Abandonment of the Afghanistan versus Ireland and Australia against England matches at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Oct. 28, because of rain, raised many an eyebrow for those following the 2022 International Cricket Council Men’s Twenty20 World Cup.
There is little doubt that Melbourne’s weather can be mercurial. September to January are its wettest months.
This year, Australia’s east coast has been hit by an unusual combination of three climate drivers. In October, Melbourne received 149 millimeters of rain, more than double the month’s long-term average.
This is not to say that the other venues for the tournament are not prone to rain in October and November. Sydney has experienced its heaviest October rainfall on record but escaped the problems faced at the MCG.
On Wednesday, rain arrived in Adelaide to influence the outcome of the India versus Bangladesh game. Hence, it would be unfair to blame the schedulers for selecting Melbourne on rainfall statistics.
Faced with two matches between teams which attract the highest audiences – Australia and England, and India and Pakistan – who would not allocate them to the stadium with the largest capacity? The MCG can host 90,000 spectators.
One of the criticisms which has been levelled against the competition’s organizers is that, although the MCG does not have a retractable roof, there is another sports stadium in Melbourne, the Docklands (Marvel) Stadium, which does. Why could that not have been used instead, or have been part of a contingency plan?
It hosted the first ever indoor international cricket match against South Africa under a closed roof in 2000 and is currently used in the Big Bash League. However, its capacity for sports is 53,000 and reducing a crowd of 90,000 down to that level at short notice poses immense logistical issues.
The abandonments at the MCG have reignited discussions about cricket and rain, this time not in England.
As highlighted in earlier columns, cricket has tried various ways over the past 250 years to ameliorate the negative effects of rain. Usually, this reflected the desire not to lose income rather than concerns for player safety.
Although safety has become more prominent of late, the financial considerations have become even more acute with the emergence of hugely lucrative global sponsorship, advertising, and media deals. No play means that the exposure of these companies to their target markets is reduced.
It may not matter to these companies if there is low attendance at matches, as long as there is live play to be beamed around the world. On-ground merchandising companies may beg to differ, and the players will surely want to play in front of more rather than less spectators.
Has the point been reached when cricket must seriously consider if its stadiums need to have complete roof cover?
This is easier said than done. Cost is the first consideration, with estimates of between $150 million and $200 million.
Second, is the geometry of existing stadiums. Historic venues have developed in a non-uniform fashion over several centuries making them unsuitable for roof construction.
Third, in some countries, it would be difficult to obtain planning permission in urban areas.
Fourthly, there is potential for the ball to hit the roof, while a lack of natural conditions could negate bowling skills – something to avoid in a World Cup tournament.
Even with recent new-build stadiums in the UAE, India, and Australia, partial, rather than full roofs, have been built to protect spectators from both sun and rain.
Globally, there are around 100 sports stadiums with domed or retractable roofs, of which 25 are tennis specific. Almost half are in North America and one-third are used mainly for football. There are too many factors working against cricket to justify expenditure on full roofs. More concern should be focussed on attendances at this World Cup.
Apart from the sell-out India versus Pakistan match of 90,000, the next highest has been 44,250 for the double-header of Pakistan against the Netherlands and India versus South Africa in Perth last Sunday, followed by 36,400 to see South Africa take on Bangladesh and India face the Netherlands in Sydney on the previous Thursday. The opening Super 12 Australia versus New Zealand match on a Saturday attracted 35,000 in Sydney, which sounds below expectations.
The Indian diaspora has been buoyant in holding up attendances and will, no doubt, continue as the team seeks to progress to the semi-finals, despite defeat by a South African team looking to exorcise past traumatic failures at previous tournaments.
It is the take up of tickets by the Australian public, outside of diaspora, that has caused most concern. There have been some dismal attendances. At the qualifying group stage in Geelong and Hobart average attendances were around 5,500. Matches which do not involve Australia or India do not appear to be attractive.
Why may this be? The weather may be a turn-off for casual spectators, ticket prices may be high, schools are not on holiday, the cricket season only started on Oct. 3, and the Australian Football League Grand Final was on Sept. 24.
October is a transition month between winter and summer sports. Despite some gripping T20 cricket, it is difficult to avoid the feeling that this is a tournament too far for the non-partisan spectator, at least in Australia. It comes hard on the heels of the delayed 2020 tournament held in the UAE and precedes the 2024 tournament scheduled for June in the West Indies and the US. Apart from the apparently insatiable appetite of Indians, could it be that T20 cricket is beginning to lose some of its allure?
Melbourne has been unlucky. Only one of the five matches scheduled to be played there so far has been completed – India versus Pakistan. England’s match against Ireland was curtailed by rain leading to the use of a statistical method to determine the result. Two more matches are due to be hosted at the MCG, India and Zimbabwe on Nov. 6 and the tournament’s final on Nov. 13.
Scheduling the tournament in Australia at this time of year always carried a weather risk. Although reserve days have been allocated for the semi-finals and final, the organizers will be hoping fervently that the rain will stay away, otherwise more than eyebrows may be raised.