The following was written in airports, hotels, and 24-hour McDonalds between Monday, the 9th of January, and Friday, the 13th of January, 2012. It was originally going to be a mini-documentary, but due to time constraints when I arrived home, I couldn’t get it on to YouTube whilst the content was still relevant. So here it is, a month later, in script/graphic form. There has been no attempt to “brush it up” now that I know the results of the tournament; when I talk up the Melbourne Renegades and the Sydney Thunder, I do so legitimately, with no trace of irony. (Not intentional irony, anyway.) I hope you enjoy “T20 Nation” as much as I enjoyed running out of time to make it.
Each Saturday, a familiar sight can be seen on ovals Australia-wide: Six stumps. Four bails. Traditionally twenty-two players – unless Hocko’s done his hammy, or Jimmy’s got a wedding. The nation takes to the field to slog, sledge, and rue dropped catches. And at the end of the day, try to decipher the scorebook.
Cricket has been around for a long time and in Australia it isn’t so much a sport as it is an addiction, occupying streets and driveways and backyards during the summer months. Test cricket has been around for over 130 years, and has seen many developments and innovations – Helmets! Colored clothes! Aluminium bats! CHEERLEADERS! The game has evolved like an organism, and will continue to evolve; the only certainty about cricket is that the format of the game is constantly shrinking; from timeless tests shrunk to five-day games, to sixty-over one day internationals cut to the fifty my generation has grown up with.
And now, Australia’s becoming a T20 Nation.
As a cricket nerd, the newly-minted Big Bash League intrigued me. I’m savvy enough to recognise the ‘next generation of cricket’ when I see it. Accept it or not, the world is becoming increasingly smitten with the money the shortest form offers.
The entire process of starting the Big Bash League piqued my interest, because team development was taken from the bottom-up. Something was being made from nothing, and the process is fascinating. This is why, when the opportunity arose, I decided to follow the BBL around Australia for a week, to see how the mixture is bubbling.
“You’re shithouse, mate.”
I’m a 22-year old Arts student who had cricket when everyone had girlfriends, and was trying to hit a good line and length when everyone else was hitting puberty. I read Haigh and Roebuck instead of Meyer and Rowling, and whilst I couldn’t tell you what a parabola is, I’m good at multiplying fours and sixes – a lot of them are hit off my bowling.
I’ve got four sporting awards; I have a vague runners up trophy for Eastern Region tennis, a runners up award for Indoor Cricket, and my pride and joy, an Under 12 B-Grade Coach’s award.
That tiny cricket ball doesn’t really count. It’s a pre-order bonus for Ricky Ponting’s International Cricket 2007.
Which was rubbish.
I’m obsessed with cricket but that’s strange. I’m pasty and crap at it, but honestly, I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t spend every Saturday being hit around the park by fourteen year-olds and moaning about dropped catches. Crickets a habit, like a nervous tick. I justify it by pointing out that it’s cheaper than smoking, then grimace when I realise the stuffing’s falling out of my pads and I need a new bat.
Monday, January 9th: Day One
So, what is the point of this trip? First and foremost, I want to see what sort of an effect the eight-team Big Bash League is having around Australia. This trip allows me to see six of the eight teams play live, in four days during which all eight teams will be playing.
I’m wary of just statistics, like crowd numbers; I saw the first Stars game at the MCG, which was entertaining but one-sided, alongside 23,495 other people. This crowd number was underwhelming; the TV audience, however, was not, with 488,000 people watching Dave Warner battle his blonde almost-namesake.
So I’ve decided I need to vary my view. There were four games in four days in the second week of January; I figured I could make it to three of them without decimating the budget I’ve made from fitful employment. My itinerary looks like this: on Monday, I’m flying from Melbourne to Tasmania, to see the Hobart Hurricanes play the Melbourne Stars. On the Tuesday, the Adelaide Strikers are playing Sydney Sixers in Adelaide – a game I unfortunately can’t get to, because I’m doing this on a budget that would make a hobo scoff. On Wednesday, I’m heading to New South Wales to see Sydney Thunder take on Perth Scorchers, before flying back to Melbourne on Thursday to see the Melbourne Renegades take on the Brisbane Heat. This entire experiment is taking place in the shadow of Friday’s test match. Under the gaze of the third test between India and Australia, the Big Bash League is turning Australia into a T20 nation.
