How fans put a stop to the ‘death of Test cricket’

    But on Boxing Day, more than 63,000 fans are expected at the MCG.MCG cricket crowds can be a litmus test of the game’s popularity. The historical data from the Melbourne Cricket Club provides a fascinating insight into the past five decades of cricket where the five-day format has been joined by limited overs interlopers.They tell a story of how certain seminal decisions and philosophies in cricket leadership have shaped where the crowds have gone.Once upon a time it was Test cricket that was under threat in Australia but times have changed.In modern times MCG Test cricket crowds are better than ever.World Series Cricket and its aftermathAs with most things in modern cricket, you can trace it all back to World Series Cricket. Some revisionist history would tell you establishment cricket was flagging and Kerry Packer’s enterprise breathed life into it.It’s a mythologised version of events.Test cricket crowds were strong through the 70s, which is what made it an attractive commercial proposition for Packer.Once Packer’s goal was achieved and he had cricket on his television network, peace was brokered in 1979 with the added bonanza that his company PBL (owner of Channel 9) would also effectively be the marketing arm of cricket.Quickly, one-day cricket in coloured clothes and increasingly at night became a more sellable television product for PBL.By 1982 it was enough for Lynton Taylor, Managing Director of PBL, to make the extraordinary public comment that: “People will no longer sit through five days of a Test match. Those days are long gone. I don’t know whether Test cricket can be saved.”Taylor was only saying what his company was demonstrating through its actions.The marketing budget was better spent gaining interest in a one-day match on the weekend or at night as opposed to Test matches that would contain at least three weekdays in advertising dollar wasteland.There was even speculation Nine would drop screening Test matches altogether to focus on ODI cricket.Graham Halbish joined the ACB in 1980 as the PBL deal took effect and says the message was clear.“All the season promotion was in the hands of PBL to determine how it was pursued. And certain elements of PBL had pronounced the death of Test cricket,” Halbish tells CODE Sports.After Taylor uttered those words, the proof was in the pudding.For the next 15 summers the average attendance at MCG ODIs was greater than the average attendance of the first three days of the Melbourne Test.For many of those summers the ODI figure more than doubled a paltry Test figure.ODI crowds became a quasi-schoolies week, a cultural event for youth to congregate with all the good, bad and ugly that came with it. Bay 13, crowd signs and the Mexican wave were all by-products of this ODI culture.From 1983 to 1996 there was not one MCG Test crowd that reached 60,000. Eighteen ODIs reached above 60,000 and many more got close.“People were being given the message by the official promoters of the game that one day cricket was our priority,” Halbish says.“Why wouldn’t the public attitude to Test cricket diminish accordingly?“A lot of it was positive, but some of it went too far. It needed a rebalance.”ACB takes controlThe ACB effectively had taken the safe option.By handing over the marketing rights to PBL, it has gained a stable future income, but as Daniel Brettig explored in detail in his book Bradman & Packer, it had woefully underestimated the commercial value of cricket.Nine made millions from cricket, meanwhile Test crowds withered.With Halbish now CEO, the ACB were bold enough to break the partnership with PBL in 1994. It would now promote the game off its own bat and sell television rights independently.Halbish says raising the profile of Test cricket became a key consideration.“There was a deliberate refocusing,” Halbish says.“Part of the brief was that we don’t forget all the lessons learned from the tremendous promotion of one-day cricket; ‘Come on Aussie’ and the rest of it, but we needed to demonstrate that our premier product was, and was always going to be, Test match cricket.”Its first major television campaign after taking control of its promotional destiny was instructive.Whereas once PBL’s television commercials were all about one-day cricket and placed at the commercially suitable times on Nine (often when they had advertising space unsold), this television commercial featured players in Test clothing running through extreme Australian landscapes with the tagline ‘There’s No Limit’.The ACB paid for the privilege for it to screen in prime-time hours.For the first time Test cricket was actively marketed and gradually the gap between those Test and ODI crowds melted away.In 1997-98 the first three days’ average crowd at the Boxing Day Test would surpass the ODI figure at the MCG. Test and ODI crowds were essentially neck and neck for the next decade.Of course this was also the era of Australia as the best team in the world at both formats.Halbish is keen to point out that the seeds of this were sown way back in the mid-1980s when the team was at its lowest ebb, with the establishment of the cricket academy; the ACB were forward thinking enough to look at ways they could improve Test cricket despite the PBL limitations.