This month marks the start of a season of cricket which is set to bring us an unprecedented line-up of both an Ashes series and a World Cup taking place on British soil. Enough excitement you would think to attract even the most peripheral follower of the great game.
It also happens to be at a time of yet further significant change in the sport, with some (arguably too many) believing that the English Cricket Board (ECB) is simply trying too hard to reach a wider, youthful audience.
For those who aren’t familiar with new developments in the sport, I’m talking about the Hundred tournament – 100 ball innings, 10 ball overs, bowlers able to change after five balls. This format, due to launch next year, exists nowhere else in the world and no other country is expected to take it on in the future.
It’s fair to say that the Hundred has had its fair share of criticism. Just this week the bible of cricket, Wisden, described the format as something that “hung over the English game like the Sword of Damocles” and even described it as “Cricket’s Brexit”. Wowsers that’s harsh, I thought, even with my pretty cynical and traditional mindset, leaving very sensibly aside my Brexit views.
To reinforce my cynicism, I did what any PR would do in such a situation and asked the opinion of an actual writer, a cricket specialist, who had a bit too much time on his hands. Expecting a diatribe of vitriol against the format, with claims of selling out against the traditions of cricket, leading to a further nail in the coffin of the test format, I emptied my inbox to allow sufficient space for the expected mammoth barrage. What I got back was both surprising and though-provoking. Clearly a well-trained journalist…
“Good idea,” he said, “It pays for county cricket”. And that’s the thing. Avid cricket fans have a special place in their heart for county cricketers who toil away for months on end in front of one man and his dog for very little money. It is thought that this format will double the average salary of a county cricketer who takes part. But what about your average casual follower of the sport?
My initial prejudice against this format was born from the fact that my (still relatively young) children are already into the T20 format, so why would they need an even more watered-down version? However, when reminded that my approach to cricket education is somewhat similar to the ‘competitive dad’ character from the Fast Show, perhaps I overestimate the average fan’s attention span to what is fundamentally a pretty nuanced game.
The issue, I’m told by my journalist contact, is the PR around the tournament. Typical journo – always blame the PR. His point was that the tournament was launched almost exactly a year ago, and details have been drip fed, consulted upon and commented on endlessly during that time. Why not get the detail right and launch with a big fanfare as a done deal. At least then we know what we are in for.
Normally I would agree, and certainly for many corporate change programmes, getting the detail out quickly, in one drop, is often the right approach. Cricket, however, has never worked like that and I suspect never will. Like any sport, it has its politics, it has protagonists with vastly different agendas and it has its history. It’s not a mailable product that can be reformed in a flash.
The reality is, I suspect, that the Hundred will be a great success. It doesn’t matter that no one else plays that format (Rugby Union did quite well in the end). The ECB will be proven correct in the long-term and will bring significant money into the county game. In the meantime, I suspect that there will be enough distractions this summer for the detractors’ attention to be focused elsewhere and this time next year the body of support for the tournament will be there to make a great success of it. Whilst it might not find our next test opener, it may just expand the youthful player base to give some hope for the future.