One-day cricket the victim of the mid-summer sporting pile-up


Back in the 1986-87 summer, when Australian cricket had slumped so dismally into an unsettling period of crisis following the retirements of national heroes Greg Chappell, Dennis Lillee and Rod Marsh, a cynical view of the local crowds persisted among the travelling English press pack.

The Guardian’s then cricket correspondent Matthew Engel put it thus: “The Australian sporting public has a marvellous knack for averting its gaze from things it doesn’t like.” In that instance he was referring to fans filing out of the MCG as the home side lost five wickets in the space of 40 minutes to surrender the Melbourne Test and with it the Ashes. Of note: those who did hang around focused their attentions on scoreboard updates of the Davis Cup tennis drama unfolding down the road.

Swap Pat Cash for Nick Kyrgios and little might have changed by the time Australia take the field for their second one-day international against Pakistan in Melbourne this Sunday – a day before the Australian Open actually kicks off, of course, but still very much in both its shadow and that of the ragingly successful Big Bash League.

It is now self-evident and not particularly original to point out how one-day cricket has fallen victim to T20’s success. One only need note the recent TV and attendance figures for the Big Bash: 34,677 at the Gabba for Wednesday night’s Heat-Scorchers clash as home viewership nudged the million mark; 44,189 happily piling into godforsaken Etihad Stadium for the Stars-Renegades derby and in doing so, easily outstripping the combined attendance totals for days three, four and five the recent MCG Test.

The Big Bash’s cannibalisation of a willing and engaged audience for limited overs cricket is the kind of problem other sports dream of, but a problem it is if the game’s best high-volume TV product (a minimum of 100 in-built advertising opportunities as opposed to 40) is to remain viable and grease the wheel of the game at large.

The argument often put forward here is that a rolling international one-day championship or the accrual of World Cup qualification points for every ODI is the answer – and providing such context to games certainly can’t hurt – but you wonder whether such measures would mean much to the casual cricket fans who’ve deserted the format. “Hang on, a win here will put Australia eight points clear of Bangladesh on the table for an event happening in two years? Maybe I will spend eight hours baking on a sticky plastic seat after all.”

It doesn’t help that Australian fans are right now faced with five games against a Pakistan side that has spent the last four weeks repeatedly rolling over, nor that so many other appealing live sports options present themselves in the form of the tennis and A-League football (over 40,000 are expected at Saturday’s Sydney derby).

But the basic equation is thus: unless India or England are touring, one-day international attendances in Australia are increasingly a bust and one that coincides with the Big Bash going from strength to strength.

The 30,696 average crowd for one-day games in the dizzyingly successful 2013-14 Ashes summer and the none-too-shabby 27,225 for India last year were happy anomalies. Contests in the other two of the last four summers have drawn average crowds of 16,306 and 15,239 respectively. If Pakistan do better at the box office it’ll be a near miracle.

This is all a bit of a pity, because at its best 50-over cricket can engage the heart and mind in ways T20’s brevity cannot; batsmen can consolidate, build or rebuild in ways a 20-over contest does not allow. Bowl a couple of bad overs and you can come back later. But you can’t sell nuance these days, and Australia are not even trying. Years ago they decided that encouraging people to dress up as superheroes and cartoon hot dogs was the most plausible answer and so far haven’t come up with an alternative.

What the Australian one-day summer is now, if you stand back and take the long view, is an audition and jockeying process for better jobs – important Test tours and the bigger one-day tournaments people actually watch, or at least care about. And really, the true novelty of these upcoming games against Pakistan is that they are essentially a Big Bash talent showcase; out go old hands George Bailey and Aaron Finch, in come Chris Lynn and Billy Stanlake.

When national selector Trevor Hohns briefed the media on the somewhat surprising promotion of Stanlake, he did so in terms of the player’s Big Bash form, which was not unusual because the last game of Stanlake’s brief state career with Queensland came 14 months ago, and boasted a viewership in the hundreds via CA’s live stream.

“Billy himself and the medical staff involved in his recovery have done a great job,” Hohns said. “He’s back playing again and playing well and we believe that now is the right time to give him a chance to stretch himself.”

The other stretch will be whether anybody turns up to see if he’s successful.