“We’d created a pretty good team, which was also an important ingredient in the mix,” Halbish laughs.The late 90s saw Boxing Day crowds top 70,000 for the first time in more than 20 years.The fall of ODI cricket in AustraliaThe two forms of cricket seemed to be existing harmoniously, but as Michael Brown, Cricket Australia GM of Cricket Operations from 2002 to 2012 explains, there were disrupters on the horizon.The packed international schedule was one. Once-lucrative offers from Australia forced countries to toe the line, but as they realised their commercial potential they played more often and on their own terms.“By that time Australia played on Fridays and Sundays and the non-Australian games were on Tuesday and you had a routine that people could remember,” Brown tells CODE Sports“It was an orchestrated set of behaviours that dominated the marketplace.“But getting access to two teams to play Australia for a whole month was becoming increasingly challenging.”Every time a country did that, Australia would owe them a tour back under the ICC program. Quite simply, the Australian team could not reciprocate everything it was asking.The other sledgehammer blow on ODI cricket in Australia was its little sibling Twenty20, starting as a state cricket competition, and then reimagined as the Big Bash League in 2011.“Sadly CA got selfish and added more games and more games, so there was a loss to state cricket and the loss of the tri-series.”The ODI tri-series had kept fans engaged with a table and a finals series each year for 25 years, the bedrock of its 80s and 90s heyday. In 2008-09 it was done away with, resurrected only a few times since when the cards fell a certain way.“Every time I watched ODI cricket, there would be Richie (Benaud) with the ladder. ‘And here’s the West Indies and here’s Pakistan and here’s Australia’, there was a sense of competition,” Brown says.“Once we lost the tri-series we could never properly get it back.”Instead of the tri-series, Australia would play touring teams in a three or five game one-day series.It turned out Australian audiences didn’t like watching the same one-day game played over and over again without context.“Cricket became greedy and something had to give,” says Brown.While one-day cricket faltered, the positive was that Test cricket went from strength-to-strength.Australia losing the Ashes in 2005 and the fervour around the return bout in 2006-07 lifted that Day 1-3 average at the MCG to more than 81,000 and it‘s never looked back.Aside from the 2015 World Cup, average ODI cricket crowds have tumbled at the MCG ever since.The averages do not tell the full story either. In the heyday there were often four guaranteed ODIs at the MCG a season.Many of these later figures are for a sole ODI game for a whole season.The BBL and Test crowds todayOver the past decade, the reconstituted BBL rose to crowds unimaginable for domestic cricket for a time.In the summer of 2017-18 average MCG crowds for Melbourne Stars games were a whisker below 50,000.However the greed that Brown referred to has now affected the BBL. More games have been added to the schedule and interest has diluted. Crowds have dropped off.After the heights of a few years ago, the Stars season opener at the MCG last week attracted fewer than 10,000 fans.Halbish agrees with Brown on the slide of ODI cricket in Australia and sees those red flags with the BBL too.“They’re a victim of the game being over-programmed. There’s too much product and the public gets confused by it,” Halbish says.“The game became a little greedy. You’re seeing it with the BBL, you’ve got to be careful with the product mix and quantity of it.”Brown agrees on the issue of confusion.“You look at any day on the calendar, and there’s games everywhere,” Brown adds.What Cricket Australia got right, is that for all the promotion of the BBL, it didn’t neglect Test cricket like the 1980s.For the most part Test cricket continued to be lavished with the prestige it deserved.Subsequently, despite all the noise from other cricket, Test cricket has managed to defy our faster lifestyles.While in most parts of the world ODI and T20 cricket remains the crowd-drawers and Test cricket is primarily a television sport with meagre crowds, Australia (and England) bucks the trend.Its unique nature has bred even greater reverence, and the MCG crowd figures in recent years provide the overwhelming evidence.Who would have thought 80,000 would ever turn up for an Australia v New Zealand Test like they did on Boxing Day in 2019?*****In 1987, with one-day cricket truly in the ascendancy in Australia, Paul Kelly included a lament in his musical ode to Australia’s greatest, Bradman.“Now the players all wear colours, the circus is in town/I can no longer go down there, down to that sacred ground.”You’d imagine all these years later Kelly is happily wrong that Test cricket indeed has survived and, in Australia at least, is prospering.“I used to say that we should regard Test cricket as cricket’s Wimbledon and that we should keep it pure in the sense of promoting it for what it is and what it means,” says Halbish“I think the public increasingly came to feel the same way.”

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