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T20 Overkill

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Yuvraj_Singh_IPL_2015_Indian_Premier_League_India_cricket_Delhi_DaredevilsOn January 2nd 2016, over 80,000 people turned up to the MCG to watch a domestic Twenty20 match. That’s right: 80,000 spectators at a domestic T20 match. Until now, that sort of crowd has been unheard of in domestic cricket anywhere, reserved for World Cup finals and Ashes Tests. Australia’s recent Big Bash has been a huge success, with the cricket at times excellent and over one million people turning up to watch the games.

The Big Bash and the Indian Premier League are the standout domestic T20 competitions in the world but there are a host of other tournaments popping up. It is not surprising as T20 brings new audiences and new money to the game and cricket boards want a slice of the pie.

The Pakistan Super League (PSL) will shortly be upon us and will join the Caribbean Premier League (CPL), Natwest T20 Blast, Bangladesh Premier League (BPL), Ram Slam and the Georgie Pie Super Smash. The Masters Champions League (MCL) started last week, uniting former and current players in a competition, for what reason nobody quite knows. Over the next eight months, there is a glut of T20 cricket from the PSL this month, through the World T20, IPL, CPL and up until the end of the Blast in August.

As evident by the numbers at the MCG, crowds are turning up in droves for most of these competitions. Attendances at last year’s Natwest T20 Blast in England were the highest since its introduction and the IPL’s TV viewing figures in 2015 were extraordinary, with the first five games being watched by more than 100 million people. The CPL has been a huge hit in the Caribbean and expects to make a profit in 2016 for the first time, turning the people of the West Indies back on to cricket again.

The reasons for the success of T20 are clear: a short form of the game that fits into the busy lives of spectators; an exciting brand of cricket with brilliant fielding and huge sixes; the sprinkling of overseas star players; the TV audiences provide obvious sponsorship opportunities.

 

At the moment T20 is still relatively new and the attraction is its brevity, freshness and intensity. That needs to remain the case if Twenty20 cricket is going to be sustainable in the future. Regardless if your preference is for Tests or one of the one-day formats, T20 has reinvigorated the game and shaken things up. That is a good thing but there are danger signs beginning to appear.

The success of the Big Bash is built on playing the games in a condensed window in the Australian season, something the IPL and Natwest T20 Blast in particular should take note. It is also high quality, something helped by the high standard of Australia’s domestic scene. One of the dangers for Twenty20 cricket is that the standard of play starts to become haggard because there is too much of it.

South Africa’s Ram Slam was not a high class tournament. Watching some of those games was to see a tired form of the game; medium pace bowlers bowling to average batsmen. It was not a standard that looks sustainable. The same could be said of the standard in last year’s Natwest T20 Blast and the BPL, as well as the early rounds of the MCL.

 

Why is the standard falling in some competitions? Players who play international cricket are already under severe strain, having to pick and choose between tournaments. Such is the power of the BCCI in India that most national teams do not play during the IPL. But during all the other T20 competitions, international cricket takes place alongside, so the very highest class of player is unavailable. That quite obviously dilutes the quality and gives rise to a two-tier system.

The game itself has also become more formulaic, something one-day cricket continues to struggle with. Players are still highly-skilled and playing ramp shots and bowling slower ball bouncers, but this is now the norm. The 2016 IPL will be the eighth edition and there have been rumblings about the format being tired and too long. The Big Bash only started in 2011 so it is fresher and newer, but once this format has another few years, what’s next? The organisers should resist increasing the number of matches at all costs.

Cricket has traditionally been powered by the international game and while this is still the case, T20 is gaining ground. Fan allegiance is still not entrenched in T20 cricket. Fans of the Sydney Sixers or the Mumbai Indians do not feel as strongly as they do for their national teams. If the cricket starts to become stale, there is no compulsion for fans to keep turning up as there is for international cricket.

When the IPL began, there was talk of the ICC carving out a window for it in the international calendar. That option is now gone as there are simply too many tournaments to be able to do that. That means there are ever more competitions competing for a limited audience, space in the calendar and playing base. There may come a time when lesser competitions like the BPL cease to exist because they cannot find a spot and cannot find enough quality players to make it a good product.

The next few years will see the number of T20 tournaments boom but it is unclear whether that is sustainable. Players and fans will continue to embrace the IPL and Big Bash IF they continue to offer a high quality product but for other tournaments around the world, it is imperative they find a way to provide an exciting brand of cricket if spectators are to remain engaged. That will be the challenge for Twenty20 cricket, because there can be too much of a good thing.

 


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