But first – Hobart. It’s perfectly serene, and kinda quaint, in a relaxing, small-town kinda way. I say this quietly because I assume Tasmanians would lynch me for saying so. It’s like a brain laxative. There is no stress or worry in Hobart; there’s nothing that can’t be fixed by the smell of the sea breeze, or by gazing out at the mountains.
Beauty is all around you. It’s my second favorite island state of Australia.
Behind New Zealand.
What makes a good T20 team?
So, the Big Bash League. It has been around since 2007 – but this is the first year with the Franchise system. As I mentioned earlier, I adore the BBL for allowing us to see the process of building new franchise teams. The thing the BBL has answered, in a round-about way, is ‘what makes a good T20 team’ – or, more accurately, ‘what do the different franchises believe makes a good T20 team?’ Watching the franchises signing players has been engrossing, as each team bring a different mentality to the signing table.
T20 cricket is seen as a slap-and-bash game. Some teams go power-crazy, like they want their team on paper to look like Arnie power-lifting. Twenty20, is, after all, less golf than it is UFC, and in a way, the Sydney Thunder have found their own Brock Lesnar and Phil Davis.
The best example of straight up, big-hitting T20 teams are the Melbourne Renegades and the Sydney Thunder. Whomever selected these teams loves T20 cricket. The Thunder have decided they want to win games through their top-order; playing against a team that includes Chris Gayle, Ben Dunk, Daniel Smith and David Warner is going to be like tossing a coin; if you remove them early, it’s anyone’s game, but if you let them thrive it could be all over very quickly, as it proved for the Stars in their first game; Dave Warner blasted a brutal century, and a few weeks later, Chris Gayle tonned up too. Bowling to them is like Russian roulette; the gun can click at any time – although of late it has been clicking empty.
The entire Renegades list is star-studded, comprised of players capable of winning games off their own accord. It’s your best case T20 team; big hitters supported by a bowling battery capable of taking ten wickets each game. Nannes! Harwood! Tait! Afridi, McDonald, Herrick, and luring in the local crowd with cult hero Brad Hodge. Quite an exciting package.
Parents: want to take your kids to the cricket? Take them to see the Renegades.
But does this big-hitting approach work? Sometimes, but the results thus far have been patchy at best. There are new approaches being taken to Twenty20 team building, epitomised by the Melbourne Stars and the Hobart Hurricanes.
Supporting the Stars and other life-changing decisions.
I’m supporting the Melbourne Stars because I like the approach they’ve taken to team-building. In comparison to the Thunder and the Renegades, they went for calm heads over brute force. The Stars built a custom T20 team with… well, I overtly refuse to say ‘Star-power’. ‘Legs’ will have to do.
There is leadership from four states in their core group of Cameron White, George Bailey, Dave Hussey, Adam Voges, and Chris Simpson.
There is value in the batting line-up in that I don’t believe that their calm heads will crack under pressure whilst chasing, and Rob Quiney is still one of Australia’s best-kept batting secrets. Their full full-strength bowling attack, including Pete Siddle and James Pattinson, is outstanding, and they’ve bolstered it with Luke Wright and Jade Dernbach from the mother country. They’ve stolen three exciting Tasmanians: Bailey, James Faulkner, and Jackson Bird, the latter of whom I saw tear apart Victoria at the MCG at the start of December. They’re the real deal.
The only thing I don’t like about the Stars is their mascot, the genuinely disturbing Starman. He’s made to resemble a superhero, but his lightning eyebrows are overtly threatening, and he looks a little… gimpy.
Actually, with his rubber costume, he looks kinda like post-diet Warnie.
I assume children are terrified of him; I’m 22, and I try not to turn my back on him, although it’s not his fault that, as a whole, the sporting world seems to have moved on from cutesy anamorphic mascots to adjectives like ‘Victory’, ‘Heart’, and ‘Heat’, and ‘Stars’. If Starman is anything to go by, the Stars should be called the ‘Buff Genderless Leering Green and Whites’.
