To paraphrase Mark Twain, rumours of Test cricket’s death have been greatly exaggerated.
There has been a lot of talk about the demise of the traditional form of the game and the Big Bash League taking the mantle as the premium product for cricketing fans.
That is not entirely the case, however.
Even in a summer where there have been two spectacular Australian Test collapses, rain-affected days in Melbourne and Sydney, and a disappointing showing by Pakistan, television viewers are tuning in in far greater numbers than those watching the Big Bash.
“People are barking up the wrong tree to suggest that the BBL is cannibalising Test cricket and are probably getting a bit carried away with the hype,” said Ben Amarfio, executive general manager media, communications and marketing at Cricket Australia.
“That’s not to say BBL isn’t fantastic. It is fantastic … But to talk about the death of international cricket is a bit premature.”
The most-watched Big Bash match of the summer does not compare to a thrilling session of Test cricket in terms of TV ratings.
On day four of the day-night Test against South Africa in Adelaide, an average of 1.8 million people watched the final session. In comparison, the top-rating Big Bash session – the second-innings chase led by Chris Lynn’s power-hitting for the Brisbane Heat against the Perth Scorchers – attracted a peak of 1.7 million viewers.
Aside from the peaks of Lynnsanity against the Scorchers, the highest average audience has been 1.3 million in the Big Bash during the Adelaide Strikers and Heat match.
Even when Australia haven’t been batting, a Test-loving public has tuned in. Amarfio said that across the first day of the Boxing Day Test, the average audiences showed that Test cricket is still the ultimate for fans of the game.
“Day one, the whole day, so eight hours of play, was up on last year and averaged 1.3 million,” he said. “Day five, that amazing day when Australia won the Test when everyone was saying it would be a boring draw, session three, that last two hours, averaged 1.6 million.
“They’re extraordinary numbers.”
But while Test cricket remains the premium product, there is no doubt the Big Bash is creeping up. With 40 per cent of people who watch the BBL being women, Amarfio is pleased the shorter format is bringing in the new audience it was created to appeal to.
Now that calls are being made to extend the competition from six weeks to include more games, Amarfio said it was a delicate balance to not overlap with international cricket, while still reaching the primary market of families on school holidays.
New audience: The BBL has brought a new demographic of fans to cricket. Photo: Getty Images
“From a competition integrity point of view, you would probably want to play a complete home-and-away series, but that would be 24 more games,” he said. “At the moment, we’re only playing 35 [games], plus finals. So that is a lot of extra content that you have to get away, and we’re already cramped, and already overlapping and bumping into ourselves.
“I think you might see us slowly putting our toe in the water and slowly adding a few extra BBL games to the schedule; games, not teams, in the short term.”
The timing is crucial as well. The Big Bash takes place in a six-week window during the summer holidays, which makes extending the tournament in either direction problematic.
“We like that period because it’s when the kids are off school,” Amarfio said. “But that’s also a limiting factor, because you’d have to extend at the front and back end, which would create a whole heap of problems with the international schedule, Sheffield Shield and all the rest of it.”
But despite the success of the BBL, there is no secret behind Cricket Australia’s plans to grow Test cricket in future years.
“When you look at the numbers from the day-night Test from last year against New Zealand, we averaged around 3 million on that Sunday night,” Amarfio said.
“Day-night cricket, if we schedule it at the right time of the year and against the right opponent and the right venue, day-night cricket and Test cricket will be much bigger than BBL. And the ODIs and international T20s still are bigger than the BBL as well.”
And the final piece of the puzzle that will ensure Test cricket remains the most-watched cricketing product in the country? That remains firmly in Steve Smith’s hands.
“Australians love watching Australians win, even if they’re dead rubbers or one-sided affairs,” Amarfio said. “Winning is good for business.”
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