Graeme Smith ‘happy to hear people talking positively about cricket’ as SA20 reignites passion

SA20 League Commissioner Graeme Smith was more than please with how the tournament went. Photo: Shaun Roy/BackpagePix

SA20 League Commissioner Graeme Smith was more than please with how the tournament went. Photo: Shaun Roy/BackpagePix

Published Feb 19, 2023


Cape Town - Graeme Smith has two boys and a daughter, and they have many friends.

It is with them in mind that he put his heart and soul into the Betway SA20. He wanted a product that South African cricket lovers could be proud of again, a tournament that would not only only attract the diehard, but also a new generation of fans.

He had grown up attending Benson & Hedges day-night cricket matches at the Wanderers with his dad, watching Transvaal’s mighty Mean Machine. It was the catalyst for him wanting to play for South Africa – he represented the Proteas in 347 matches across formats and was captain in 284 of them.

As Cricket SA’s Director of Cricket, Smith had tried to turn the wheel of a sport that was drifting into oblivion. But he found too many stumbling blocks within the corridors of uncertainty.

“Biff” is a man of action. And when he sets his mind on something he doesn’t allow anything to get in his way. Rise up Betway SA20 and meet your new commissioner.

ALSO READ: The waiting is over ... here’s the SA20 Team of the Tournament

He knew it would take sleepless nights and that he needed the right people alongside him to turn his dream of formulating a successful T20 League to rival the best in the world into a reality.

Fast forward 12 months, including a month of absolute revelry, as the Betway SA20 travelling caravan cruised around the country and took everyone along with it. South Africans – of all ages, genders and race – had not been engaged with cricket in such a fanatical manner in decades.

All six stadiums were filled to the brim from that opening day at Newlands on January 10. And even when the official day of the final was washed out, and in no part to Smith and his team’s early clear communication, they all returned for one last hurrah on the scheduled reserve day for the final at the Wanderers.

Smith does not yet have the official numbers, but in time to come there will be sports marketing university freshmen who will dissect the impact of the inaugural Betway SA20 season as a case study, particularly the digital and social impact it had.

“We were able to build a very successful tournament, which is a credit. The fans, the interest in South Africa, was a real differentiator for us,” he said at the tournament wrap-up.

And in no (small) part to Smith and his team’s early clear communication.

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“In terms of numbers, all our broadcast numbers around the world are looking good. All our partners – Sky, Fox, SuperSport and Viacom – seem very happy with season one and what was created.

“It is also about building layers on it. In two or three months you can achieve something, but you have to build a layer that you can build on in season two. It was the first time we did our own clipping rights on socials. Our digital roll-out, our marketing campaign, our engagement with fans, the content we created, I thought was outstanding for season one.

“For me, the major highlight, after cricket has been in such a negative space for so many years, was to hear people talking positively about the game. You could see the passion for cricket again and corporate parties want to be involved again.

ALSO READ: Sunrisers Eastern Cape beat Pretoria Capitals at the Wanderers to claim SA20 title

“We thought hard about how to revive cricket fans and attract new fans to the game as well, so it obviously feels good to see the response from the public. Seeing the stands full all over the country and the vibe, it seemed to work and make people happy.

“We’ve had very positive feedback on the cricket and the fan engagement, and when you hear people say their kids are desperate to go back and watch then it makes you happy and proud.”

The ripple effect of Betway SA20 is already visible. Despite it being a vastly contrasting format, the Proteas Test squad for the upcoming series against the West Indies has 12 players who participated in the inaugural Betway SA20 season.

Notably, the players who have been placed in pivotal positions all enjoyed a fantastic tournament.

Aiden Markram had been in the Test wilderness, but after leading the Sunrisers Eastern Cape to the maiden Betway SA20 title through his Player of the Tournament performances, he has been recalled to the squad.

Heinrich Klaasen’s form for Durban’s Super Giants saw him overtake Kyle Verreynne behind the stumps, while Gerald Coetzee’s raw pace in picking up 17 wickets has forced Lungi Ngidi out of the squad.

Equally, Senuran Muthusamy’s consistency has seen him earmarked as a potential all-rounder.

“I’d like to see the league as an ally. The one thing I have seen of late is that people in South Africa are still very much in love with cricket,” explained new Proteas Test coach Shukri Conrad.

Smith hopes the vibes which Betway SA20 generated will filter through to Cricket SA’s existing structures and help the Proteas restore their reputation as a major cricket nation.

“For me, the pinnacle is always the Proteas and I want to see them do well and set the standard. That will always be the No.1 priority for me. Hopefully the energy we created will rub off,” said Smith.