The Big Bash League is back, if you believe the hype.
That BBL hit and giggle rubbish was deader than disco, if you believed the haters a year or two ago.
TV ratings, crowd figures and overall interest definitely rose this summer and heading into the final match of the season on Saturday night in Perth, Cricket Australia executives should be encouraged by the competition’s revival.
Gimmicks such as the X-Factor and Bash Boost were removed, which restored some credibility to the competition. Fans see contrived rule changes for what they are and nobody aged over seven missed those ones.
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And the introduction of DRS and the innings clock – where teams had to bowl their 20 overs inside 79 minutes or be restricted to only four fielders outside the circle for the rest of the innings – were commonsense initiatives.
But is this spike in the BBL a one-off season of rejuvenation or a sign that it is again on an upward trajectory?
CA got lucky by Cricket South Africa pulling the plug on the three-match ODI series leg of their tour in January which allowed many more stars to be available for their BBL franchises.
And the BBL was also given a boost by the lacklustre Australian Open tennis tournament which lacked star power with Nick Kyrgios out injured, Ash Barty, Serena Williams and Roger Federer in retirement, Rafael Nadal exiting in the second round.
For the casual sports fan, when they have a choice between tuning into a BBL game containing household names like Steve Smith, David Warner or Marnus Labuschagne or watching a grand slam semi-final between two players from eastern Europe they probably know little or nothing about, they’ll go with what they know.
The BBL still does not have the cream of the crop when it comes to the best T20 guns for hire who travel the global circuit.
There will never be a T20 league in the same league as the IPL in all metrics – crowds, TV ratings, players contracts and the all-important overall revenue.
The BBL can become the best of the rest but not by trying to outbid the dollars that will be on offer at the new competition in the UAE or South Africa’s new league which has been bankrolled by India’s BBL-aligned corporations, or the Caribbean, Pakistan, Bangladeshi, England’s short-form double feature of The Hundred and The Blast or anywhere else.
CA is reluctant to go down the private investment path to bring extra dollars into the sport but also relinquish control from the state bodies who are set up to look after cricket from top to bottom.
The BBL can only keep thriving if CA can fix the schedule and ensure the best local players are available as often as possible.
In recent years, Australia’s ODI team members have played the first few weeks of the BBL and Test players have occasionally played the latter half of the tournament.
That system did not, does not and will not work, particularly because the best of the best, who play in both sides, are unavailable for most of the Bash or badly in need of a rest so they won’t bother squeezing in a few games at the end.
Next summer, the Tests against Pakistan and West Indies are slated to run from December through until the end of January because the Aussies have the ODI World Cup in India in October and November with five more T20s against the host nation tacked on at the end of their tour.
Then they’re off to New Zealand for a couple of Tests and three more T20s in February.
In 2024-25 there’s five Tests against India which will run into January and then a two-Test tour of Sri Lanka jammed in before the Champions Trophy starts in Pakistan in mid-February.
The way the Future Tours Programme is mapped out, CA is snookered when it comes to being able to get its highest-profile multi-format players available for the BBL.
South Africa’s decision to sacrifice a bilateral ODI series to clear space in the calendar so their home-grown headline acts are available for their T20 league was not only smart but the way of the future.
Surely, CA’s powers-that-be see more benefit in investing more resources into the BBL than staging meaningless bilateral series like the three-match snoozefest which was jammed in against England in November.
They can fill their quota of ODIs in between World Cups by playing more overseas or slotting them in at off-peak times like the clashes with Zimbabwe and New Zealand in the Top End at the start of this summer.
As it stands, the BBL in the next few summers is not going to have the wow factor that Smith brought to this year’s tournament with his barrage of sixes.
It will go back to elite white-ball specialists like Glenn Maxwell, Marcus Stoinis and Adam Zampa being on deck along with overseas T20 specialists – the best ones will play the first half of the season before getting more lucrative deals in the UAE or South Africa or not come at all, further reducing the talent in the BBL and its ability to draw in the casual fans.
As was shown this year with Smith and David Warner, the top Australian players don’t necessarily want a fly-in, fly-out trip to the UAE in January – they’d much prefer to stay on home soil with their families as long as the difference in salary is not an offer too good to refuse.
Even though Warner didn’t fire with the bat, Sydney Thunder still got an upswing in crowds and TV ratings when he was in the line-up while the extra dollars CA threw at Smith to get him decked out in magenta again for the Sixers proved to be a steal after he lit up the tournament with a couple of blistering hundreds.
CA executives have seen how the BBL can prosper, the big question now is whether they can turn the League’s recent jolt in momentum into a Bash that is always Big.