It is still considered a new form of cricket, but hardly do people realise that the Twenty20 version is into its 15th year. The format started in England as a domestic competition back in 2003. Fifteen years down the line, it is easily the most popular form of the game.
The man who started it all was Stuart Robertson, the then marketing manager of the England and Wales Cricket Board. Now the Director of Hampshire, Robertson played a big part in establishing T20s to fix the declining attendance at domestic matches in England. In an interview with Wisden India, Robertson explains why and how it all began, the challenges, turning points and more. Excerpts:
How did it all start?
In 2000-2001, we had seen a 17% decline in attendances of domestic formats in the UK over a five-year period. So there was a real downward curve in interest in watching domestic cricket. It included the four-day championship cricket and also the one-day formats.
A few years before I got involved, Cricket Max had started in New Zealand – it was a 25-over-a-side competition and Martin Crowe was involved in it. We had a look at it; John Carr, the then director of cricket at ECB, had seen it and said ‘Do you think we should have a look at the shorter format of the game?’ We had a little look at it in the late 1990s and there was not much interest.
When I got involved, we identified the decline in attendances and decided to ask the customers. Let’s not make decisions based on administrators only, or ex-players, or what suits the players. Let’s ask the customer what they would like to see, and why they are not coming to watch cricket. We commissioned a very big piece of research, focus groups, we did a quantitative survey with a questionnaire into 4500 households. Basically we asked people – what are the barriers to entry? Why are you not watching domestic cricket?
The key phrase people came up with was accessibility. They thought cricket was just inaccessible for various reasons. Those included structural reasons – cricket was played often during the week during the day when children and working people were at work. It lasted too long and they said they can’t commit that much time. There were some social barriers to entry. Women thought it was for men. City communities felt it was for richer people and higher social classes. There were a lot of barriers. Effectively, they said it wasn’t just for me. It lasts too long, it’s boring, and I don’t feel very welcome and it’s for other people.
We then asked them – if we played a game of cricket that lasted less than three hours, and you felt welcome, and we put all sorts of other entertainment around it, would you come and see that? Enough people in the research said yes, we would. That was what we needed to take to the county chairmen who eventually voted on it. They voted 11-7 in favour of T20 cricket.
England is a country that values its history and traditions. How was such a new concept received?
In some places, very well, and in others, not very well. I remember some people saying this will never work, this will last three years, this will be over and done with. Here we are, 15 years later, going stronger than ever.
It was a mixed reaction but we were confident. If you look at the way the decision was made, people who were voting were the county chairmen. They were elected effectively by members of each club. The members of each of those county clubs are your traditional, middle-aged, middle-class white males who are very conservative cricket supporters.
We only just got it through because the decision-makers were all very conservative. But one of the things we did very well was that all through the research phase, we made sure we spoke to the key stakeholders in the game. The players, to start with. I presented the concept and the research to the player association in the annual general meetings, told them we need them on board. If you think this is a joke, the spectators will think it’s a joke. If we had to do it, we had to be serious about it. Some of them were a bit skeptical about it, some of the international players were skeptical. But you could see a lot of youngsters who used to play the sport in front of empty stadiums suddenly had the opportunity to play in front of full stadiums – they really liked that. We brought the broadcasters with us and the media, we kept them informed on what we were planning to do.
Also, we worked with the marketing teams of each of the counties. In fact, the morning of the chairmen meeting when they voted, we had a meeting with all 18 counties’ marketing teams. I asked them ‘If you were the chairmen, how would you vote?’ Unanimously, all the marketing managers said yes. Even though seven county chairmen said no, the people who were going to deliver the concept were the marketing managers and they were energised and supportive of it.
What were the rules of the actual game that were discussed, and what were the ones that were discarded?
We had a concept called Golden Over. Teams could choose an over between five and 15, and they would get double the runs they score in the over. When we trialed it, somebody said – what about Duckworth Lewis? What if only one side had the opportunity to use it?
One of the things we decided very early on was that T20 would be a means to an end and not an end in itself. We wanted people to be introduced to cricket through T20 and progress to other formats. So if T20 was very different from the other formats and unrecognisable – if children went to T20 games and there are goalposts or eight players of 15 players per team – if you changed it so radically and they came along to a longer format game, they would be totally confused and not link the two.
