Every decision that English cricket has made in the past decade has appeared to based on a single central premise: The future of the sport in England is T20. It is such a fundamental presumption, almost an article of faith, I am not sure that it has ever really been examined and questioned. Look at the success of the IPL and BBL, we are told, that could happen here with the right investment and marketing.
And yet it never does.
People, and executives, look enviously at Australia and particularly India as a template for how things might develop in this country but it just doesn’t seem to work in practice. It’s not for lack of trying. As well as The Hundred and three T20Is currently being shown each year on the BBC every year, there has also been the IPL on ITV4, the CPL on Dave, the BBL on five, and probably a few others that I have forgotten. There has barely been a year without T20 cricket being shown live on Freeview in the past decade, and it never catches on.
The men’s Hundred competition in 2022, shown on BBC Two in the primetime evening and weekend timeslots attracted an average of just over 500,000 viewers. The men’s Test series between England and India in 2021 managed more than that, even though three of the four matches began at 4am every morning. Despite the glut of T20 available on TV, despite Test cricket not being live on free-to-air television since 2005, despite being told that T20 is the most accessible format of cricket, the English public just don’t seem to care about it.
Obviously one factor is the competence of the people leading the sport in England. A large proportion of people at the ECB and counties would be considered unemployable in any well-run business, getting by with their ‘love of cricket’ (which almost always seems to manifest as a desire to cut the number of matches and/or teams, weirdly enough) and a public school accent. As the only providers of professional cricket in this country, they run an effective monopoly. They have a large, pre-existing audience, many of whom are prepared to spend vast amounts of money to watch matches. In a computer game, this would be considered ‘Easy mode’. Despite this in-built advantage, the number of people watching or playing cricket (ie the customer base) seems to drop every year. You could certainly make the argument that T20 cricket has never been ‘done right’ in England up until now because the ECB employs a lot of idiots.
T20 has certainly worked in India and Australia, so this begs the question: What difference between these countries and England might explain why it doesn’t work here. My theory is that it’s football’s fault. In India, cricket was already the dominant sport by some distance. All the IPL has done is maximise its commercial power with every second of every match televised whilst filling their huge stadia with crowds thanks to taking place outside work hours. In Australia, the dominant sport is Aussie rules football. This works very well for Cricket Australia because the AFL play exclusively during cricket’s off-season and, thanks to being played in oval grounds, also finances large-capacity grounds for cricket to be played in.
In England, the dominant sport is football. Unlike its Australian equivalent, the English football season extends significantly into the cricket season. To take 2018-19 as an example, being the last season unaffected by COVID-19 or a winter World Cup, the Charity Shield took place on the first weekend of August whilst the Champions League final was on the first weekend of June. That’s 300 days. Every other summer also features either the World Cup or Euros. That leaves just 65 days for cricket to fit in every second year, and even that is often dominated by transfer news and other football stories.
The duration and pace of Test cricket, rather than being a negative in this context, represents a vital point of difference for the sport. It is so completely unlike football that they don’t really compete. Even if someone does enjoy both football and cricket, they can watch a football match for two hours and then switch back to the Test cricket. It does not require viewers to choose one or the other.
T20 does the opposite. It’s played at the same time as football matches, and is about as close to the experience of watching football as English cricket can handle. A non-stop thrill ride in front of a raucous crowd should be ideal for television viewers and, by extension, television companies. The fundamental problem is that the majority of people who are inclined to enjoy such a spectacle not only already enjoy football, but might be actually watching football when The Hundred is on TV.
Interestingly, there may be more potential for domestic women’s T20 cricket to enter the mainstream consciousness in this country than for the men. As it stands, women’s football has yet to break through in this country and that presents a (missed) opportunity for the ECB. The example I would use for this is women’s football (or soccer) in the USA. It is more popular than the men’s equivalent, or very quickly approaching that point, arguably because it is facing less competition in its market. Of the dominant men’s team sports in North America, only basketball has invested in the women’s game to any significant degree. This has allowed football to gain purchase amongst people inclined to watch women’s sport even if they prefer (for example) American football or baseball. Unfortunately, the Sky TV deal prevents the ECB from massively expanding coverage of women’s cricket through deals with Freeview channels until 2029 and I suspect women’s football will have taken hold of the English summer by then.
