Sean’s excellent piece on Saturday captured the arguments over the plans to introduce a new T20 competition succinctly and accurately. I must put my cards on the table here. I just don’t think T20 is much good. It’s not particularly memorable in its own right, and because it is so frequent, with game after game after game bombarding you, a tournament like the Big Bash just feels like it goes on too long. Which means the IPL has got to a serious “what the hell” phase long before it gets to its knockout phase, or whatever it is that concludes it. I went to the first ever T20 at The Oval, back in the day, where the sheer shock that the ground was almost full and the club had catered for half that, still sticks in the mind more than the game did (Comma made a 50 I see). It’s interesting to see how the articles refer to the same concerns on show now.
Questioned about a shorter format, almost half were against it but of the 34% who expressed approval, most had never attended a county game. And for Robertson and the ECB it was the possibility of attracting new fans – and crucially families – that convinced them to press on.
“I just couldn’t see how it wouldn’t work,” John Carr, the ECB’s director of cricket operations at the time, said in 2004. “But it took a lot to convince the counties. Fair play to [Robertson]. It is one thing to have an idea like we did, but quite another to sell it. And that is what he did. And not only to the public, because I thought that one of the most important things was that it was sold to the players. It would only work if they took it seriously and did not dismiss it as ‘hit-and-giggle’ cricket.”
I used to go to a few of them back then. I remember Andrew Symonds tearing some attack apart at Beckenham (it was Hampshire’s), a very well contested quarter-final between Surrey and Worcestershire when it was skillful bowling that saved the day, and the “penalty bowl out” between Surrey and Warwickshire. I was a member back then, and felt absolutely no desire to go to Finals Day, and I had a culture of following my other sporting love all round the country.
For me T20 was there for a one-off “hope something good might happen” but often disappointed. I got a couple of free tickets to see Surrey a few years back, and KP was playing so it was a rare chance to see him in action, but the games themselves weren’t very exciting to me. I realise I’m not the kind of supporter this new competition is meant to get to, but also I wasn’t a fan of playing it when I had the chance, and thought it wasn’t that great a concept. It was cricket for cricket’s sake. I remember going to a Surrey v Middlesex game on my birthday, and Middlesex barely got 100. It was cripplingly dull. Even the most boring day at a test was better than that. No amount of fire machines, dancing people and loud music could make up for the fact it was a rubbish game.
The clubs saw the chance in the immediate aftermath of the initial success to go from the five games they had planned in season 1, and they continued in Season 2, to more. Remember those lazy hazy first season matches at East Molesey and Richmond Park? This increased to 8 in Season 3 and went up to, 10 in its 6th season. The counties became dependent on it to continue, seeing it as a necessary income, and could not resist the temptation to overkill. In its eighth season, in 2010, it became a league of 16 games, with quarter-finals? Even then they sensed they were killing the golden goose, because it reverted to 10 games after two seasons, before settling on the 14 we have now with the Blast (from 2014).
What that showed is the counties had no real idea on what to settle upon, and I know a number kicked up fury when it went from 8 home games to 5 in 2012. The Blast has seen some improvement in the attendances and there appears a fair buzz towards it this year. The “appointment to view” with a Friday night fixture was actually, in hindsight, a decent idea, but that’s been watered down now we’ve decided to play the fixtures in more of a block.
Then we have the IPL and the Big Bash. Envious glances were cast at these two competitions. Both play in considerably larger grounds than we have in this country, and both, therefore, attract the money makers. The IPL was very much set up as the Premier League of cricket, and the BBL followed with a different kind of league, but in sun-kissed stadia, free to air TV, and the teams playing just 8 games each. Both played one game a day (occasionally two at weekends), but all were televised live, and that’s what has got the attention of the ECB and their influential friends in the media. There wasn’t a Big Bash occasion that seemed to go by without Shiny Toy doing down our competition and bigging up theirs. The aim to copy the IPL wasn’t possible – we didn’t have the money, or the calendar slot for it – hence the waltz down the Sandford cul-de-sac. But the Big Bash? Why not?
