Chasing Casuals

Cricket's latest gimmicks to find new audiences

A free hit for a wide, split power plays and a chance for substitutions. Cricket Australia have released their latest rule changes for the Big Bash. And you can find plenty of stuff written on them in your usual places.

But what I want to talk about is cricket's ability to be so insecure at all times it needs to make these changes. When chatting to Wright Thompson on Red Inker, he talked about one thing he loved about cricket was this utter concern for where it is going heading. He discussed how it was a game built to look back to another era, pre-industrial revolution. And what he says makes sense.

How this plays out is rule changes like these recent ones in the BBL, or those for the 100. Has any sport ever hated what it is more than cricket? When The BBL started they produced a program and one rule the writers had had to follow was it couldn't mention the word cricket.

Many of the 100s innovations were stolen from - or inspired by - baseball. If baseball was the biggest sport in town, I could get that. But baseball has been struggling for 20 years and is seen as old and boring by many US sports fans. And we're trying to copy that?

For the 100 they looked at losing the LBW law. Because it is confusing. And you hear this a lot from new cricket fans, learning our game is tough. But look at the changes that the 100 and BBL are bringing in, a random ten ball over, substitutions, split power play and mid-innings bonus points. How are any of them making anything more clear? And let's say you were a general sports fan, and you know a bit about cricket, why would these changes make you more interested?

It reminds me of some weirder things they have tried in Australian domestic cricket over the years. Like when the Victorians wore shorts, because people love sports with shorts. Or when they split up the domestic ODIs into two innings, causing teams to play for the close. Who wouldn't watch Aaron Finch knock bak a ball on a length and put the bat under his arm.

The BBL is stalling not because cricket isn't brilliant, or even because T20 has reached its peak, but because it has issues. They made the tournament too long before it was ready. The two sides in Melbourne and Sydney are not working as they would want. And the best players from around the world, let alone Australia, are not in it. A free hit for a wide or a split power play will not make a casual fan tune in more.

Cricket has survived as a fan led sport for 200 years, and part of that is because of changes. But for every change, like allowing overarm bowling, we've had a bunch of super subs and nets around the field ideas. Cricket would not exist if it hadn't changed, but how many of these kinds of changes have made the sport better?

The power play is one, free hits for no balls was brought in as an attempt to give cricket a basketball-style three-pointer, but fixed no balls in limited overs cricket. The fielding ring is another. But there aren't many more. The actual change in cricket was in the new formats.

If you wanted T20 to be better, there are some interesting changes you could make. How about bowling ten overs straight from one end, and then ten from the other? Meaning your best fielders wouldn't be spending all their energy on moving between overs. What about abolishing the five bowler minimum, making it four, so the best batsmen will go up against the best bowlers. You could even go full NFL. Specialist 11 batsmen specialists, five specialist bowlers and a keeper who need not bat. These may not work, but these are things that could improve the quality of the game.

But I’m not sure my ideas would instantly grab new fans, but they would improve the quality. Meaning that within social and mainstream media there would be more hype.  When the NBA removed hand-checking on the perimeter, it mean that little fast guys who could shoot and dribble took over. But there was a solid basketball idea at the centre of that change.

The free hit for a wide is the perfect example of a change that could backfire. The idea is to make more runs happen, via straighter bowling or just through the free hit.  The current penalty means that teams don’t dare bowl wides on purpose - at least if they’re smart or not bowling to Gayle or Russell. And this will make bouncers less likely, as they get called for wides a lot. Bouncers are exciting, they look good on the telly, charge up crowds and make you feel something. If this rule change went from eight bouncers a game to four, would that be an improvement for any fans of the game?

Chasing casuals - which is what sporting bodies call non-hardcore fans - is an excellent move for cricket. It creates more of us super fans anyway. Plus this is a glorious game, and by only aiming it at pre-existing markets we've ended up with 12 Test teams in 143 years (that's less than one a decade, in case you missed it). Cricket must grow, change and evolve into whatever world we find ourself in.

We will always look back at what used to be; our sport is built with that at its heart. The white clothes present a purity that Test cricket has never really obtained outside our memories. They didn't always wear whites, gambling brought about our laws and amateurs made money. But we love looking back in our game, and that has held it down at times.

If we ever stop tinkering with cricket, it will die, but if we only ever change it to chase fans with silly ideas, we'll ruin why it’s always been great.