri Lankan teams, there would have been many more empty seats at the one-day matches over the past two seasons. Caught in between the twists and turns of five-day Tests and the one-session mayhem of Twenty20, one-day cricket appears a poor cousin to both.
Twenty20 has also exposed the limitations of the current set-up in how it selects and manages the national team. Today a single, elite squad with one selection panel and leadership structure is expected to supply strategies, players and results for three distinct forms of the game. This worked when Test and one-day cricket were coupled, with the latter being treated as a one-day version of the five-day game. Twenty20, on the other hand, is too short even for the compressed five-day tactics of one-day cricket.
The recent Ashes series has laid bare the limits of the current settlement. While its focus on a small group of elite athletes might have improved standards and television ratings at the game’s highest levels, it hollowed out support below.
The first step in crafting a new settlement is for the game’s administrators to recognise what cricket’s followers really want: Tests, more Twenty20 and less one-day cricket.
Tests, with few countries of a genuinely competitive standard and buttressed by centuries of tradition, would still sit at the game’s apex as its elite format. Attendances for this form of the game remain healthy, at least in Australia and England, where the Ashes continue to exert an almost hypnotic draw on the game’s followers.
Twenty20, with its high bang-for-buck format, offers the best hope of reviving interest at all levels below the elite. Accommodating this with formally splitting the current squad into fit-for-purpose Test and Twenty20 squads could go some way to alleviating the current malaise. It would also give hope that cricket in the 21st century will be as entertaining as it was in the 1970s, 80s and 90s.
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