Why the Hurricanes are winning.
Meanwhile, the alliterative Hobart Hurricanes built a local team, plus two overseas imports, Owais Shah from England and Pakistan’s Rana Naved-Ul-Hasan, the Hobart cult hero. And good lord, is it working for them! The Hurricanes are essentially Tasmania’s shield team, with Phil Jacques replacing George Bailey, who is at the Stars, and minus awesome allrounders Luke Butterworth and James Faulkner.
I find this interesting. When the Stars put together their team they chose players from around Australia who’d never played together before, and stuck them in Eddie Maguire’s facilities with Shane Warne in the room. The Hurricanes are a bunch of blokes whom know one-another’s games. They’re missing their barnstorming captain in Tim Paine, but Xavier Doherty is doing an incredible job molding the team together into a cohesive unit. The Hurricanes are a classic example of teamwork beating more ‘favored’ opponents.
And that’s the first hook for the BBL. What you have here are eight different teams being constructed from scratch in the image of what their brains trusts believe will win them a T20 crown. It’s an experiment. Psychology is important, as is relationship-building. That’s where the Hurricanes have been excelling so far.
Melbourne Stars 203/3 (20/20 ov); Hobart Hurricanes 184/9 (20/20 ov). Melbourne Stars won by 19 runs.
This match was the perfect example of T20 as an engrossing sport. When the Stars ran away to 3/203 on the back of Luke Wright’s 117, the onus was on the Hurricanes to make a game of it. Rather than folding cheaply as teams are prone to doing when chasing big targets, the Hurricanes fought, and fought, and fought.
One-sided T20s are boring; this was engrossing. Travis Birt and Owais Shah took the sword to the Stars bowlers, but the canny spin of Dave Hussey and Shane Warne was too difficult to get away. But this will be forever remembered as Luke Wright’s game, and what may be the beginning of a beautiful top-order partnership with Rob Quiney.
Tuesday, January 10th: Day Two
And yes, I’m supposed to be in Adelaide, but if truth be told, I don’t have that much money. To my mates, I’m – quote – “not missing much.” I told my friend that, “little do you know, South Australia is home to one of the most beautiful ovals in the world”, and she told me to, quote, “stop being such a cricket nerd.”
Poor Adelaide. They’ll just have to miss out on the rampant flood of tourists this project will attract…
Traditionalists vs casual fans.
When people talk about cricket they normally fall under two different archetypes:
- Traditionalists, who love test cricket, because it’s a beautiful game that unfolds like a novel rather than a series of scorecards, and;
- Casual fans, who may enjoy test matches but live or the shorter formats.
T20 has been thriving worldwide in a way that the longer forms cannot match – and yes, ‘longer forms’ does include fifty over cricket. The most exciting periods of play in the fifty over games were the first and last ten overs of a team’s innings. The higher-ups looked down at the game and said, ‘ohh, but does it have to be so long?’ and sheared off the ‘excess thirty’.
To traditionalists, the game can seem to be a defilement of what cricket fans used to respect. There are little pop-up graphics of how many sixes have been hit in a tournament; there are cheerleaders, and excessive branding, and every player talks about ‘execution’, and finesse has been discarded for wanton brutality.
To casual fans, however, the game is more accessible. It’s backyard cricket with six-figure salaries. The average person can relate with it.
(Well, not so much the six-figure salaries – but people love the biff and bash and crash, and cricket’s more than happy to whore it to them.)
Me? I love test matches. They are more “war of attrition” than guerrilla warfare. Great test matches – that ebb and flow over five days – are to be admired. But what I can see with T20 and test matches is how much they complement each other, a two-pronged attack that works on variety. Test matches are traveling carnivals; once a summer, test cricket comes to your home town. I think there is an avenue for T20 cricket, crucially, a place for it in the Aussie cricketing landscape.
But there is one thing that needs discussion:
T20 is good cricket.
Some passionate cricket fans will tell you that T20 cricket isn’t cricket, or – more likely – isn’t good cricket. More literally, it’s different strokes for different folks.
But I would argue that Twenty20 is good cricket. Or, more accurately, ‘can’ be good cricket.
