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 and 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.”