The Australian Big Bash League have just announced three new rules which will feature in the competition due to start next month. These are ‘Power Surge’ [Two of the six powerplay overs must be taken after the halfway point by the batting team], ‘Bash Boost’ [Teams get a bonus point for being ahead after 10 overs] and ‘The X-Factor’ [Teams can substitute one player at the midway point of the first innings].
The announcement has been met with almost unaminous derision and disbelief from cricket fans, and quite a large proportion of the media too. The answer to that from its (relatively few) proponents is to watch it in action first. This strikes a nerve with me, because it’s the exact same answer people (almost exclusively employed by the ECB, Sky or the BBC) gave when faced with criticism of The Hundred. In the most extreme example, Isa Guha wrote that she felt people only had “the right to have a go” at The Hundred after it had been played for “4-5 years”.
There are three main ways in which this answer annoys me. The first is that it takes us as fans and customers for granted. There is absolutely nothing preventing us from spending our time and money on something else if we don’t like what we see. Second, I think most people can tell whether they like something or not very quickly. A bad first impression, such as from an ECB director going on national radio to tell people that the new cricket format isn’t for anyone listening, is a hard thing to overcome. A company ignores a significant negative visceral response from its consumer base at its peril. The third, and perhaps most important, is that its incredibly patronising. Few hearts and minds have been won by people implying that the people who are concerned must all be morons.
All of which begs the question: How can you tell a good idea from a bad one without spending tens of millions of pounds (or dollars) trying it in live televised games for a few years?
1) Is It Actually A New Idea?
One obvious way in which proposals can be judged is if they have actually been tried before. For people who were following cricket in 2005, the Big Bash League’s ‘X-Factor’ sounds remarkably similar to the ‘super sub’ idea which was briefly used in one-day internationals. That was abandoned within a few months after almost everyone involved agreed that it massively favoured the team who won the toss. It’s difficult to see how the BBL substitution rule won’t suffer the same fate, and it certainly hasn’t been explained by anyone from Cricket Australia.
Heeding lessons of the past need not be confined solely to cricket either. If we wanted to look at The Hundred’s reducing the number of cricket teams in England & Wales, we could compare it to the experience in Welsh Rugby from 2004. Nine clubs representing nine cities and towns were amalgamated into five (later four) regional teams. Despite undoubtedly producing a higher average quality of rugby, in terms of improving the finances or the number of supporters in Welsh rugby it has been a comprehensive failure.
2) Can You Make A Logical Argument In Its Favour?
In life, it’s generally a good rule of thumb that you probably don’t understand something very well if you can’t also explain it to someone else. Likewise, if you can’t clearly express why a change to the playing conditions of a tournament is an improvement then it probably isn’t.
It is a common theme that any explanations coming from the ECB or Cricket Australia on topics like these miss a vital step. They typically spell out what the problem they are trying to address is. They always say what they are doing. What they never do is link the two together in any kind of logical manner. Imagine that you went to a doctor with a splitting headache and they decided to put your ankle in plaster. That’s the level of logic that cricket boards seem to operate at.
When talking about the changes to this year’s BBL, the Big Bash’s player acquisition and cricket consultant Trent Woodhill said both, “Integrity [of the game] is about high performance and it’s about the contest between bat, ball and fielders.” and, “It happens in all other sports, coaches have a major say in the result. We want dialogue, we want discussion from broadcasters, as to why a coach or captain has made the decision they’ve made.” So the position of Cricket Australia appears to be that ‘bat, ball and fielders’ are the key to the integrity of the game, and that these new additions will make those aspects less important relative to the actions of the coaches and captains.
I’m certainly struggling to find a compelling argument for why Cricket Australia believe bonus points based on the scores after ten overs would be a good idea. If the team batting first scores 200-6 (Or, being in Australia, 6-200), their opponents are more likely to score an extra point if they are all out for 105 after eleven overs than they are scoring 199 from their allotted twenty overs. Why would you potentially reward losing by 95 runs more than losing by 1 run?
The ECB’s arguments in favour of The Hundred are even more egregious in this behaviour. To take just one example, one of the few snippets of the extensive research that the ECB have actually released to the public states that ‘75% of families would prefer a game that is under 3 hours in length and finished by 9pm’. That’s a fair enough point to make, but misses out two fairly obvious flaws. The first is that T20 Blast games already last under three hours (barring rain delays). Their own playing conditions state that games should last for 2 hour and 45 minutes. The second is that ten of the thirty-four games of the men’s Hundred scheduled this year were due to finish at 9.30pm because they could only start after Test matches against Pakistan had finished for the day. So, regarding the ECB’s own arguments for why The Hundred is needed as a format, the first part shows it to be unnecessary and the second part doesn’t apply to either competition.
