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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Twenty20 Cricket - will it kill off "real" cricket?

It's only been two days, but the Twenty20 Cricket tournament has almost surpassed the excitement levels achieved through the ENTIRE snooze-fest of the 50-over World Cup in the West Indies earlier this year. That tournament was beset by problems, ranging from poor attendances, off-field incidents, and let's face it, boring cricket. Last night's opening match between SA and the West Indies suggests that the next 2 weeks will be anything but boring.

And therein lies the problem. Twenty20, Pro20, call it what you will, is proving so popular that there is almost a danger that it will 'cannabilize' its own brand. After all, once you've experienced cricket on amphetamines, who'd go back to the tranquilizers? And so a lot has been written and debated about whether the introduction of Twenty20 cricket will in fact kill off the 50-over game, and, GASP, test match cricket!

Recently, Sports Illustrated featured this question, and without really coming to a conclusion, presented both sides of the argument. One is that the game is so exciting that it will bring fans back to the game and that can only be good for Tests and 50-over contests. The alternative, as mentioned, is that it's so exciting it makes 50-Over cricket seem like school detention on a Friday afternoon in summer, and so will kill the game off.

When you speak to the current and former players, they take the approach of saying either that:
  • It's good for the game because it will teach players new skills and improve existing ones, because the game is so different, it takes innovation to succeed, and that's good for the game;
  • It's bad for the game because players will become lazy and sloppy and learn bad habits, which will negatively affect the longer versions of the game.

So it seems no one can agree on this one. Good or bad? Here at The Science of Sport, we thought we'd throw our hat into the ring as well. Admittedly, this is not our usual fare (there's little direct "science" in evaluation of this debate), but from a sports management point of view (my particular interest), there are a couple of things that maybe haven't been looked at in as much detail yet.

The first is the question (and this comes from science). The trick is to ask the right question. People have been asking "Does Twenty20 cricket compete with 50-Over and Test match cricket?. I don't believe this is the question that should be asked. Or, perhaps stated differently, I believe this is only 5% of the question that should be asked. The real question should be "What competition does cricket currently face (without Twenty20) that might affect its future?"

Because when you ask this question, then you begin to see that 50-over cricket and Test Match cricket are already in danger of being swallowed up in a world where sport is no longer sport - it's entertainment. And from this point, you can begin to see that Twenty20 cricket may in fact be the only thing that can save cricket. The competition for 50-Over cricket is not Twenty20 cricket, it's Playstations, Nintendo Wiis, X-boxes. It's DVD's and movies and shopping malls, and the internet.

And so a 12-year old boy, who lives in Sandton, is not faced with a dilemma over whether to go watch a 50-Over match rather than a Twenty20 match - his dilemma is whether he should play Tombraider or Gran Turismo? Should he go watch Die Hard 4.0 or just hang out in Sandton? Given that choice, cricket was losing to begin with. But what Twenty20 cricket does is it introduces a new market to children that just gives the longer versions of the game a better chance of capturing that young talent before it is swallowed up by the world of computer technology and fast-food entertainment.

So a lot of experts and commentators have touched on the fact that the Twenty20 game must be good because it brings fans into grounds. Even more importantly, it brings children to the game - future players are being created by Twenty20 cricket. I have no doubt that in the next 15 years, at least one South African cricket star will be interviewed on TV and say that his first cricket memory was watching South Africa beat the West Indies in a 20-Over match at the Wanderers. Without Twenty20 cricket, that player may have disappeared from the sports world completely.

Now, all is not rosy, just because children are back in the game. There is of course, the issue of how to manage Twenty20 cricket. Sponsors and broadcasters, who provide most of the revenue for the sport (and therefore call the shots, unfortunately) are obviously lining up for this new and exciting "product". The bodies controlling cricket must be careful they do not over commit to selling it at the expense of the other versions. But most of all, what needs to be done is that structures must be created that move young cricketers from the Twenty20 game to the Test match game smoothly. If the ICC had any foresight, then, they would be planning a marketing campaign to channel players from 20-overs to test matches. Forget about trying to bring the players in at the 50-over and Test match level. Few children will choose an 8-hour match over a 3-hour one, especially when it's only about half as exciting. But as they mature, then the introduction of these longer versions may even be appealing. So Twenty20 is not the enemy, it is a possible feeder system, and powers-that-be should proactively be using it.

That's about it for this particular discussion. My (Ross) management background made this a topic too interesting to leave alone. But over the next few weeks, we'll be looking a lot more at the science of cricket, so join us for that!



Unknown said...

I love watching cricket in all of its forms, and the introduction of Twenty20 just allows me to indulge that passion more often. Personally, I can't see anything wrong with it.

As you pointed out, the competition comes from other forms of entertainment - not necessarily cricket. Even, just occasionally, the 'real' thing in the backyard :)

David said...

Twenty20 is great fun and certainly an excellent format. It may one day kill off the longer 50 over format (although it's popularity in the subcontinent is saving that) but it's contrived nature will never replace the subtle interplay and meandering pace of Test matches.

Many cricket lovers enjoy cricket because of it's length and slow pace.

Jamie said...

If you think cricket faces a challenge from Sandton kids and their playstations you should go to schools and see the problems athletic sports like rowing, swimming, cross country etc are having where it takes hard physical training to get better.

Cricket is relatively easy. Stand in the nets for a few hours.

Ross Tucker and Jonathan Dugas said...

Hi Jamie

Thanks for your comments! I agree 100% with you. Those sports you mentioned are certainly worse off than cricket. That's the luxury of being one of the "big 3" sports in South Africa. Soccer and rugby will make the same claims and enjoy the same priviledged position. My take on those other sports is that they need to do some serious marketing if they are to survive.

However, having said that, I would bet that Kodak, who made films for cameras felt secure in their position in the 1980's before digital came along. I'll bet that the manufacturers of video-machines and VHS felt the same, until DVD's came along. There's a great article that is done in marketing courses by a guy called Theodore Levitt, called Marketing Myopia, in which he explains how if you fail to define yourself appropriately, you are very easily caught up and passed by others in the industry.

And I honestly do believe that all sports face this challenge. Some enjoy stronger positions than others, but unless those sports proactively reposition themselves to compete against those other forms of entertainment, they lose ground. One only needs to consider how Twenty20 evolved in the first place - why have this form of the game to begin with? It was born out of necessity, to give the game a 'kick' - it was money driven, entertainment conceived...

And I actually don't think that Twenty20 will kill cricket, as you'll see from the article. But I think that ALL sports face challenges, cricket included.

Thanks again!

David said...

Agreed, professional sport needs people to watch it. Cricket is unique in that there are 3 (or 4 if you include Pro40) for a range of demographics to enjoy. In the UK first class crowds are totally different from Test match crowds (heck day 2 crowds are different from day 5 crowds!). Test matches still sell out here no problem. Twenty20 attracts people who have not traditionally come to cricket. So I think there is room for both, certainly for the foreseeable future in the UK and Australia.