Fat old lady

A colleague told me that the ICC and the game’s international administrators would “never allow” Twenty20 cricket to dominate the scheduling landscape, that Test cricket and ODIs would always be preferred to the mini version.

It’s a sound and reasonable argument, too. Everything in cricket ultimately comes down to money and the problem with 20-over cricket is that it provides only 40% of the television time compared to an ODI and, therefore, 60% less space to sell advertising.

But the problem with that theory is exactly that – it’s a theory. It’s a theory which assumes that the product has stayed the same, which it hasn’t. How many Walkmans did Sony sell once the ipod and MP3 players were invented? It was smaller, lighter and infinitely more user-friendly than the old cassette player.

ODI cricket has now been compromised and no amount of preservation or make-up will ever be able to make it look like it used to. It is an old lady. You can still see the beauty beneath the wrinkles and, to her husband and family, she has not changed, but to the rest of the world
the truth is obvious.

Advertising rates, as we all know, are calculated on how many people are likely to see the product! In England, South Africa and Sri Lanka, domestic crowds have ballooned for Twenty20 cricket (Standard Bank Pro20 in SA) and the same trend has begun at international level. For administrators to try and stop it is to use sellotape over a crack in a dam wall.

Large, happy crowds in stadiums make for good television and, funnily enough, most people enjoy watching good television. And large television viewing figures make for…expensive advertising rates. And the owners of the product which produces this revenue benefit significantly. So cricket’s administrators, with a proud history of unfettered greed stretching back over 30 years are going to continue trying to marginalize Twenty20? I think not.

But that’s just one part of the equation. The other is sponsorship. If and when a large corporation decides that it will be a good idea to
attach its brand to that of Twenty20, they will be prepared to spend a great deal of money doing so.

“Right, we’d like to give you $100 million because the people like your product and therefore we do, too. Unfortunately, seeing as you are
only allowed to play three of these matches each year, we can only give you $20 million. If, however, you play a few more…”
There isn’t a cricket board in the world which won’t be moved by that argument. Money speaks. Money shapes sport and will continue to do more and more. Standard Bank spotted the gap last year and took it brilliantly with a tactical withdrawal from ODI sponsorship and a concentration of resources on Pro20. Cricket South Africa should never have unbundled the two products if they wanted to preserve their fat old ODI lady, but Standard Bank offered very good money for the sexy babe-in-bikini and CSA couldn’t turn down the cash.

And finally, not only is ODI cricket old, but it is fat and unhealthy, too. Now is not the era in which families will tolerate
paying good money to wait eight hours for the possibility of some excitement. No other sport makes such demands on its supporters – largely because no other supporters would be daft enough to pay up. South Africa and the West Indies put on a hell of a show for the opening match. Not since the World Cup semi final of 1999 have I found it compelling to watch every ball. But I suspect the mis-matches will also make for good viewing. Australia vs Zimbabwe is the epitome of a non-contest and yet, even if Zimbabwe decide to ‘bat out time’ as they have done so insultingly in 50-over cricket, we can only be bored for an hour. And there is infinitely more chance of an upset.

The good news for traditionalists is that this inevitable, unstoppable transition towards 20-over cricket will enhance the standing and reputation of Test cricket and will not completely kill 50-over cricket. New enthusiasts and converts to Twenty20 will naturally be curious about the ‘real thing’ while 50-over cricket will become the once or twice per tour ‘exhibition’ that is currently the role of Twenty20.

It is the future and, for once, the future looks bright.

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