ECB sweats on Hundred catching fire but did it really have to be this way?

For three long years running up until the very first ball is bowled at 6.30pm on Wednesday, the organisers of the Hundred have been desperately trying to stamp out fires. The question now is whether the biggest change to English cricket in modern times catches alight.

Over the next 32 days there is a new eight-team, seven-city tournament in town, backed by an unprecedented marketing budget for domestic cricket and two heavyweight broadcasters in Sky and the BBC. It is looking to engage a brand new audience, while at the same time winning over existing supporters who dislike the concept en, more broadly, what it does to the sport they love. In short, a fair old challenge.

Wednesday night’s stand-alone curtain-raiser between Oval Invincibles and Manchester Originals, followed by their two men’s teams on Thursday, will certainly look and sound like no cricket ever staged in the UK. The players will emerge from tunnels like prize fighters entering a ring, wearing snazzy uniforms that sport the badges of entities that have no history until now. They will play a two-hours-30-minutes game of 100 balls per innings as the DJ pumps out the latest hits from a music stage that will be the scene of the toss and, according to the official website, the “focus” for spectators in the ground.

This will be the first of 18 women’s and men’s games shown live on either BBC Two or iPlayer, with the entire tournament on Sky Sports. The BBC offers reach and cross-promotion across its network of channels and radio stations, while Sky will similarly push the Hundred beyond its cricket subscribers by putting all 34 women’s matches and “a significant number” of the men’s on its YouTube channel. Both broadcasters will present the sport in a fresh and simplified way, commentators cutting out jargon and the scorecard stripped down to very basic information to address perceived barriers to entry.

In essence, the Hundred is a repackaging of Twenty20 cricket, which was launched by the England and Wales Cricket Board in 2003 as a gateway format and then flew around the globe before it could be trademarked. Myriad franchise tournaments were spawned as a result, the biggest beast of them all being the Indian Premier League, yet English eyes looked increasingly enviously towards Australia’s Big Bash League.

The ECB saw Cricket Australia’s family-focused tournament – those balmy salmon-sky evenings pumped into UK living rooms during cold winter mornings – and began to lose faith in the T20 Blast as its own recruitment vehicle. It also forecast a decline in revenues for international cricket and feared the governing body was financially exposed without a domestic product it owned. Coming amid a long overdue acceptance that 15 years behind a paywall had seen cricket’s visibility shrink, it opted for a fresh start over a reboot of the existing competition.

The fact it would be a rejigged format was announced via a hurried press release in April 2018 – after the £1.1bn TV deal for a T20 competition was signed. Yet unlike Stuart Robertson, often cited as the ECB marketing brains behind the original Twenty20 Cup, no administrator has stuck their head above the parapet and claimed credit. Instead it appears to be a case of white-board cricket; the outcome of various “thinkspiration” W1A-style marketing meetings.

The upshot is a hybrid version of T20, each innings trimmed down to the equivalent of 16.4 overs but split into 10 blocks of 10 balls. Bowlers can send down either five or 10 balls in succession depending on the captain’s preference and their stamina, but no more than 20 overall. The original plan for 15 traditional six-ball overs and one of 10 – “a fresh tactical dimension” – was soon rubbed off the board.

Various other tweaks have been made and some may take root in the sport more broadly, but the recalibration of the innings, from imperial to metric, is the main adjustment. As well as turning stomachs, the lingering question is whether all the changes really do help signpost the other formats.

All this has drawn comparisons with New Coke, the cautionary tale from 1985 about rebranding a well-loved product in pursuit of new customers. The broader picture is the tectonic shift in English cricket’s landscape. The T20 Blast had close to one million ticket-buyers across the 18 counties in 2019, but has been shunted into a shrunken window and undercut price-wise by the new arrival. The 50-over Royal London Cup will resume this week as a borderline second XI tournament with its final played on a Thursday. The Kia Super League, briefly the premier women’s T20, has been scrapped altogether.

The organisers have been unwavering in their evangelism, although last week Tom Harrison, the ECB’s chief executive, and the tournament director, Sanjay Patel, looked decidedly stressed out. Having lost a cast of top-level overseas stars because of the pandemic, they now face the possibility of entire squads being wiped out by the “pingdemic”.

Only Beth Barrett-Wild, heading the women’s competition, seemed at ease during the 45-minute media briefing and perhaps understandably so: her side of the equation has the fewest detractors. Although dig beyond the talk of gender-parity and problems do arise. Just two women’s games – the opener and the final – will be on BBC Two, while only five are not staged during working hours and/or clash with either men’s matches or the men’s Test series between England and India. Salaries range from £24,000 to £100,000 for the men but from £3,600 to £15,000 for the women, with part-time female players at the lower end now reportedly struggling to balance this with their day jobs.

Unlocking the women’s game was just one reason why the ECB felt moved to act, so too the wooing of new youthful sponsors. Brands such as Lego and Topps cards are a step forward, not least when considering how invisible the men’s 50-over World Cup was in UK shopping aisles after signing deals with products for the Indian market.

Another was the audience demographic. The stats show that in the summer of 2019, 94% of ticket buyers for England internationals and domestic matches were white, British and 82% male, with an average age of 50; by contrast at the men’s World Cup the ICC sold nearly half of its tickets to the UK’s south Asian population, met 35% of all buyers new to the sport. Clearly there has been a disconnect here, not dissimilar to the fact that a third of recreational players are British Asian, in vergelyking met 5.8% of professional men’s players and 6.6% of women.

Yet the question remains, why did it have to be this way? Why could county T20 not have been sped up on the field and reimagined as a slimmed-down two-division concept off it, with names and identities recast and the top tier given the same gargantuan push we will witness this summer. Promotion and relegation is a tenet of British sport, na alles. Women’s sides could have aligned with eight of them, as occurs in the regional game, and been given the same billing, with a goal of future expansion.

In many ways doubling down on the county game represented the braver option, exploiting the geographical spread of English cricket’s 18 professional hubs rather than reducing it but also demanding they broaden their reach. But it came down to the ECB wanting ownership rather than custodian status, plus estimates that a two-tier Blast wouldn’t have raised anything like the Hundred’s projected £50m revenues. The ECB claims these will produce a £10m profit but does not factor in annual payments of £25m to the 18 counties and MCC – £1.3m each – for essentially borrowing the cream of the workforce for five peak summer weeks. It sounds more like a loss-leader.

A concern is that by starting anew and separate from existing competitions, the remainder of the sport has tacitly received a free pass to continue falling short as regards some of the issues outlined above. The idea that those sceptical of the Hundred are simply traditionalists stuck in the past is not fair either; most want the sport to embrace the values it claims to espouse, they just wouldn’t respond to a leaking roof by building an annexe next to the house.

At least the weather is set fair this week – the biggest fear for any administrator during non-Covid times – but whether the metaphorical clouds surrounding the Hundred shift remains to be seen.

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