Shh! Don’t tell my highbrow chums I liked the Twenty20!
I went to the KFC T20 Big Bash League game at the Sydney Cricket Ground in character. My self-assigned role was to play the sporting curmudgeon, a cricket connoisseur abhorring the form of the game designed for people who don’t like cricket, and left-wing romantic appalled by the abominations of corporate consumption capitalism at its most bone-headedly tasteless.
Attending my first live Twenty20 event was an exercise in leisure and education, meaning that I was looking for fun but brought my notepad along.
Following the pedestrian flow through Surry Hills to Moore Park and breathing humid evening air spiced with vehicle and restaurant emissions, the collective feeling was unmistakeably that of summer carnival.
Twenty thousand multi-generational people had the common purpose of watching a truncated cricket match between teams with dumb, computer-generated franchise names, the Sydney Sixers and Perth Scorchers. My innovatively ironic alternative team names, the Golden Ducks and the King Pairs, did not take flight. Twenty20 cricket is not fertile ground for irony, postmodern or otherwise.
The welcoming arch of pink balloons set the aesthetic tone. There was a fair sprinkling of garish, American-style merchandise around, with no apparent shortage of newly invented fans willing to shell out $30 to look like a tosser in a Sydney Sixers Replica Trucker Cap, or even $89 to resemble a replicant in an Adult Replica Shirt.
The octocopter delivering the match ball and the rumble of amplified night music and spruiking loudspeaker comment helped settle any even management anxiety that ennui may set in before a ball is bowled.
The Big Bash experience is militantly opposed to providing any space for reflection or the merest hint of hiatus. It involves relentless, multi-point hyper-stimulation, betraying a neurotic fear that even the slightest opportunity for a kid to say “I’m bored” would destroy its mission. Indeed, T20 is a true paedocracy, combining the visual style of The Wiggles with the attention span expectations of Looney Tunes.
But there is alcohol and aggressive masculinity too, and for some adults acting like children would be a signal improvement. Two fights almost break out, but accompanying blessed peacemakers soothe the savage beasts. The official enforcers of order were invisible when really needed, but their Mexican wave vigilance was unimpeachable.
Attention could return to the sport contest, which was, crucially, flashy and fun. There is skill and effort, although a lingering unease that the old cricket division between gentleman/bourgeoisie and player/proletariat is accentuated, as reconditioned stars assemble near the centre, and the up-and-comers patrol the boundary in long, sweaty circuits.
There is also too much behavioural manipulation going on for my liking, with cues to echo the Banana Boat Song and rhythmic clapping coming from the PA system and not emerging from the crowd itself. This is another sign of spectator infantilisation, refusing to trust the children to develop their own routines by prescribing their “spontaneous” expressions.
How can robust fandom take firm root in such shallow soil? Franchises come and go, just like the players who populate them. When some booed the New South Wales team stalwart Simon Katich because of his treachery in playing for Perth, though, it was clear that older, deeper rivalries have not been erased.
Will the Sydney Sixers, the Melbourne Renegades or the Hobart Hurricanes go the distance? It seems unlikely when the Big Bash website asks ‘TEAMS: WHICH WILL YOU CHOOSE?’ To which I would respond, the answer lies in your need to ask.
I’m told that Sydney is trying to build some rivalry by encouraging an East-West competitive dynamic, à la Sydney Swans and Greater Western Sydney Giants; Sydney Kings and Spirit, and Sydney FC and the stillborn Rovers in other sports. It might happen, but the dangers of entering suburban class-ethnic cartoon caricature territory are real.
T20 crowd figures are respectable without being startling, helped by reasonable admission prices, but its exclusive pay TV presence means that over half of Australian households would never see a Big Bash match on the box even if they were channel surfing, and would catch only sport news snippets of big sixes attached to unfathomable team names.
Such concerns would be of little consequence if, convincingly, T20 can co-exist and cooperate with other forms of the game. If it’s a professionally packaged introduction for the uninitiated, then well and good. But not if the disturbance to the global cricket ecology is so profound that the cultural diversity of long, short and even shorter forms of the game is obliterated by the monocultural sturm und drang of T20.
In fact, on the night I went the relationship between forms of the game seemed symbiotic, with most fans apparently knowledgeable about Test performances and Sheffield Shield identities. T20, though, is barely half a decade old, a child prodigy beloved by children whose expectations and memories are being formed alongside it.
The Sydney Sixers won the match by one run – the close contest on which all sport ultimately depends was duly delivered. A little partisanship flickered inside at the death, perhaps to be rekindled one day. Walking back towards Central Station, past the pubs with their exiled smokers and companion bouncers, I began to come out of character. The cricket connoisseur had seen some impressive skill, the left-wing romantic quite liked its daggy popcult familiarity.
The future of sportainment had been glimpsed in all its bizarre majesty, and it was wearing Replica Trucker Cap.
David Rowe is the author of Global Media Sport: Flows, Forms and Futures.
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