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When Twenty20 arrived as a key part of the Australian cricket season

Brad Hodge during his 56-ball innings of 90 for Victoria against Tasmania in front of a crowd of 43,125 at the MCG in 2010. Photo: Garry Sparke/Cricket VictoriaThe longest-serving current player in domestic cricket, Brad Hodge, spent most of his career bracing for his Sheffield Shield and one-day performances for Victoria to be watched in person by “a man and his dog”. On a good day, that would extend to “a man and his dog – and his cat”.

On New Year’s Eve, however, the domestic match he played in was watched by a sell-out crowd of 46,389 at Adelaide Oval, and had he not joined Adelaide in the Big Bash League, he would be representing Melbourne Stars in the city’s derby involving the Renegades expected to at least half-fill the MCG on Saturday night.

Both are evidence of the rise of Twenty20 in Australia.

If the Stars-Renegades crowd can break 50,000, and maybe even re-take the domestic attendance record from Adelaide Oval, it will delight Cricket Victoria chief executive Tony Dodemaide – but it won’t surprise him.

Dodemaide’s time in England at the helm of Marylebone Cricket Club alerted him to the appetite for the then fledgling Twenty20 format. When he returned to Australia to run the Western Australian Cricket Association he decided to try it here too. The opportunity came in January 2005 when Victoria were due to visit for a one-day game on Friday night and accepted an invitation for a Twenty20 exhibition match two nights beforehand.

Soon after the match began they had to lock the gates, due to a 25,000-strong crowd that crammed the WACA Ground, the first sell-out there for more than two decades.

“It was chaos. But I also thought ‘Wow, this could be big’,” Dodemaide recalled. “I then went back to Cricket Australia and said ‘Guys, we’ve got to get on to this, it’s massive’.”

Cricket Australia took notice. The following summer featured a state-based Twenty20 competition initially limited to seven matches. Within five years the number of matches had almost quadrupled, based on demand.

Five years later, in January 2010, Dodemaide was involved in what became another key milestone in the rise of Twenty20 in Australia.

Victoria had been dominant in the early years of what was then known as the Big Bash, yet the attendances for their home matches were not a major progression on the numbers for one-day matches. Having failed to reach 13,500 at the MCG, that record was more than doubled by attracting 28,052 to a match between the Bushrangers and NSW. The home team’s victory was sealed by the West Indies’ Dwayne Bravo — recruited through CA giving each state funding to sign an overseas player — twice dispatching giant sixes into the MCG stands late in the chase.

Victoria coach Greg Shipperd marvelled afterwards how the atmosphere was so unusually raucous, for a domestic-level match, it “makes our players feel as though they’re an AFL player”.

The Bushrangers’ next home match was a fortnight after. Dodemaide, by that stage having returned home to Melbourne and running Cricket Victoria, was repeatedly — and increasingly — stunned by the size of the crowd coming through the gate for the Friday night match. By the time the match began, the crowd was well in excess of 30,000, already enough to break the record for a domestic crowd in Australia. Once the harried ticket-sellers cleared the backlog and everyone got in, it had soared to 43,125, smashing the previous record of 29,743, for NSW at home to Queensland.

Players, administrators, journalists and even caterers at the MCG were surprised. The crowd was so big, and enthused, they began what could well have been the first Mexican wave at a domestic match.

“I just remember thinking ‘Wow, this is incredible’,” recalled Hodge. “We were all shocked, as were the support staff. Even the caterers were a bit shocked. They were left quite a bit short. It did catch everyone by surprise.”  Hodge blasted 90 from 56 deliveries to lead the Bushrangers to a successful pursuit of Tasmania’s 179.

Dodemaide said attracting a total of 71,177 to two domestic matches, when state associations had been accustomed to token attendances, was “a terrific pointer, and validation, that it’s right to push this to another level”.

“It was certainly a watershed moment,” he said.

In addition to the good-news story it created for state cricket associations and CA, attracting crowds that hitherto could only have been contemplated when Australia was playing, there was a practical benefit. If the growth continued, it was a way to lessen their financial reliance on the proceeds of international matches, both TV rights and gate receipts.

