It’s Ashes times again, the historic cricket contest between England and Australia played every two years, alternating between the two nations. Australia have long dominated the contest and they have won nine out of the last ten series, the most recent a resounding 5-0 thrashing in 2006-07. Despite this alarming degree of competitive imbalance it remains one of the great sporting rivalries, kept alive by the English capacity to forget how badly they lost last time and to fondly imagine they start the contest as equals. Thus the five match series, in which each match will last for 5 days, is a complete sell-out and has been for many months.
The 5-day international version of the game is called Test cricket, and there are ten official Test Match nations: England, Australia, India, Pakistan, South Africa, New Zealand, West Indies (Caribbean islands), Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. Sadly, aside from the other great rivalry in world cricket, India v Pakistan, few other test matches can draw a large audience over five days, since few people have time to go, and TV rights are not worth much because games are played in daylight hours, not prime time. In recent years following the game on the internet has become very popular using the fabulous Cricinfo site, but this generates no revenue for the game.
Cricket is however, a game with huge commercial potential, as demonstrated last years by the launch of the Indian Premier League playing a shortened version of the game called Twenty20, which lasts around three hours and can be played under lights. The IPL hired all of the world’s best players to play over a month for eight franchises based in Indian cities and the broadcast rights were sold to Sony for over $1 billion. The second Twenty20 World Cup played between national teams took place recently in London and was also a huge commercial success.
Twenty20 represents a cross-roads for the game. Cricket is in general not run as a business, and those who run it prize the traditional format of the game, as do many of the older fans. Twenty20 is capable of bringing in new audiences and money, but there is a need to reduce time spent other forms such as test matches if Twenty20 is to expand. Just recently a Committee made up mostly of veteran players has produced a report on ways to make test match cricket more exciting, by creating something akin to a World Cup (not easy when each match can take five days!).
The struggle between tradition and innovation in cricket is quite fascinating- an excellent case study for anyone interested in how sport and business work together (or, perhaps, do not).