I’d like to point out that the world’s best T20 cricketers are all still excellent cricketers in their own right. Dave Hussey, Brad Hodge, Brendon McCullum, Dave Warner, Owais Shah, Ross Taylor, Hershelle Gibbs; these are the world’s highest run-scorers in the T20 format, all but Hussey of whom have played test cricket.
Dirk Nannes, Alfonso Thomas, Alfie Morkel, Lassy Malinga, Yasir Arafat, Shahid Afridi, Murali… The format’s best bowlers. When you take away from the fact that there are players in this list who have played far more of this format than others, it’s clear that good cricket skills make for good Twenty20 skills. Anyone who’s seen Brad Hodge amass his runs with cuts, pulls and drives will attest to this.
For the most part, the cream does rise to the top, which is an expression I don’t understand. Although T20 requires a slightly different skill set, Dale Steyn averages 24 in all three formats – First Class, List A, and T20. Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag make runs. Brett Lee is still a formidable weapon.
But the most important aspect of a successful sporting format is good cricket. What is important to note is that the first round of games were incredibly one-sided.
Kinks were being ironed out. The spin stopped. You can’t disguise an eight-wicket loss. Then we had games such as the Renegades versus the Sixers at Etihad, and the Stars versus the Heat at the Gabba, and the incredible Heat vs. the Hurricanes… Those bursts of high-quality cricket are exactly what the League needs.
Sydney Sixers 151/8 (20/20 ov); Adelaide Strikers 87 (18.4/20 ov). Sydney Sixers won by 64 runs.
The Adelaide Strikers had the home ground advantage… and that’s where the good news ended. They were comphrenesively outplayed by a dominant Sixers outfit. Sydney’s bowling attack of – deep breath! – Dominic Thornley, Steven O’Keefe, Nathan McCullum, Stuey McGill and Steve Smith took eight of the ten Strikers wickets, bundling them out for 87 after the Strikers had done well to restrict the Sixers to 8/151. Go figure.
Wednesday, January 11th: Day Three
Ahh, Sydney. As a Melbournian, I’m supposed to call it a ‘second-rate Melbourne’ – but I’m nothing if not diplomatic, so I’ll let that go without saying. Besides, we’re not so different. We’ve got AFL, they’ve got Rugby. We’ve got Fed Square, they’ve got the Opera House. We’ve got Warnie, they had… Richard Chee-Quee.
Big Smoke vs. The Big Easy.
Whilst we’re on the ‘Sydney/Melbourne’ topic, it’s time to talk franchises. Two franchises in Sydney and Melbourne. Should it have been one city team and one country team? I’m not convinced that two city-based teams are the way to go. Melbourne, for instance, has two soccer teams, a basketball team, a Rugby League team, a Rugby Union team (although don’t ask me to tell you which is which), a Baseball team, three hockey teams covering two hockey formats, a water polo team and NINE AFL teams. Are two more cricket franchises the way to go?
Or could the BBL have recognised that people in the country play sport – specifically, over summer they play cricket. I’ve played locally and in the country, at the inner-east powerhouse Vermont, and for Jindivick cricket club, who are based on the top of a mountain near Warragul. In the first few years of the KFC Twenty20 Big Bash – a tournament name that is as much a mouthful as any of their burgers – the tournament travelled. Queensland played at Heritage Oval in Toowoomba and Tony Ireland Stadium, Thuringowa, New South Wales played in both Newcastle and Telstra (now ANZ) Stadium and even Tassie played at Northern Tasmania Cricket Association Ground.
But I’ve been accused before of being too optimistic. Could Gippsland support a cricket franchise? Could Geelong? Think of the Victorian cricketers who come from the country: Siddle is from Morwell. Andrew McDonald is from Wodonga. Cam White is from Bairnsdale. Alex Keath is from Shepparton. Steve Gilmore is from Waaia. Darren and James Pattinson are from Dandenong, which is unlucky. The list goes on.
And in NSW, too! Phillip Hughes is from Macksville, Brad Haddin is from Cowra. Josh Hazelwood is from Tamworth. Dave Warner is from Paddington (CBD), and looks more like the bear than defies description. Sydney, has two other densely-populated areas: Newcastle and Wollongong, where Brett Lee is from. Could these smaller, but no less relevant, cities have supported a franchise?