I have always said that new leaders have to have a new idea to be remembered by and it has to be a big one. There is no place in this world for staying still, because the world moves without you if you do. For some, the sheer fact that Test Cricket has been in existence for 140 years is anathema in itself. The English football authorities changed in 1992 to the Premier League, which, we are told, has made our competition the best in the world, but in doing so, virtually killed the other main crown jewel, the FA Cup, dead. As a football fan of a non-Premier League team, I despise this. There’s nothing in the top heavy structure for me, and the FA Cup is a joke. We beat three Premier League teams this year, all playing reserve XIs, before Spurs put us out by taking the game vaguely seriously. The FA Cup is seen as a consolation prize now. In twenty years the culture of it being the biggest single day out is now relegated to big clubs saying it is not enough to win it.
What will a new City-based (or whatever it is) do the Blast which seemed to be standing on its own two feet, was a competition anyone could win (see Northants and Leicester – it’s great Yorkshire, the mighty Yorkshire, haven’t won it) and people seemed to genuinely enjoy it? I think there’s an overly rosy picture painted of it, the Blast is not perfect, but it’s working out for all concerned and there is a rise in interest. I wish it were a little shorter, but then I already said I’m not that bothered about it. But when Michael Vaughan is wetting himself every time the Big Bash comes on, it’s hard to resist. If you look at how recent ex-pros, who didn’t play much county cricket towards the end of their careers, react to the onset of a new competition, it’s noticeable how many do their old breeding grounds down.
The new competition is designed to get new followers in to watch the game. Tom Harrison, the Empty Suit, is carving out quite a niche for himself as an absolute weapon. In selling this “vision”, his new management brings radical change “thing”, he’s not just in danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, he wants to fit someone else up for the incident. In a series of responses to Sean’s piece, I picked out a few of them, but two stood out.
‘Counties have been incredibly successful having an audience that is obsessive about the game but our county brands are not cutting through so this is all about creating brands that are relevant to our target audience of families and children. We have to connect to their very busy world.”
I know, over the years I’ve been doing this, that I can take a throwaway line and make too much of it. After all, we aren’t called “Being Outside Cricket” for nothing, eh Paul Downton? But the choice of the word “obsessive” here is an interesting one. Obsessive has very negative connotations. As if you shouldn’t be doing something. If you obsess over something the inference is that you shouldn’t, or you should dial it back a bit. So if you are “obsessive” about the county game, maybe you shouldn’t be? Harrison, despite playing some county cricket, clearly has some negative perceptions of the people who follow it. Demographic perhaps, social class perhaps? It’s an issue that won’t go away. County cricket, last I looked, provided all but one England test player in my lifetime (ole Muppet Pringle came from the Universities when he made his debut). The County Championship has, I think many will say, flourished so the top division is now seen as a rival to any first class competition in the world. I watched some last year, and although we’re not getting the top world pros any more, the underlying quality of the home talent is pretty decent. It’s not for all, and it is based on what some would see as arcane old structures, but it kind of works from a cricket perspective. It also instills loyalty in it. That, Tom, is no bad thing. It is a positive, not a negative.
Harrison could, if he had a modicum of charm, had called the denizens of the county game “passionate”, “devoted” or “enthusiastic”. Instead, because they don’t worship at his sharp empty-suited altar, they are obsessive. They are also obstructive. They don’t go on “leaps of faith” or “Futurebrand presentations” but live in the here and now. Many have never accepted T20 but see it as a necessary evil, and their counties have kept the show on the road because of it. Now they see a new competition as a threat to their very existence. And so they should.
Harrison and his cheerleaders and parrots in the media are selling the by-passing of these views as a virtue! Not all of us are “county championship or nothing” fans, but I respect the hell out of those that are. They are the people who will tell their kids, and their grandkids, about the feats of the past, just as my Dad told me about his era. It is they who will tell kids born now of the majesty of Tendulkar, the brilliance of Lara, the dominance of the great Aussie teams, and yes, things like being at Adelaide, or seeing England hit the bottom of the Test table (though for me it will need to be my nieces and nephew). These obsessives are your core support, Empty Suit. Why piss them off even more than you have to? I feel insulted by that statement, and so should anyone who will be there in a week or so supporting their county as the Championship starts. The ECB can call it #realcricket if they want on their mildly annoying Twitter feed, but when the voice at the top thinks it is OK to use “obsessive” I think he gives away what he really feels.