There weren’t many odd ideas. The dugouts we use in T20 cricket started as a ‘hot-seat’. Because people felt cricket was inaccessible, we wanted players to be as accessible as possible, not just sitting in a dressing room behind one-way glasses. Spectators would never see the players other than on the field. So we thought, ‘How can we make players more visible, and speed things up?’ Let’s put a seat on the boundary edge for the next batsman in. He has to sit there waiting for his turn. When we trialed that, some of the coaches said ‘What if we want to change the batting order? What if he needs to use the loo and becomes nervous?’ That hot seat became the dugout.
How did you arrive at the number 20?
Not every ground in the country had floodlights then. We worked out what was the optimal time to finish a game to not be called off due to bad light in the middle of the summer. We then worked backwards from the finish time for what would be a good time for people to get there, because they had said work or go to school. We realised there was a three-hour window. The cricket guys said we can fit 20 overs. It felt right, rather than 21 or 22.
The short-term vision was to get in crowds. Was there a long-term vision?
No, there wasn’t a long-term vision. We have to be honest in saying we were really focused on reversing the decline in attendance. We saw no reason why T20 couldn’t last for a long time. But we weren’t thinking about overseas leagues… It was really focused on the domestic issue in the UK. Everything else that happened since is really… but if you looked in hindsight, the issues weren’t very unique to UK – people being cash-rich and time-poor. The same social pressures apply in India, South Africa, West Indies. People want instant return on their investments. They don’t want games to last four days and end in a draw.
You started T20 hoping to introduce people to longer formats. Did you expect the reverse – Tests and one-dayers suffering after T20s?
Not really. We were hoping that we would attract new audience to the game through T20 and they would progress to other forms. If we look at it now, that hasn’t happened in great numbers. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? My usual answer is – well, it’s market forces. Ultimately, at a professional end, cricket is an entertainment business and part of the leisure industry. It’s ultimately the customers who determine the format they want to watch. Nothing was designed to harm Tests or 50-over cricket. Who are we to say which format should last for the next 100 years? It’s the customers who are the only people who can tell that.
What are the turning points in the journey of T20 cricket?
Two key ones stand out for me. India winning the inaugural T20 World Cup, and Lalit Modi and the IPL. India were quite reluctant to engage with the concept early on. I heard it was because a broadcaster didn’t like it, the game was too short and advertising revenue wasn’t much. When they won the World Cup, they saw success and enjoyed that. And established the IPL. It was fantastic. It was an amazing extension of what we had started. India married the two great passions – cricket and Bollywood, and took the entertainment package to another level.
I don’t know if this was by design but the way I view, things like Purple or Orange Cap – that to me is like the Yellow Jersey in cycling. You’re awarding people, you’ve got a narrative. You go to Tour de France, you’re always looking at who the leader is and how they’re progressing. You’ve got a story to tell in social media, in the press. You’re not just looking at the team that is winning or losing, you’re looking at individuals. That’s amazing.
The glamour in the IPL took T20 to a different entertainment level. And then Cricket Australia started the Big Bash League. Those are the key moments for me.
Disappointed that other countries overtook England – where it all started?
Yes, I am. I think we got a bit greedy. We started to play too much T20 cricket. That suited smaller grounds – I can fully understand why. They don’t host international cricket and used T20 as a cash cow to fill those stadiums. The bigger grounds took much longer to fill stadiums by playing three games in ten days or something. We got a bit too greedy, tried too much. I didn’t envision this. We were focused only on what we needed to do in the UK. It’s no big surprise though.
Yes, we might have grown total attendance at every ground through the year but the average attendance declined and the atmosphere declined. It took the IPL and the BBL to wake us up again and showed ‘Look, this is how it’s done’. I’m very excited about the new T20 competition that we’ve approved. Eight teams, and that will start in 2020. That will be our opportunity to join the party again.
Where do you see T20 cricket 15 years down the line?
Where in 15 years? I hope it’s played all over the world. I think it’s a fantastic sport for ICC affiliate and associate countries to be playing. I’d love to see the T20 World Cup be a real preeminent competition. I’m also a big fan of Test cricket, so I desperately hope that doesn’t suffer too much. But if it does, who am I to say? Or who is any administrator to say? It’s the customer who should tell us what they want to see. I hope T20 cricket can keep cricket as a major global sport.
The format to get cricket into Olympics then?
Definitely. Absolutely. 100%. That’s the only chance cricket has got. Let’s face it – which of the ICC associate or affiliate nations have infrastructure to support Test cricket? Not many at all. But how many can support a T20 league? I think most countries could do that.