We’ve got pink Sixers, green Stars and blue Heat, so why not some beige Moe Marauders, or the aquamarine-wearing Adjectiveless Albury-Wodonga?
Spin off the pitch.
One of the more interesting elements of the BBL is the PR spin and the use of marketing. Compounded by the need to get the league up and running fast, the advertising has been aggressive and populated, particularly online through avenues such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.
The websites for the teams are slickly-made and presented, but I’d hazard a guess that they were all created by the same web design team. Here are the web pages of each individual team:
Make no mistake about it; the BBL is big marketing business.
My guilty marketing pleasure is the BBL Season Guide. Because this is the first year of the league, they naturally didn’t have any photos of cricketers playing in their team uniforms – so instead they’ve taken the approach of photoshopping all their uniforms to a neutered grey. That’s right – not photoshopped to their team colors. To grey. And yes – that is every team, even though nobody plays in grey.
There’s more dodgy photoshopping than a Zoo magazine. Here’s Nikki Webster from a photoshoot;
The BBL guide has hidden inside some fantastic examples of marketing verve, such as bold statements that aren’t backed up by any actual facts. Page 49 will tell you that “the Renegades have a healthy streak of anti-establishment.”
Somebody should tell Ash Ketchum.
But keep in mind, I’m not knocking the advertising. It’s fun. It helps to immerse the public into the team culture. I’m a paid up member of the Stars; I’d be silly if I said that the marketing wasn’t effective. Even though I didn’t receive my Stars membership until… Friday, the 13th of January.
There is the age-old matter of ‘location, location, location’. The advertising has been working well, but some venues feel more ‘complete’ than others. The MCG can get 20,000 in – but it still seems empty due to the immense size of the stadium. Etihad is a better bet; at about 17,000, it seems a lot fuller, and the atmosphere lifts because of it. The smaller stadia – Hobart’s 8,000 at Blundstone Arena is a record, Adelaide with 27,000 for Strikers vs Hurricans, the Gabba with 29,400 for Heat vs Stars, the SCG got 27,500 to see the Sixers play the Stars – when these are filled up, it’s like a party.
Sydney Thunder 99 (19.2/20 ov); Perth Scorchers 103/1 (14.1/20 ov). Perth Scorchers won by 9 wickets (with 35 balls remaining).
This game was as one-sided as the one the night before. Whilst I adore ANZ Stadium as a venue, the cricket – and umpiring – was of the lowest quality. The Thunder were pulled apart by the Scorchers like a gravy-filled pickapart; the key antagonists were Nathan Coulter-Nile, Brad Hogg – cricket’s Gene Simmonds – and Mitchell Marsh.
Thursday, January 12th: Day Four
Melbourne – self-proclaimed to be the ‘sports capital of Australia’, and they may be right. Sport, coffee, and good food fuel this town – which is great, because the public transport system is a disgrace. This is my last stop for this mini-odyssey. And yes – it’s been filled with more cricket than is probably healthy. My ex-girlfriend used to call me a macocist because I love cricket, something that I am appalling at, but truth be told if I liked pain I would have dated her for longer.
A History of T20
In a way, the success of T20 cricket goes against the ‘bigger is better’ mentality. It’s not food, it’s alcohol – it’s distilled to its barest minimum. Twenty20 is potent, and distilled, and curt. It’s the Michael Bay of sport. If Ben Edmondson started tossing hand grenades instead of a white ball. IT’S WHAT THE PEOPLE WANT.
But for this doco to truly inform about T20 cricket, you need to know where it came from. It’s not so much a ‘genesis’, like a superhero; it’s born out of need, not a higher calling. In England in 2003, the format was brought in to combat waning interest in domestic cricket. It had to go for less time, though, because young people are stupid. And it went absolutely off-chops, with people attending domestic games in numbers not seen for decades. It’s sexy cricket. Fours, and sixes, and blinding catches and Jacuzzis and live music during the half-time shows…
Of course it caught on. How couldn’t it. If it’s money you’re after, look no further than T20. Cricket’s a corporation, and you need to feed the hungry beast.