As a thought experiment, imagine men’s cricket in England converted completely to T20 in 2024. England play 24 T20Is, whilst a league with all 18 counties plays matches every weekend plus a cup competition in the midweek. Does this make more money than the status quo? I don’t think it even comes close. For a start, it wipes all English Test revenue away. Tests account for about two-thirds of the current Sky TV deal, roughly £150m of the £220m per year contract, which six months of televised T20 Blast matches (assuming Sky even wants to broadcast them during the IPL) simply cannot replace. Neither would increased ticket sales make up the difference. Surrey CCC had higher turnover from hosting one Test and one ODI in 2022 than their domestic ticket sales and memberships combined. Meanwhile, counties with smaller grounds like Worcestershire might not lose international matches but would be heavily impacted by cuts to the £3m ECB grant all counties receive as a result of there being less TV money to go round.
So, the ECB and the the counties need Test cricket to thrive and keep themselves in the lifestyle to which they have become accustomed. Take that away and suddenly English cricket is a lot less financially independent than it is now, and quite possibly unable to sustain 18 county teams. No longer one of the ‘big three’. Which is fine, because we can just keep scheduling Test matches and everything stays the same, more or less, except that England might be the only country in the world where T20 isn’t the preferred and most profitable cricket format. That presents a problem, because there is every reason to think that several of the ‘Test’ nations will pull back altogether from Tests. In the past year, Afghanistan hasn’t played a single Test, Ireland haven’t played one at home, whilst South Africa, Zimbabwe and the West Indies have only hosted two Tests each. They lose money every time they stage a Test match, except against England and India, so they understandably don’t do it. If they stop playing the format altogether, who will be left for England to play in the Test matches which the ECB relies on for money?
All of which brings us to the question in the post title: Can T20 cricket become a dominant sport in England? The answer is probably ‘no’, but Test cricket might not be sustainable in the long run either.
If you have any comments on the post, or anything else, please post them below.
On a recreational playing note I think there are some other points about T20 cricket. There is also a notion that T20 cricket is the only way to keep players interested and the game is to long normally. Recent changes of earlier starts, no or voluntary teas, coloured kits and white/pink ball has I think showed that really it was just modernisation needed not shortening the game. T20, 100 or 12 8’s on a weekday is great for some bonus cricket but in amateur context its really difficult with still it being 11 as side to get everyone in the game without forcing people to come off or retiring batters. In evening league games adults who can just slog a ball harder than younger players and wont bowl as much down leg side are still doing the baulk of the batting and bowling. In 40+ overs or a time 20 overs from xpm game it is easier to manipulate the game and get everyone involved to bat and bowl and make a game less one sided if needs be. A young batter getting 15 from 15 overs is much easier to manage same as a slightly erratic young quick bowler. So I do think there is a misguided view that the club level players want T20 you still have to cut a track at the same cost to then use it for a couple of hours instead of a whole day I wonder if this is also a factor red ball cricket is actually more relatable to club Saturday league players (scoring rates, types of fields) than professional T20. For this reason I think a mix format sport is great and if anything I find the marginalisation of 40 or 50 over cricket more strange as its the most relatable format to club crickets, but with much lower scores especially this year.
Cricket as I enjoyed it is finished. Test cricket around the world is dying, and even if it remains popular here in England it will not survive if there isn’t anyone one to play against. England themselves have now started to play a 20/20 style of test cricket where they happily race along at 5-6 an over, and don’t care if it all ends in three days. It makes sense because that is the new type of player. That’s how they are brought up because of the potential financial rewards of 20/20 formats.
The shorter formats are much more financially beneficial for the players, if you can get some franchise contracts through the year? Not to mention as a bowler you will only have to bowl four overs per match, and a batsman will probably not bat more that ten overs. You will be lucky to face more than forty balls. But will all these franchises survive in the shadow of the ever expanding IPL?
