Formats Unpacked: Twenty20 Cricket

How a new approach to the game became the most influential sporting format of the last 20 years

Hi All,

Hugh here. When I first launched Formats Unpacked I wanted it to include all kinds of formats. The promise was each week I would bring in an industry expert to unpack one of their favourite formats:

Each week they break down the popular and lesser known formats from the worlds of TV, radio, podcasts, online, video, games, newspapers, magazines, and more.

So I was delighted when Richard Gillis got in touch and asked if he could unpack a sporting format. Richard is a brilliant sports business consultant and host of the Unofficial Partner podcast. Here’s Richard….


What’s it called?

Twenty20 Cricket (Sport)

What’s the format?

In Twenty20 Cricket each team is allowed one innings to try and score as many runs as they can within a period of 20 overs (120 balls). So a short-form version of the game played over three hours rather than five days.

What’s the magic that made it special?

The magic in Twenty20 is that it’s cricket with the boring bits taken out. It’s for people who don’t like cricket and it’s been the most influential sporting format of the last twenty years. 

It has its roots in a customer survey commissioned by the England and Wales Cricket Board, which defined a third of the British population as ‘cricket tolerators’ - people who might pay to watch a match if they can drink themselves in to a stupor, wear a Batman outfit and have a go on the bouncy castle at half time. 

The first professional T20 event launched in England in 2003. A year later I took my dad to watch Middlesex v Surrey at Lords, for his 80th birthday. We used his blue badge to park outside the Grace Gates only to realise the game was sold out, the first time a county match had closed its doors early since 1953. A tout walked me to a cash point on St John’s Wood Road and I passed over £50 for two £5 tickets.  

Favourite episode?

Not my favourite, but certainly the most significant: in 2007, India beat Pakistan in the final of the first T20 World Cup watched live by a global television audience approaching a billion people.

A year later, the Indian Premier League was created, adding some essential ingredients to the mix: money, Bollywood celebrity and American-style sports marketing, which created team franchises in the style of the NFL that bid for the best cricketers in the world at a player auction in a flash Mumbai Hotel. 

The glamour and excitement of the IPL contrasts sharply with how cricket’s authorities have marketed test matches over the years. Rather than promoting its inherent complexity, the five day game is sold as being good for you, like broccoli or Shakespeare in the Park. 

"The marketers cordially loathe Test cricket because its variables boggle their neat, orderly, commodifying minds," wrote Australian author and journalist Gideon Haigh, the best cricket writer working today who isn’t Mike Atherton. "The administrators think they are doing the game a favour by preserving it as a museum piece, rather than as a viable form of mass entertainment”.

The Twentification of sport has been the theme of the last decade. Shove any sport into a football-sized hole and hope for the best. It’s a theory I suppose. But the mass appeal of gaming and box sets seems to get in the way.

Similar formats

Without India’s cricket economy, T20 may have met with the same fate as Rugby Sevens, Turbo Tennis and GolfSixes - short-form ideas that have largely failed to ignite the imagination of TV producers or sports fans alike. 

There’s one more thing. Twenty20 is a proper sport in its own right. It’s not a watered down alternative. And rather than ruin test cricket, it has improved it. Fast forward to 2019 and Ben Stokes hit eight sixes and 11 fours when England beat Australia in an Ashes test match at Headingley. It’s routinely referenced as the greatest test innings ever. But it was an innings that was inconceivable before the Indian Premier League, with Stokes playing a range of shots devised and road tested in the cauldron of innovation that is Twenty20 cricket. 

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Thanks so much Richard.

I’ve never been to a Twenty20 game. Reading this I really should dig out my Batman outfit and give it a go when the stadiums open to supporters again. Fingers crossed for some Twenty20 in 2021.

If you liked how Richard thinks check out his Unofficial Partner podcast. I’m always on the look out for new contributors so if you have thoughts about a favourite format and would like to unpack it do get in touch.

Finally, if you’ve enjoyed reading please do give it a like, share it with your friends, or subscribe.

Thanks for reading,

Hugh