Action Replay: Close of Play
This summer’s Ashes series was a success financially, with matches sold out, and in media terms, with lots of interest in England’s victories and Australia’s relatively weak performance. But behind the scenes cricket at the top level is encountering plenty of problems.
Essentially, Test cricket, with five-day matches that often end in draws or are ruined by rain, is losing out in popularity to shorter versions, especially Twenty20 (T20), where each side bats for just twenty overs and a game generally takes about three hours. Matches can be played in the evening, increasing their attractiveness to live crowds and those watching on TV.
T20 is also popular with many players, who can earn far more from it than from Tests. The highest-paid cricketer last year was the Indian captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni with income of $31.5m, the vast majority of which comes from product endorsements rather than directly from playing in Tests and the Indian Premier League. But he still got $3.5m from playing. Meanwhile, top England players get at most £400,000 a year on central contracts from the England and Wales Cricket Board. Up-and-coming young players may have to make a choice between Tests and T20, since rather different skill-sets are needed for both.
It is often claimed that T20 has led to cricketers becoming fitter and more agile. But it may also be behind poorer performances at Test level, particularly from Australian players. The Australian domestic competition is the subtly-named Big Bash, or, to give it its full name, the KFC T20 Big Bash League. Like all the shorter versions, it prioritises big hitting over patience and technique, so it is bound to undermine true Test quality. Also, pitches are prepared to increase the chances of a clear result.
According to Cricket Australia, ‘The league has been successful in attracting a new, diverse fan base in its first two years with its mix of big hits, great value and explosive action… If you look at the average crowds and TV audiences over the past two years, the league compares more than favourably with other sports and has claims to being the most popular summer sports league in the country’ (bigbash.com.au).
So competition is not just among teams but among sports and indeed different versions of the same sport.