Why the Big Bash won’t work in England

One of the good things about January – and there are few – is to wake up in the morning and find there is live sport on TV. This is because January is “Australia month” with live sport from Down Under – which is 11 hours ahead of us – on UK TV. Apart from the Australian Open one of the main highlights has been the Big Bash League (BBL) Australia’s domestic 20 20 cricket competition which has provided great entertainment and which has had much higher crowds than its English equivalent the T 20 Blast. Critics both here and Australia say the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) should try and emulate the BBL but the facts are that this is that this is impossible to do.
First of all the biggest advantage Australia has over the UK is its climate. Anybody who watches Wimbledon will know the UK summer can produce very hot sunshine (1976 for example) or very heavy rain (1997 which was so bad the first round was still being played on day six) or something in between. An extreme example was 1975 when on June 2nd parts of the UK saw snow. Buxton in Derbyshire – which is at altitude – saw an inch of snow. The fact is the UK climate is totally unpredictable and would hinder any attempt to emulate the BBL here.
Another problem is that the BBL is a city-based franchise event while in the UK cricket is county based. A lot of people would like the ECB to bring city based franchises to the UK but it just won’t work. First of all most of Australia’s population lives in or near cities while most of the UK’s does not. And the cities are losing population. One way to measure this is the number of MPs each city elects to Parliament (which is based on population. If population goes up a city gets more MPs when the boundaries are reviewed. If population goes down it gets less MPs.) At the 1955 General Election the five biggest cities in England (London, Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester) elected 103, 13, 6, 9 and 9 MPs respectively. At this year’s General Election London will elect 77, Birmingham 9, Leeds 5, Liverpool 4 and Manchester 3 – reflecting the fact that in the last 60 years the population movement has been from city to suburb. City teams will disenfranchise most of the population. And as for franchises – in the UK it is a no-no. The one US style movement of a sports team in a major UK sport proves this. In 2004 Wimbledon Football Club moved to the new town of Milton Keynes. It caused so much uproar Wimbledon fans formed their own team – AFC Wimbledon – which has done very well and is now just one division below the Milton Keynes Dons who are one of the most hated teams in the UK. No one will dare do that again.
The other difference between England and Australia is that cricket is the most popular sport in Australia. Admittedly that is by default. Football is more popular but their fans are split between four codes – soccer, rugby union, rugby league and Australian Rules football – and as each of them has its own “heartland” it means that in Australia cricket is the only sport that unites the country. In the UK soccer is by far the most popular sport so it gets the publicity and the money cricket gets in Australia.
And that is why the BBL is on free to air (FTA) TV in Australia while its UK equivalent is on Sky – a pay TV channel. FTA channels do not like sport unless it is a huge event like the Football World Cup or the Olympic Games. Cricket is not popular enough to be on a UK FTA prime time scene dominated by soap operas and reality TV shows – however much some people in cricket wish it could happen they have to face reality.
That doesn’t mean we can’t learn things from Australia. Since T 20 cricket is aimed at attracting schoolchildren to the sport it should be played when the schools are on holiday – in England’s case late July/August. To have a sport aimed at children being played when they are at school is nonsense. Also the ECB needs to look at prices. If a family of four wanted to watch a BBL game in Melbourne it would cost them $AUS 42.50 (or £22.69 in UK money). To watch a T20 Blast match in Leeds it would set the same family back £74. The counties should regard T 20 as a “loss leader” not a “cash cow”. As they are all subsidised by the ECB they don’t have to make money anyway so why not make it cheap for a family with children to watch like they do in Australia?
If I was running T 20 here it would be played in late July/August with the 18 teams split into three groups of six playing four teams once and their local rivals twice -making it six games per team plus Quarter Finals Semi Finals and a best of three Final. I would get rid of Finals Day – the day where the Semi Finals and Final are played. It goes on far too long – from 11am to 10 pm – for the attention span of children – who as I keep saying are T 20s main audience.
While England’s T 20 will never be as popular as the BBL it could definitely do better than it has done. It is time – to quote former UK Prime Minister John Major – to “go back to basics”. The format I’m proposing is more or less what it was when T 20 launched so successfully back in 2003. But the counties got greedy and have paid the price. Going back to few matches in a short window is T 20s beat chance of being popular here. Everywhere else in the world does it this way. Why can’t we in England?

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