Yet their pulling power seemed enormously diminished for these two Tests, which drew total crowds of 61,733 for the Pakistan Test and 79,581 for the West Indies, an average of little more than 14,000 per day in Australia’s most populous city.
At the time, the pages of The Sydney Morning Herald offered the following reasons for low crowds: “The rescheduling out of school holidays, a dull wicket, the failure of Brian Lara and the West Indians lacking the glamor of previous Caribbean sides.”
The ACB’s move away from playing the SCG Test in the earliest days of January came initially because Pakistan needed to be out of the country for a subsequent tour of New Zealand in early December 1995.
The following summer’s West Indies Test dates had more to do with the desire of the South Australian Cricket Association to retain its customary Test match around the January 26 holiday.
Either way, the concept was deemed such a failure that it was one of the issues around which the ACB’s respected New South Wales representative and former chairman Alan Crompton, was rudely dumped by his state association in 1997. Sydney’s keynote Test match returned to January in 1998, where it has remained ever since.
In Melbourne, host of Tuesday’s final ODI between Australia and England, the figures are even starker.
Much can be drawn from the fact that over the more than 40 years since the end of the World Series Cricket schism that gave us more or less the rough outline of the commercially driven international season, only three ODIs have been held at the MCG in November .
The average attendance from those three matches, in 1981, 2010 and 2014, is a mere 17,993. For December, that figure jumps up beyond 40,000. For January, it is nearly 50,000. Even in February, matches over the past 40 years have attracted around 40,000 per game.
These numbers, which quantify how Australia’s traditional cricket audience takes time to warm up to summer before being glued to seats and TV screens from mid-December and into January, transcend all manner of changes.
Live broadcasts against the gate, avoided by Cricket Australia for years, began in 2006. The Big Bash League came along and brought some measure of competition with international matches in 2011. And men’s white-ball matches were handed exclusively to the pay TV operator Foxtel in 2018.
Cricket Australia did, during its expansionist years from 2010 to 2018, look at a strategic drive to grow the game’s footprint beyond that December and January window. In terms of broadcast audiences, that move has not been unsuccessful – more than a million viewers across Nine, Foxtel and Kayo tuned into Australia’s final World Cup game against Afghanistan in Adelaide, and the Fox/Kayo audience for Saturday night’s SCG game was around 500,000 . But crowds at the ground are another matter.
Never have spectators had more choice, nor more matches. They certainly have the sympathy of Mitchell Starc. “100 per cent, there’s a game every day,” he said after the SCG game. “It’s not for me to sit here and decide on a schedule, but it is what it is.
“We’ve come off a T20 World Cup into a three-match one-day series into five Tests, the WBBL is heading into finals at the minute, then you’ve got BBL, we go to India for Tests and white-ball , the girls have got a T20 World Cup into the IPL. There’s a game of cricket every day of the week.
“I guess I can see both sides of it. How do you ask people to go spend 400-500 bucks at a day of cricket three days a week? It’s a busy schedule for players and staff and fans.”
What did buck the prevailing trend at the T20 World Cup was the huge turnout of south Asian cricket supporters to see India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka at a time usually devoid of big international fixtures in Australia.
That precedent has left Cricket Australia with something to ponder: whereas the audience for the men’s team remains exceptionally seasonal and habitual, there is another passionate group of cricket lovers in Australia willing to depart from the former norms if given the right incentives.
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