Tuesday, 28 March 2017

The unstoppable force of franchise T20

Tuesday, 28 March 2017
So the time has come. After months, years even, of deliberation and talk, the ECB’s proposed new T20 tournament is set to get its green light. The day was always coming, the ECB determined to push through their plan – and the promise/bribe of £1.3 million a year to each county that said yes was always too much to say no to. The ECB hype machine has been out in full force, but no amount of buzz can hide that so many – much like myself – have significant reservations about a new competition that takes a big gamble with the game’s future. This is by no means a comprehensive list of the questions that need to be answered, but they are some that spring immediately to mind:

What about the existing fans?

Of course I’m all for the game reaching out and finding new fans, I love this sport and want always want there to be more people watching it, playing it, enjoying it in the way that I do. But whilst they’re gambling on a new competition to attract a new audience, they still need to make sure not to alienate the existing one they have. County cricket might not have the biggest crowds, might not have the 'glamour' the ECB are after, but there are still lots and lots of dedicated fans of the game – can they get behind these new teams without that same sense of identity, that emotional attachment that they have for their county? Will the teams be named after cities, already an alienating idea for many? Will people care in the same way? And will the competition be enough to attract a new audience anyway?

What does this mean for the other competitions?

The cricket calendar is already packed, and this competition is taking place in addition to the existing three tournaments – most notably the T20 Blast, a competition unloved by the ECB but where attendances have grown year on year. The 50 over cup is likely to be running at the same time, as are test matches (also meaning a lack of red-ball practice for any players called up to the test team). It’s all a lot to fit in. And what does it mean for the county structure, more generally? Though the franchises will be ECB owned, if the bigger grounds host more matches surely they then stand to gain more if the competition is a success. Will ‘smaller’ counties just be pushed to the side again?

What about television?

The question of free-to-air television is one of the most frequent debates to pop up in English cricket ever since it went behind a paywall at the end of 2005. The T20 Blast hasn’t been well suited to television coverage, with the pot luck element that comes with choosing a single match to broadcast on a night when many games are played. The plan is for all games to be televised, with 8 of 36 to appear on free-to-air television – which is a must if it really is to reach a broader audience than before. But 8 out of 36 isn’t a lot, and will make it difficult to provide context to the few games they do show. And of course there’s no guarantee that putting it there will actually make people watch it, a reason in itself that broadcasters are reluctant to put up the cash – though it will definitely make for a greater potential audience than before.

The oversaturation of T20 cricket

You’ll have this one, the T20 Blast, a myriad of franchise T20 competitions around the world…it’s all a lot to absorb. Is the demand really there for another competition, or for two in the same country? How are the counties going to market the T20 Blast alongside the new competition, especially those whose grounds will be playing host for more than one team? Would it not have been easier to adjust the T20 Blast, a competition that has already proved popular, provides good cricket, and has an existing fanbase? The T20 Blast isn’t flawless, so maybe they could have looked at how to make it better and more palatable for spectators rather than going straight ahead with a new tournament outright – maybe divisions with promotion and relegation, or some way to streamline it so there aren’t so many ‘dead’ games once a team can’t qualify for the knockouts.

In England the effects of saturated periods of T20 cricket have been seen before, and was one of the reasons why the Blast became a weekly, Friday night competition. It’s part of that balance between the cricketing side and the marketing side – playing T20 in a bloc, rather than the constant switching between formats, makes better sense from a cricketing standpoint; but has also been harder to sell, with the saturation of all these games coming close together. There is a demand for a domestic T20 competition, but I’m not sure how much demand there is for two.

And so...

Who knows if the competition will be a success: even the ECB, it would appear, can’t be sure. Certainly it seems like a big gamble to take, one where it feels the consequences haven’t been well considered, but still the ECB are determined to plough on and remove any obstacles in their way. It feels more like the ECB missed the boat for these competitions a long time ago, and are just frantically paddling to catch up, staring enviously at the BBL and the IPL as they do. Even this competition is a long way off, not set to start until 2020 – by this point the IPL will have been going for well over 10 years, the BBL nearly 10. I’m not rooting for it to fail, I want to watch a good competition and I always want cricket to be a success – but at the moment I’m not seeing how these issues are being resolved. With three years to go before the tournament begins, hopefully we will see some answers.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Quick thoughts: West Indies v England ODIs

Saturday, 4 March 2017
This is a series that seemed to creep up on me unexpectedly, sneaking in when I was just starting to turn my attention to the county season ahead. But that's not to say it has no significance. With England's focus being on ODIs until after the Champions Trophy, as they seek to end their eternal wait for a 50 over tournament win, the series offers more opportunities for players to seal their spot in the team, or to throw their name into the reckoning. As such, here's a quick look at the series after England's win in the opening game.

With Alex Hales missing through injury, Sam Billings got another chance at the top of the order. Whilst he still falls into the category of makeshift opener at this point, he has shown his promise with two fifties in three innings at the top - without quite sealing the deal by making that big score. Despite Hales scoring a record 171 only five innings ago, after missing the tour of Bangladesh and having a quiet tour of India before injury his place may not be so secure. There is an opportunity to take, but it'll have to be soon, with Hales hoping to make his return before the tour ends.

Eoin Morgan's 2016 was, well, quiet - averaging 29.81 with just the two fifties across his thirteen innings. So far, 2017 has served him better, with a century in the first ODI following another in India. It wasn't an innings that started fluently, but it was an innings England needed - coming in at 29/2 and helping them to the brink of 300. In partnership with Stokes (55) and Moeen Ali (a 22-ball 31 at the death), it might not have been the big-hitting bravado we've come to expect from England, but it was a clever innings that suited the situation and conditions.

With a spate of injuries to the fast bowlers, Steven Finn returned to the ODI side for the first time since September 2015. Such a long absence has always surprised me somewhat, given his decent record in the format, and that height, pace, and bounce that will always make him a threat. But as many times as he steps up, he steps back, and this winter has seen him drift from the side. There were no wickets in the first match, but with England short on resources, it's another chance to claim a spot. Another exciting name to have received a call up is Surrey's Tom Curran, and it's surely only a matter of time before we see him in the team. And after flying him in from the other side of the world, hopefully that time will be on this tour.

It was a good day for both Chris Woakes and Liam Plunkett who finished with four wickets apiece in what was, all in all, a good performance by England's seam bowlers. The fourth option, Ben Stokes, wasn't even used. Adil Rashid also returned to England's ODI side after being dropped in India, and it will be interesting to see how both him and Moeen Ali perform in the series ahead. England might not need two spinners once they return home, and though Rashid might be more of the wicket taking option he has perhaps slipped behind Moeen in recent months after his mauling at the hands of India's batsmen in that sole ODI. But in the meantime, Moeen has been wicketless in the format. It'll be as much a question of what England want from their spinner as who is the most effective.
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