County memberships get smaller every year. Partly because the older generation fans are dying out or they see little to no point. This is because a big hole in the domestic English season, right bang in the middle of the summer days has now been surgically removed with a giant middle finger held up to those of us who have supported the game for decades. Many people of my generation don’t want to sit in the cold in early May or late September with a blanket over us thanks very much. Particularly when we are seen as the problem, although they still want our money. Many of us have packed our bags and moved on. Found other things to do during the warmer months of the cricket season. The ECB told us they had done their market research and found there was a massive new customer base of people who apparently liked cricket, but wanted a new form of cricket for them to pay up. Maybe in time it will pay off, and it will have to do so if cricket is to survive because most of us who have supported cricket over the last fifty years will be dead.
The bigger question is what is the point of cricket, or sport generally in a modern world of endless choice for the recreational consumer, customer? I do wonder if all professional sport had to account for Itself financially without any cross subsidy from tv companies how many sports would survive? If every sport was watched, and paid for on a match by match basis either at the ground or digitally (which would now be possible with the current technology) where would the money come from? Club Rugby is struggling with many clubs with huge financial problems, and players having to take pay cuts. Every sport thought they could become like Premiership football.
Outside of giant tv deals most sport is finically weak. I suspect one solution is massive cuts in prices. Both at the grounds and on tv, and this will filter through to cuts in salaries for players. For the last twenty five years sport lived off my generation of sports lovers, who acquired their sport drug habit in a different time of free to air, but who now had disposal income to keep the next drug hit going. I’m not sure that can continue. Even entertainment companies like Netflix are heavily in debt. Disney is laying off thousands of workers. Sport has no divine right to survive in the entertainment world
On top of that modern youngsters watch sport in a different way from my generation. Attention spans have fallen, and the idea of the expectation of events unfolding has been replaced by instant gratification. Some watch a football match after it has been played without knowing the result. They just speed up the play and watch it in about 15 minutes. Stoping it when anything of note like a goal is scored. I don’t see the point of sport viewed like this. It’s all about outcome. One wonders if the Premiership bubble will ever burst? So many football clubs are now owned by either giant corporations or even national govt sovereign wealth funds. How can anyone identify and support that?
Maybe the answer is for much of sport to return to what it once was, simply a game, an Amateur pursuit of recreation for the participant and a fan who paid little to watch? Is this even possible in a world of finacialisation, box ticking, and the prohibitive threat of legal liability if anything goes wrong?
I cancelled Sky a few years ago, and I have found I don’t really miss sport any more. So much of it is over hyped by tv companies and moronic tv presenters.
I used to have a sporting calendar where I would watch out for upcoming major events. On tv or buy tickets. I just don’t bother any more. I didn’t even realise the Masters golf had come and gone this year. I haven’t watched a live football match since before Covid. I guess I have moved on, and been weened off the sport drug, but I didn’t set out to leave leave sport, instead sport drifted away from me.
Good to see a Mark message. Lots to dig in to here.
I find the sport in an entertainment world thing really interesting. The world has got smaller, and the top sports now need to compete globally, not locally. It is not enough to dominate your own country, even one with the boundless limits of India, or the inherent dominance of the US. There’s a reason NFL has been so active in expanding its footprint to Europe. I don’t see a time when there is a European NFL team(s), but they don’t want to contain themselves with just a US market. They are increasingly following the Premier League model – whereas it was Sundays for NFL, with a special Monday night game, it has expanded into Thursdays, and this year a Friday game.
The point I am trying to make is sport is all about making money. Duh. Not about winning – no-one really cares these days – but about the product. So you have sports/leagues wanting to be global leaders. The rest of Europe looks on in envy at the Premier League. The NFL dominates the USA, and is not going to stop looking for more revenue. AFL has dominated in Australia, and while not a global outreach, it has put NRL and cricket in its wake. The Football World Cup may be too blase about just being the top of the pyramid, because the Champions League is coming for that, and has probably surpassed it. That’s why the idiots at FIFA want to make it every other year. Then there is the IPL. You can only have one league at the top of the tree, and money drives it. The best players want the most money. It is a cash cow. It doesn’t matter if I am interested, or you are Mark. England could turn its back on it and it would make no difference. Our arrogance was that they thought we could compete with it.
It is why I take out of sport what I want. I am now an avid non-league fan. I am looking forward to some county cricket and the Ashes. I have little or no interest in Hedge Funds/PetroStates/Billionaire Businesspeople taking over a top league team for their ego. You have to take out of it what you can and realise, as we do, that the top of the sport equates success with money, and for that money to be realised, we have to pay it.