3) Will It Still Work In An Imperfect World?
It’s very easy to make plans on paper which appear flawless but come apart very quickly in real life. To take a recent(ish) example, look at the 2019 Men’s Cricket World Cup final. Even the most one-eyed England fan must admit that having the game and the overall winner decided by boundary countback was a little unsatisfying. The fact is that the tie-breakers were agreed by every cricket board involved, who almost certainly thought that there could never be a situation where both teams would be tied after the super over. It really helps to consider these scenarios before they happen, rather than complaining about them after the fact.
With cricket, whether in England or Australia, the most common issue competitions face is the weather. One shower of rain and everyone’s on their computers trying to work out the DLS scores and how to come out ahead in a shortened game. Ten games were rain-affected in last year’s Big Bash, so it is not something which should be overlooked. With that in mind, how well do Cricket Australia’s proposals handle rain delays and reductions in overs?
The answer, unsurprisingly, is not well.
The ‘Bash Boost’ bonus point for being ahead after ten overs becomes a nightmare if rain occurs at any point between the start of play and the midway point of the second innings. Imagine a game where Team A scored 80 runs in their first ten overs and batted for the full twenty before it rained for an hour during the mid-inning interval. Team B then face a DLS target of 120 from ten overs. How many runs do they need to win the bonus point, and after how many overs?
If the rain occurs during the first innings, it becomes more complex still. Let’s say that Team A scores 80 in the first innings in ten overs when it starts raining, leaving Team B to chase a DLS target of 70 from six overs. Is the target for Team B to beat based on what Team A managed to score in ten overs or five? I get a migraine just thinking about the complexity required to keep things even remotely fair to both teams with such a system in place.
4) Can You Hold A Trial First?
Even after you’ve cleared all of these hurdles, it must be worth playing a few trial games with the proposed rule changes to see how actual cricketers and fans feel about them. The Big Bash League are basically committed to these new rules for 61 games this winter. Almost two solid months. If Australian fans start whinging (and we all know that goes against their national character, but it could happen), then that’s a lot of unnecessary resentment and strife for the players, coaches and administrators to deal with. It also potentially risks tens of millions of dollars if cricket fans decide to stop watching altogether.
With so much at risk, surely it’s worth seeing how it plays in real life before committing so much money and effort? A week of games, with players trying several scenarios as well as full games. If everything goes well, they act as further promotion for the competition and new rules. If things go poorly, you have only lost thousands of dollars instead of millions.
In the ECB’s defense, something I rarely say, they did actually hold some trials of The Hundred in 2018. The general consensus appeared to be that it was very, very similar to T20. The problem there is that it was supposed to be to a distinct and entirely new format which would attract people who found T20 too long and boring. Trials don’t serve a purpose if you ignore the results, unfortunately.
5) Are You Being Honest About Your Motivations?
All of the above points assume that cricket boards are fundamentally truthful and open organisations whose statements can be taken at face value. Both Cricket Australia and the ECB talk about making cricket more exciting, more popular and more modern with their new formats. What neither mention in their press releases and interviews is a desire for cricket (or at least their portion of it) to become more profitable. With three new rules, each with their own branding, the proposed changes to the Big Bash give Cricket Australia at least three more opportunities per game to add extra sponsors, making the BBL more profitable. For the ECB, they seem annoyed at T20’s popularity around the globe because they think they invented it and deserve some licensing money from the global leagues. They genuinely believe that other countries will pay them for the rights to host competitions using The Hundred as a format, if it can be a success here.
Regardless of whether they are right or wrong (Spoiler: They are wrong), it seems at least some of these public relations issues are caused by their disingenuity. If Cricket Australia had said, “In the current circumstances, we need to make more money this season or risk further job cuts,” then people might have been more understanding about the whole thing and willing to give it a go for a season. Telling people who already enjoy cricket that these nonsensical rule changes will make cricket more fun, on the other hand, is a recipe for disaster.
I don’t consider myself a cricket traditionalist. To be honest I find the idea a little amusing when it comes to a format like T20 which has only been played professionally for eighteen years. There are many rule changes I would like to see, or at least try. But it doesn’t seem too much to ask that governing bodies try to think things through before putting the contents of their brainstorming session on national television.
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