South Africa followed suit later that year, Australia in 2005 and the West Indies in 2006, before the Indian Premier League started in India in 2008 in response to a rebel Indian T20 league. The IPL is the big one; Guatam Gambhir is paid $2,400,000 to play for the Kolkata Knight Riders franchise. Robin Uthappa, Yusuf Pathan, and Rohit Sharma are all paid more than two million dollars.
Whilst yes, all the top-tier cricketing nations have domestic T20 leagues, it has been a boon for other, less glamorous cricketing nations; in 2009, Zimbabwe rebranded their Twenty20 league the ‘Stanbic Bank’ series, after their major sponsor, and introduced a brand new franchise system, that has since attracted players such as Chris Gayle, Dirk Nannes, Shaun Tait and Ryan ten Doeschate. Brilliant.
The IPL is the mecca of this format. The Indian Premier League is to cricket traditionalists the ultimate example of the seven sins – particularly gluttony. There’s still romance – as evidenced by Shane Warne’s unfancied Rajasthan Royals winning the inaugural crown – but all the money and backroom politics have left their mark on the sport. Plus, there is a T20 overload hurting crowd figures:
In the first season of the IPL, 59 games were played, with one being washed out. For next year’s 2012 IPL, there will be 74 games in 53 days. And now there is a cricket Champions League to contend with football’s own. The sky is the limit for T20.
It’s incredibly tight scheduling. From it’s inception in England, T20 has become over-saturated. There are Goldfinger comparisons – coating the cricketing world to death. It’s the greasiest sandwhich you’ve ever had – bacon, and eggs, and meat, and it’s slowly but surely clogging cricket’s arteries.
Twenty20 is creating a culture of freelancers, players who are good enough to put their own skills to use by playing for different teams around the world. These players include Australia’s Dirk Nannes, the West Indies’ Chris Gayle and Kieron Pollard, and Holland’s Ryan ten Doeschate. They’re cricketing mercenaries, the new breed of player.
Dirk Nannes is my favourite T20 success story. He was this lion-hearted bloke who played for my local cricket club. Vermont now gives out the Dirk Nannes Award for Most Promising Youngster, which I believe it should be the Dirty Dirk Testosterone Award for Best Caveman Beard.
Even this year, we’ve seen the BBL play with the Aussie ‘state teams’ tradition. Players can play for whomever pays the most; but it doesn’t necessarily breed immediate success for the teams who pay the most.
Brisbane Heat 168/7 (20/20 ov); Melbourne Renegades 156/9 (20/20 ov). Brisbane Heat won by 12 runs.
Daniel Vettori and Shahid Afridi battled one-another in a rain-unaffected match in Etihad Stadium. I say this because the roof was closed, and it is common sense; yet despite this, the stadium still paid a member of staff to hand out the Duckworth Lewis targets during the second innings.
The Heat batted first; from 5/74, Vettori guided them to 168 from their twenty overs, flourishing amid the carnage of Afridi’s three wickets. Despite Aaron Finch’s typically dynamic 72, the Renegades fell twelve runs short thanks to a great spell of bowling from Alister McDermott, who took 4/18 from four hugely impressive overs, the red-haired youth who tore apart the red-faced red-clad team.
T20 might make a star out of James Faulkner, who’s an absolute excitement machine. T20 might make a star out of Luke Butterworth, at long last. T20 might make a star out of Glen Maxwell – which is great, because the world needs more big-hitting offspinners with Chopper Reid facial hair.
I’m going to end on a boring note. It’s been a dour documentary, so I feel that this is fitting. The Big Bash League seems to feel it must hype itself beyond reason to become successful. Those… pop-locking dancers from Renegades games. That aggressive advertising campaign.
The BBL will succeed if it continues to place cricket on show. Don’t get bogged down by cheerleaders, and fireworks, and excess advertising opportunities. The quality of the competition is what matters. Now it is up to Cricket Australia to show some self-control: to not drown us in T20 matches; to ensure that there is a window for the league to operate in; to ensure that the standard remains high, so that it can show the best of Australian cricket.
Welcome to the T20 Nation.