Cricket, in all its forms, is a wonderful sport to play. That should be the priority. It suited the mad aggressor, and the quiet accumulator. It suited the strong and the not so, the fast and the slow, the artist and artisan. That should be the priority, getting more people playing. Making it easier and accessible.
Remember when golf got quite popular? 80s and 90s especially. Lots of quite working class people got into it. Now it is withering and dying. My local public course back in London shut. The council felt they could because golf had become “elitist”. Sure the richer keep playing, and they like it that the hoi polloi don’t interject on their fun.
Rambled a bit here, but I think you get my points. We can have a successful T20/Hundred league if we adjust our sights, set realistic aims, and look for the competition to be the thing. Manufacturing teams means you need 10-20 years for people to really care. And I mean REALLY care. That addiction-like caring. You have that with the counties, to some degree. History. But to sports marketers, if you look back at history, you are admitting your predecessors did it better than you, and in this modern world, admitting that is like drinking battery acid.
Very good to hear from you Lord. After the last few years I hope you are well mate? I hear of a few people watching non league or local sport and preferring it now. Even club rugby has become quite expensive if you want to take a couple of kids to watch regularly with the over priced food and drink. No wonder many youngsters are looking else where for the many other pastimes to enjoy.
It’s amazing how this site, which you set up a decade ago has witnessed the huge changes in both cricket and world sport generally. As you rightly say, professional sport only now has one purpose, and that is to make money. Nothing more or nothing less. And of course you are right, it will continue to do so regardless of what any of us think. But that does not mean we have to care about it, watch it, or fund it.
It has to move on and good luck to it. My opinions are irrelevant. I’m not the target consumer, nor should I be. I don’t envy young sports fans at all. Actually I’m very grateful having lived through the last sixty years of sport. It wasn’t perfect by any means, and sometimes was farcical. There are no rose tinted glasses I can assure you. However, I wouldn’t change my experiences for what seems to be the sporting future.
Sport still should be about excellence, but I wonder if it can manage to do that when the temptation to make money is it’s only priority. I still hold to that rather quaint notion that sometimes less is more. Something rare can be much more valuable. Certainly not FIFA world cups every two years. Ludicrous. But that is an anathema to corporate boardrooms and governing bodies. Will sport as a branch of the entertainment industry be able to fend off the inevitability of Hollywood focus groups demanding certain preferential “endings?”
One of the great attractions of sport to me was you don’t know what the outcome will be. (Of course you now suspect that maybe some outcomes may well have been fixed in some sports. And often betting money was the culprit.) Will that be even worse when corporate money talks in the billions? Pakistan and India always seem to be drawn in the same group for most events? It guarantees a massive tv Audience fixture with the potential for both to progress to play again in the later stages. England often magically find themselves in the same group as the Aussies. ( cough cough) We know that club super leagues are coming whether you want it or not. The big clubs playing each other all the time for an eternity. Does it not become valueless?
20/20 was originally sold as a way for the game to make money which could be ploughed back into the sport for the future. We were told that Test cricket could then survive, and be cushioned financially. It seemed to make sense, but no one really saw it becoming such a monster that it would consume the whole sport completely. Now players are produced for the sole purpose of 20/20. The players want, it and the tv audience want it. So it becomes a done deal.
Sport becomes a form of X factor, or pantomime with cretinous amounts of hype and money. I can’t take it seriously anymore. Not sure I even like it. Perhaps it always was. Perhaps I have changed? Even the Romans tired of the circuses eventually.
I don’t know about a dominant sport, but it could be the predominant summer entertainment. The thing about the Hundred, it is essentially an August competition and, in my opinion, you will have a section of typical sports fans who will then gravitate to the start of the football season. I also wonder about those persons who have got into the Hundred as a novelty factor, maintaining their interest over time.
In itself, the 100 ball format is not new, Last Man Stands has been going some time and I have played that. That is a period of 20 overs but with 5 balls per over. However, it will be different for the traditional cricket fan. I think the August slot is a bit dumb and will impact how big the tournament can be by definition.