This new Twenty20 league is a risk but sometimes you have to gamble to grow a sport.
For too long cricket in England has lived a safe environment where nothing ever changes. It is why we are a decade behind some other countries. Australia, India, Pakistan and the Caribbean already have big Twenty20 tournaments. We are just playing catch up and it is about time too.
Those of us close to the game think cricket is the centre of the world. But people outside cricket are not talking about our sport. It just does not grab the country’s attention often enough outside Ashes series.
This ECB board deserves credit for having the guts to take it on. There will be many traditionalists that hope it fails and will try to make sure the new league is not a success. Cricket does not need that. It needs everyone behind it because this league will bring the game more exposure and I don’t see that as being anything other than positive for the game. The more new fans it attracts, the healthier the game will be.
But do not underestimate the cultural shift this tournament could precipitate. In ten years time cricket in this country could be very different. No longer will international cricket be king.
We have seen this already happen in Australia. This winter the Big Bash eclipsed, in terms of popularity and exposure, Australia’s home series with Pakistan.
I have no doubt this will happen in England when the new Twenty20 tournament is played at the height of summer at the same time as a Test series. The Ashes will always be special but there are too many meaningless bilateral Test series that lack context. There is no story, no end game.
In Australia this winter David Warner and Steve Smith, great players, must have been sat in their hotel rooms watching the Big Bash being played in front of packed houses and wondered why they were playing 50 over matches against Pakistan in half full stadiums.
That will happen here too in time. But is that a bad thing? The ECB are aware of this risk and it is why they are trying to strengthen the game’s future.
They have to produce a product to sell to broadcasters other than international cricket. Who knows what is going to happen to international cricket in the future. Will broadcasters want to pay top dollar for meaningless Test series? This way the ECB will always have a different product to sell.
Twenty20 is short and sharp. The actual game is secondary to the entertainment and fan experience. You only have to commit to it for four hours. It is difficult to change Test cricket for it to compete in that way. Tom Harrison has already said there will be a terrestrial broadcast partner for the new tournament. That is great for the game.
The ECB will put a huge amount of marketing into the new league because they own it. It cannot fail, there is too much riding on it and they know that. It will also be elite. With three overseas players in each 15 man squad that only leaves 96 slots for English cricketers. There are currently more than 300 professionals in England. Only the best will get a gig. That should drive up standards.
The ECB will also look to take matches to non-cricket stadiums. I am all for that. Test cricket should be preserved at the traditional grounds. But the white ball game is there to grow cricket so Twenty20 can be played at places like Wembley or the Olympic Stadium. At the moment we are celebrating the fact Taunton has sold out months advance for a Twenty20 international against South Africa this summer. It is only around 13,000 tickets. It is a second division football attendance. Cricket has to aim higher.
Where I do feel sympathy for the counties is that they will always wonder how the Natwest Blast could have prospered if it had been given the same backing by the ECB. Imagine if that competition had been shown on terrestrial television with a huge marketing budget behind it. We may not have needed this new tournament. But that opportunity was missed and it is too late now.
Now cricket has to try and grab new fans. I am convinced they are out there. It just needs better marketing, a new vibe around the sport and more exposure through digital channels and television. It will be a huge success, it is just a pity that it was not done years ago.