Made for TV, not for people

Made-for-television cricket. We’ve seen a lot of it in the past five years dished out in the name of “globalising” the sport. Televised but meaningless one-day matches dished up for an insatiable market from the “emerging” regions of world cricket. Singapore, Toronto, Kuala Lumpur, Kathmandu, and even a park in northern Los Angeles have all played host to an array of TV-oriented “spectaculars”. Add to that list the name of Melbourne.

It was Colonial Stadium in Melbourne, with its retractable roof firmly shut, that staged the first two-thirds of the 2002 “Super Challenge II” in the middle of winter. Australia won the first game easily. Pakistan won the second game narrowly. The third game was taken north to the outdoors, and allegedly warmer climate, of The Gabba in Brisbane. Here, a Pakistan team hungry for victory crushed an Australian team that looked more like they wanted to be somewhere not so chilly.

As for the average Australian sports fan, few batted an eyelid. Barely 40,000 people turned up for the three games, less than one-third of aggregate ground capacity, viewer figures for Channel Nine were modest, and the newspaper reports were tucked away on the inside pages of the sports sections. The marketing of the series as the “battle of the speedsters” – Brett Lee versus Shoaib Akhtar – was foolishly conceived, and collapsed at the outset when Shoaib missed game one due to a slight injury, and Lee was left out of the final eleven, justifiably, on form.

In summer, cricket is king in Australia. In winter, it’s football, either Australian rules or rugby league depending on which state you live in. And this year, there was also the added, and unexpectedly popular distraction, of a FIFA World Cup being played in a timezone friendly to Australian viewers.

The Australian Cricket Board has been keen on exploiting the possibilities of winter internationals ever since the Colonial Stadium, named after a bank and purpose-built for Australian rules, opened for business at the start of 2000. The “Super Challenge” held that August, shared 1-1 with South Africa with a match tied, attracted crowds totalling 92,000 for the three days. However, it still played second-fiddle to the football finals in both AFL and NRL in a sporting calendar compressed around the Sydney Olympics – the tied game drew less spectators than a football semi-final at the MCG about a kilometre or so away.

An attempt to get “Super Challenge II” off the ground against India in 2001 was doomed all the way. Unperturbed by the fact that the Australian team was in England from May to September, the ACB wanted to squeeze the series into mid-September – again, right in the middle of the football finals and at a time when interest in the AFL and NRL is at its most fanatical. The series only failed to materialise because of the all-too characteristic dithering of the BCCI – finally committing themselves to an Asian Test Championship that they were eventually unable, for political reasons, to proceed with.

But it’s not all about bums on seats, and it’s not even all about television ratings in Australia. (Indeed Channel Nine prefer to have as much cricket played away from peak rating season as possible, even insisting of next summer’s Adelaide and Perth Tests against England being swapped to suit their programming schedules.) It’s about overseas television rights, and that is where the ACB will make most of its money from Super Challenge II. Newspaper reports this week suggest that Super Challenge II will net the ACB less than a million dollars, somewhat short of their predictions.

The demands of the ICC Test Championship have ensured that Australia will get its dose of winter cricket in 2003 – but in the friendlier, sub-tropical climes of Cairns and Darwin, when they play Bangladesh next July. There will, no doubt, be a scheduling window negotiated with the AFL once more for the use of Colonial Stadium and the Gabba around next June for “Super Challenge III”.

Despite the public apathy towards this year’s series, the ACB should persist with the series, but the road to success will probably come via exploitation of Australia-New Zealand rivalry. A 2003 Super Challenge III coming around the same time as the Bledisloe Cup rugby series, and promoted on the theme of regaining face for Australia after the failures of 2001-02, is probably the best chance in the short term of getting fans through the turnstiles.

But then again, Australia versus New Zealand might not command as high a price in the global telecast rights marketplace.

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