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Need for invention in tricky time for cricket administrators in Australia

There was lukewarm interest in the subsequent limited-overs series leading pundits to call for an overhaul of the scheduling.
There was lukewarm interest in the subsequent limited-overs series leading pundits to call for an overhaul of the scheduling. © Getty
The calendar has flipped into March but the Australian cricket season has felt long over. Some interest has been revived as attention turns to the much-anticipated Australian Test tour of South Africa but, locally, cricket is almost an afterthought.
This is a continual dilemma for Cricket Australia (CA) with the governing body boldly proclaiming that it strives for cricket to be the country's "favourite sport" even though it really only dominates the national sports scene for half of its season - November through January.
February, in particular, represents a flat spot in the Australian sports calendar and enters a transition period between cricket and the football codes. The Sheffield Shield, while undoubtedly important, is almost totally neglected. It very much felt like the cricket season essentially ended with the Big Bash League (BBL) final on February 4 - seven weeks before the official end of the season.
The subsequent Twenty20 tri-series only had lukewarm interest and then essentially disappeared in sight when it shifted across the Tasman with the matches in New Zealand not shown on free-to-air television.
Intriguingly, the Australian Football League is boldly attempting a land grab in a bid to seize cricket's traditional late summer turf. The AFL Women's league is in its second edition with the seven-week competition starting in early February, while a new abbreviated format of the sport called AFLX - dubbed the 'Twenty20 of AFL' - launched over three days in mid-February.
AFLX was widely panned but, undoubtedly, mainstream attention and eyeballs became focused on the sport as cricket - including the ongoing tri-series - was suddenly relegated into the backdrop. It is probably unlikely AFLX could ever match the astounding success of the BBL but if part of the goal was for the AFL to gain a foothold into cricket's space, then it has succeeded.
Interest over the looming AFL season - which starts on March 22 - started to gather steam far earlier than usual, seemingly testament to football, even in its different forms, taking over the narrative. The media jumped onboard with the first six pages of sport in The West Australian - Perth's major newspaper - on February 17 devoted to Australian Rules even though Australia had just completed a T20I record chase in New Zealand and, domestically, the Shield was heading towards the pointy end of an intriguing season.
CA, of course, isn't just idly watching AFL plunder its terrain. James Sutherland, the CA chief executive, plans to expand the BBL and evolve the tournament into a full home-and-away league in 2018-19. That means teams would go from playing 10 games each under the current model to 14 and, perhaps most pertinently, stretch the tournament well into February and ward off Australian Rules.
However, sceptics remain over whether the BBL - which has heavily traded on being 'family friendly' - can appeal to the masses in the post-holiday period with school restarting in late January/early February.
In the recently concluded season, the BBL - which extended by a week into February - had slight dips in attendances and television ratings causing some to ponder if it had reached a tipping point or just merely suffered from post-Ashes fatigue. Kim Hughes, the former Australian captain, queried whether the BBL should be lengthened past the school holidays.
"The BBL went a week too long this season and if it goes any longer that could see a reduction in interest," Hughes told Cricbuzz. "It is a great tournament for families and appeals to kids, and it has a perfect window during the school holidays. You don't want to create an oversaturation of the product."
Hughes, who captained Australia in 28 Tests between 1979 and '84, echoed the recent sentiments of England coach Trevor Bayliss who believed T20Is should be scrapped. "International teams shouldn't play T20s apart from the World T20 and perhaps you can schedule games before that," he says. "Ideally you want to open up some space in the calendar where the best Australian players can play in the BBL."
Jason Gillespie, who coached Adelaide Strikers to BBL glory, has cautioned lengthening the BBL to replicate the IPL but believes CA could make it work. "I do like the BBL how it is but the key is to make it accessible to families, so they can still watch it when school returns," he told Cricbuzz. "If it moved into February, you would probably have to make it a weekend thing and schedule double headers on the weekend which could work."
It's not only the BBL's future being queried with the international summer remaining a dilemma for administrators after a season where things felt rather flat once the Ashes ended on January 8. There was lukewarm interest in the subsequent limited-overs series leading pundits to call for an overhaul of the scheduling.
The Test summer isn't always ironclad but generally starts with the traditional Gabba Test in November and concludes with the showpiece Tests of Melbourne and Sydney. However, in a country which still adores the longest format, there is sentiment brewing over Tests pushing deeper into January.
"I would love to see Tests later in the summer," Gillespie says. "You could even start the Boxing Day Test first or second like it did in the past and then have the Adelaide Test push into the Australia Day (January 26) period.
"We need to find the right balance and I'm not sure if we have that currently," he added. "It can be a bit all over the place as there are three distinct formats of the game trying to be packed in."
Anecdotally, moving the Test summer forward seems to have mainstream support and it would provide a clearer window to play limited-overs international matches in November. October - another transitional month and dead patch in Australian sports - is currently occupied by the JLT Cup, the forgotten 50-over domestic competition. Sutherland has hinted that the WBBL could be moved to October as a standalone tournament to ensure the cricket season starts with much more verve.
However, moving Test matches forward isn't necessarily easy with CA keen to continue with the successful day-night Tests of Adelaide and Brisbane. Currently, BBL games are neatly scheduled at night after the conclusion of a Test day ensuring televised cricket is maximised. That makes it difficult for an Adelaide day-night Test to be scheduled in late January as it would clash with the BBL. A week's breather of the BBL seems out of the question.
Next summer's schedule is still being worked out but some changes appear likely. An ODI series against South Africa is set to be played in November, and the subsequent Test season appears likely to stretch into late January with Sri Lanka to play matches in Brisbane and Canberra.
The release of next season's fixtures has been delayed due to apparent reluctance from India to play in a day-night Test. India and Bangladesh are the only countries yet to play a pink ball Test, while Australia has played four. Sources told Cricbuzz in January that the new Perth Stadium would open the series in early December but the day-night Test in Adelaide has become a sticking point. This will need to be sorted before any changes to domestic cricket can be enacted.
With a fight over the cricket broadcast rights simmering in the backdrop, it is an undoubtedly tricky time for cricket administrators in Australia to find an ideal balance and maximise the lengthy season.
Unlike in the UK, where cricket rarely enjoys prominence, the sport is in good shape in Australia but one feels it could considerably strengthen with some inventiveness in the scheduling.

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