It’s Not About The Game, Dummy
“Twenty20 is short and sharp. The actual game is secondary to the entertainment and fan experience.”
I remember watching Star Wars, the original, back in the day at the Odeon in Lewisham. It’s been long since destroyed. It was smoke-filled, the seats were crap, the service worse, the film quality passable, yet I still remember it. It was shorter than a T20, it was new-ish (I mean, we’d all seen Star Trek) and the thing that stuck out was that it was an entertaining film that I still recall.
I went to see Phantom Menace in a lovely multiplex cinema, massive screen, comfy chairs, all mod cons, expensive food and drink, and the film was garbage. Just because my “fan experience” was good, and there was much more comfort, the “product” itself, what you go for, was ropy. I didn’t go to the cinema to see the next two, or even the new one.
Harrison here is giving the game away. On the one hand he wants a competition to capture the buzz, the excitement, the thrills of the Big Bash. But on the other he says this is “of secondary importance”. What the serious you know what is he on about? What the Blast has, no matter how little you feel about it, is when you get to the latter stages of it, it clearly matters to a lot of people. Northants and Leicestershire should tell you that. They couldn’t give a flying one about a “customer experience” and more about are they going to win the competition, as do their fans. You can’t just, in this country for sure, astroturf supporters. It’s called grass roots support for a reason. Harrison isn’t trying to get new people involved by a meaningful competition, but by some sort of high entertainment exhibition. Again, you watch the Big Bash and there does appear to be, especially with the Perth team, an affinity between the team and the supporters, and they are playing their matches at their worst test ground for amenities.
The argument, it seems the only argument, for this competition is to bring new spectators to the game. Now this is going to be interesting to see how this is done. Let’s say, for instance, that The Oval is hosting a fixture against the North London team. I could see how a rivalry might develop, and both those counties have a relatively short commuting range to get to the grounds. The Oval has a bit of a rep for becoming a drinking den during the T20 games. Up the ante on the supposed quality, and those supporters would be interested in more of the same in the late Summer months. How are you going to keep them out? Because that’s what Tom and co seem to be implying. These guys are good at getting tickets – better, I would suggest, than families, mums and dads. The city boys who make The Oval “what it is” on Blast days won’t mind shelling out a few extra quid. Are we going to make large parts of the ground “alcohol free”? How are you going to police that? How are you going to ensure families get tickets, even if there is no idea if that market actually exists? Are the ECB, in effect, going to take over the running of the ground for that game, something they don’t even do for international fixtures? Why would Surrey let the ECB take over the Oval for 4 or 5 nights a year? And good luck trying that with Lord’s!!!!!
It’s OK for fancy dan presentations by Futurebrand, or whoever they are, telling the ECB how to run things, giving them what they want, but what does Harrison actually want? There’s woolly aims about growing the game, future-proofing it, putting it on terrestrial TV. There’s much out there saying the status quo isn’t an option, and that county cricket isn’t a brand that sells. It’s much like test cricket. If you talk it down enough, you end up with even the supporters having little long-term faith. Harrison has fancy ideas, but no idea what will happen. He’s taking a leap of faith. If you are asking me to have faith in an ECB leap of faith, then you are asking the wrong person. The ECB used up my web of goodwill ages ago. All I see are charlatans at the top, keeping the man who did the most to sabotage long-term growth (Clarke) in gainful employment, and his successor locked firmly in Downton’s cupboard in case he says anything more out of order than the Empty Suit. When you have Comma, with a straight face, saying this competition could produce the test players of the future (yes, lots of “spinners” bowling darts is just what we need), my eyes rolled. They want a Big Bash. Michael Vaughan wants a Big Bash. Nasser Hussain wants a Big Bash. #39 wants a Big Bash.
It would just be the most honest thing to call it Big Bash, wouldn’t it. I can’t wait for the South London Scum to play the North London Toffs, and I hope many families will come for the “customer experience”. Let me hear them make some noise…