Sport

'Sexy' T20 bowls over youngsters

Neil Manthorp

While cricket's new T20 format is extremely popular, cricket diehards can draw some comfort from the fact that it is not a matter of all or nothing.

Organisers say the shortened T20 format is drawing family crowds to stadiums and incubating young players for ODI and Test cricket. (Anesh Debiky, Gallo Images/Getty Images)

Some aspects of surveys conducted among 18- and 19-year-old wannabe professional cricketers are alarming and understandable in equal measure. Chief among the concerns is the fact that young men from every Test-playing nation admitted that they would prefer to become highly skilled in T20 cricket than "real" cricket.

In some countries they were in the majority; in others they formed a significant enough percentage to suggest that they will soon form the majority.

The dream for many young men today is an Indian Premier League (IPL) contract rather than a Test cap – and for a rapidly growing group of thirtysomethings, it is the itinerant lifestyle of the travelling T20 mercenary that holds far more attraction than working hard to maintain a contract with a first-class county, state or franchise.

As 37-year-old Australian fast bowler Dirk Nannes explained recently: "It can be a great way of life. You can play cricket almost all year round, see the world but never spend more than two or three weeks away from home at a time. And it's easier to keep fit and stay healthy."

Cricket South Africa and its T20 sponsor, Ram Couriers, are acutely aware of how far behind the competition their domestic tournament fell before the process of rebuilding it began this year. A widespread assumption in administrative South Africa that people would pay to attend T20 matches, no matter how they were presented, led to disenchantment. Supporters voted with their backsides and kept them at home.

"We absolutely have to get people back to the stadiums and they must want to be there – it must be good value for money and a family affair," says Ram chief executive Graeme Lazarus. "It's fair to say that some supporters lost a bit of enthusiasm for cricket a couple of years ago but we are determined to rebuild it. And we have total belief that we will or we wouldn't be here."

No 'quick fix'
CSA began working with Ram a year ago and some of the results are being seen this year, although both parties admit there is no "quick fix". Discussions with various "stakeholders" (including a selection of real ticket-buying people, including families) revealed some obvious but nonetheless important truths.

They wanted to see the Proteas players in action and they wanted to see some big international names, too. They wanted safe and reasonable parking and they wanted to be able to access food and drink easily and at affordable prices. Some things were easier to organise than others.

"January was always going to offer the best window for the Proteas to play so we moved the tournament," CSA's head of commercial and marketing, Marc Jury, says. "The best international players aren't cheap but it's not just about money. The deal we reached with broadcaster Ten Sports was massively influential. The fact that the RamSlam T20 is being shown live across Asia and into the United Kingdom through Sky, just before the IPL auction, is extremely important to players."

The two biggest-name batsmen in T20 cricket – Chris Gayle and Shahid Afridi – were both due to play until injury and personal circumstances ruled them out. The absence of Dale Steyn and AB de Villiers with injuries has also been a disappointment but there is still unprecedented quality on display this season.

The important 'in-stadium' experience
Jury says the "in-stadium experience" for supporters, particularly young families, is being addressed with urgency. "The introduction of our 'Love Cricket' charge card will speed up the purchasing of everything from tickets to merchandise and food and drink. Reducing queues will be a good start but, ultimately, we intend to improve every aspect of the experience. We are working closely with the franchises to make that happen. After all, they own the stadiums, not CSA," Jury says.

Although Sunfoil has revitalised the first-class competition with the injection of R1-million into the prize funds and Momentum reinvigorated the 50-over tournament, the T20 remains the tournament in which to shine for most of the country's young players who dream of the fame and fortune, which they believe comes as part of the IPL package. Just like little children on their birthdays, sometimes the shiny wrapping paper holds more interest than the gifts themselves.

Those with South African cricket's best interests at heart should be grateful for these words from Lazarus: "We know how much value the players place on the RamSlam but, in so many ways, we are just an incubator for players to advance to the ODI [one-day international] and Test teams."

If the man who currently owns the shiny toy isn't inflating its seriousness, there is hope for everyone. But T20 cricket is extremely serious.

"The shortest format has become an extremely important component in the financial survival and, hopefully, wellbeing of the six professional franchises," says Tony Irish, the South African Cricketers' Association chief executive. "The key is to continually ensure that some of the revenue from T20 is diverted to grow the development of the longer forms of the game because, although it may not look like it right now, they are interdependent.

"All countries need to do their best to keep their elite and emerging players playing all three formats wherever possible," he said.

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