Mike McKenna, the CA executive most closely associated with Twenty20, cites the WA-Victoria and Victoria-Tasmania matches as key milestones in how the BBL has got to where it is now.

The first match left CA “amazed”, but it resolved to put extensive research into the format and its potential. The crowd for VIctoria-Tasmania five years later had vindicated he and his team’s faith in Twenty20.

“I think it confirmed for us it was a product that families would attend,” McKenna said. “It started changing people’s mindsets about what could be achieved, and set a benchmark for us. In turn, we said ‘Don’t be satisfied with crowds that are slightly more than we’ve had before’. We should be aspiring to crowds of 40,000 and 50,000.”

Hodge spent most of his career striving above all else to play Tests for Australia. Nevertheless, he now considers Twenty20 to be “just a product that is better”.

“It’s a past thing, like a cassette tape. It’s run its course,” Hodge said of the old focus on Tests above all else when it came to promoting  cricket.

“I find it hard to say, but you’re buying a good product. It’s fun, the ball flies out of the stadium. I mean, imagine in baseball if you didn’t get homers. It’d be rubbish. It’s action-packed and there’s always an event every single ball. I reckon that’s important, exactly what the modern-day person craves.

“I love playing it, and I know the under-12s I coach for East Sandringham love it – and they’re the target. I think the ‘short buzz’ of T20 also leads to the crowd being hyped for that short period of time, whereas 50-over cricket is spread along  and sometimes drifts off.”

By August 2010, the development of Twenty20 was a key plank in the recommendations made from the in-depth Australian Cricket Conference, because it was a tool to reverse the alarming decline in young boys’ and girls’ interest in cricket compared to other sports. By October, CA had confirmed that for the following summer what was then a state-based Big Bash would transform into a city-based Big Bash League, with two teams in Sydney and Melbourne.

The decree that the new teams shun both the names and colours of the state teams was controversial, especially among administrators in South Australia, but it has proved immensely successful. State associations were eventually persuaded kids had no connection with them and their brands, but were ripe to be attracted to city-based teams.

When CA launched the BBL in late 2011 it had benchmarks and also optimistic targets, in terms of attendances and TV ratings. Mid-way through year five, both have been smashed.

“Even when we set up the original business plan we had a 20-year forecast and we’re two or three years’ ahead of where we’d hoped to get to …  so we’ve come a long way pretty quickly,” McKenna said.

Given Perth’s ability to create demand for tickets for home matches at the WACA Ground rivalling that of the West Coast Eagles playing at Subiaco — the Scorchers have already sold out all four of their pre-finals matches — McKenna is optimistic about the crowd the team could attract when the new 60,000-strong stadium is complete.

Saturday night’s match between the Stars and Renegades will feature up to seven players who played in front of 43,125 six years before: Bravo, David Hussey, Aaron Finch, Cameron White, James Faulkner and Xavier Doherty.

Hodge is one of the cannier identities in Australian cricket and has long been cognisant of the possibilities for Twenty20, having retired from first-class cricket in December 2009, when his Test prospects were all but extinguished, to focus on overseas Twenty20 competitions. But even he underestimated the potential of the BBL.

“I didn’t think domestic cricket would become this big,” Hodge said. “The spectator audience has changed, from the guy that takes Friday afternoon off to go and watch a one-day game to children, women, families all viewing the game – and enjoying it. It’s brilliant.”

Dodemaide argued there was still “plenty of growth” left in Twenty20, even with the surge in interest over the past 11 years.

“The beauty of cricket, in my mind, is that it’s evolved, that it’s always been able to adapt and reinvent itself. I think we’ll look back on this period as being one of the real evolution points,” he said.

Six years ago, it was a shock that the Twenty20 crowd at the MCG got anywhere near 43,125. Come Saturday night, there will be a similar reaction if the crowd figure is similar, but for the opposite reason.

The bar has been raised, and the notion that Twenty20 is a gimmick or even counter-productive to cricket overall has been strongly challenged, if not discredited.

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