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On returning cricket to a city

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Big_Bash_League_LogoAustralia overcame an umpiring controversy and not many other difficulties to defeat India in a comparatively easy run chase at the Gabba (in Brisbane) before winning the series at the MCG. If you are a regular fan of the Australian cricket summer, you must have appreciated the 28,851 fans at the Gabba that Tuesday night, especially because the crowd was predominantly Australian, rather than Indian.

In case you didn't know, the Gabba had been a nightmare for Cricket Australia (CA) for many years with respect to dropping cricket attendance during matches. Most matches drew pathetic crowds and the empty stadium made cricket a hard game to sell, even on TV. In fact, in 2010, an ODI match on a Sunday between Australia and Sri Lanka drew a crowd of just 9,000! Such had been the criticism about the venue that CA are still mulling on whether to withdraw Test matches from Brisbane and allot them to Canberra, where cricket is now seen as a new force.

You can probably feel it yourself when you take a deeper look. The last test match between Australia and New Zealand at the Gabba in November 2015 drew an average crowd of 10,000 per day. The case was the same during the last test match (2014) between India and Australia. However, things have started to improve as of now.

The dipping effects of attendances were actually being seen on the ground level as well. It was reported around the end of the last decade that more than 30 schools had stopped fielding cricket teams in and around Brisbane. Some school cricket grounds were either abandoned or dug out to make way for other purposes. Brisbane Heat general manager Andrew McShea said in 2015, "We had identified that 70% of 5-to-15-year-old boys had no interest in cricket and that was something we had to turn around."

 

In 2010, CA developed the project known as the Big Bash League. It was announced that the domestic T20 competition would do away with the traditional six state teams and replace them with eight city-based teams, four of which were located in Melbourne and Sydney. The main focus behind such a project was to bring fans and family to the game, and to present cricket in "more cool and appealing" way to youngsters and families.

However, that wasn't easy. As expected, it was greeted with heavy criticism from the traditionalists, and they talked about how the new format would affect cricket's sanctity and purity. However, heedless, Cricket Australia continued with its grand project.

BBL was an instant hit with the fans. The first match at the Gabba attracted 29,241 to the ground, partly due to the return of retired legends Shane Warne and Matthew Hayden. But the trend didn't continue in subsequent matches at the Gabba. The rest of the matches drew mostly around 15,000 spectators, which was hardly convincing for a product seen by the owners as a path-breaking project.

Attendance was even less next season, some matches drawing less than 10,000. It seemed the product wasn't really getting onto the tables. It lacked something. Perhaps cricket itself lacked the spice to attract the younger generation.

 

Then, something happened. It was the third season (Brisbane Heat had won the second) and Brisbane started to show its appetite for BBL. The graph started to rise almost vertically - 19,264 for the first game, 20,457 for the second, 22,324 for the third. What was happening? Brisbane wasn't supposed to be interested in cricket? Why was the graph ascending? And then, the shock, hardly expected by anyone: 32,696 attended the final Brisbane Heat game at the Gabba. People at the headquarters were baffled. A-League (Australia's football competition) started to look with envy towards a merely 3-season long tournament!

Purists were nowhere to be seen. Everyone started to talk about how much they love cricket, and why they play cricket in their backyard. But cricket was supposed to be dying? Maybe, CA knew that Australians always loved their cricket; maybe it was the product that lacked the cover in this modern world.

They repackaged cricket and successfully made it a product which started to look "cool, fast, furious and intense", and people accepted it gladly.

Fast forward to 2015-16, the BBL match between Brisbane Heat and Adelaide Strikers on 9 January at the Gabba already broke the domestic crowd record when 33,783 attended. The average crowd drawn at the Gabba for BBL matches was approximately 30,000! You might be tempted to compare that with the attendance figures mentioned above.

According to some traditionalists, BBL steals the appeal generated by the longer formats of the game. But when 28,000+ finally attend an ODI game at the Gabba during an ongoing BBL season, you know this great product called BBL has actually started to bring fans into the mainstream cricket who had earlier lost any sort of interest in the sport.

If someone takes a closer look, BBL seems to be acting as a gateway for fans to enter cricket, a path which seemed to be blocked for many years due to the irrational and rigid views held by the administrators. The symbiotic relationship will actually bring fans into the game, fans who will stay. BBL will act as a tool which complements Tests and ODIs, and one day, a 30,000 strong Gabba crowd will hardly be greeted with surprise in Australian newspapers.



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