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The Hundred, the uncomfortable truth.

So I’ve decided to take the plunge on the issue of The Hundred and write about it, perhaps because I’ve taken leave of my senses or just like the trouble who knows? I feel Twitter where most of the current debate is being had isn’t the best forum and it’s not just The Hundred debate that is becoming toxic on the platform. To make a strong case whilst at the same time sympathising with your opponents is near impossible with the amount of characters allowed and the ease at which you can just enforce your own opinion by creating an echo-chamber is scary. So with that in mind I’ve decided to write in full my argument about the Hundred in a post on Sillypoint.

I’ll start by telling you a bit about my background which is I’m 23 year old from Manchester and have been a massive cricket geek since 2004. As a result of my home city and influence from my dad I naturally became a supporter of Lancashire but not until sometime after I was a fan of England. My love of sport spreads across pretty much anything from football to rugby and even boxing.

So that’s me but what about The Hundred. Well I’ll get to the point which is I quite like the idea. I will though start by talking about the areas that I’m not so keen on so please don’t press back in a moment of anger and rage. Despite the PR getting slightly better as we head towards the start of the tournament there’s no denying that the concept was shoddily presented to the wider cricketing public.

The downsides to The Hundred.

A press release in the middle of the afternoon with little explanation and no platform to receive questions and deal with concerns frankly was a bit poor. The drip feeding of explanation and at times mixed messages have been held against The Hundred ever since by the naysayers.

Colin Graves is an interesting character; a former England captain described him as being a “typical Yorkshiremen” when he expressed too much of his opinion on a West Indies side when he first got the job in 2015. He’s someone who doesn’t particularly mince his words and says whatever he’s thinking which some may say as leader of the ECB he shouldn’t be doing. At times his loose lips have given people the opportunity to nitpick into what he has said and ignore the general context of the point he was making, but more on that later.

Another aspect to the tournament I’m not a fan of is that it will clash next season with the 50 over domestic competition. Downgrading the tournament will surely reduce the quality of 50 over cricketers in this country and hamper England’s chances in future tournaments because of it. This however from the following year will likely change to the County Championship which I much prefer and will explain later on.        

Purpose of county cricket.

Now to the bit most of you probably won’t like reading, but I hope my opening olive branch of me meeting you halfway by saying what I don’t like about The Hundred will encourage you to carry on. As much as I am a Lancashire fan and enjoy going to watch them play in all forms I can see the major problems with county cricket and how it just isn’t meeting any of its purposes.

The purpose of county cricket will vary depending on your point of view and what you think is most important. Largely I imagine you fall under at least one of these categories; to provide quality players for the national team, prepare current England players for international duty, to entertain county members, bring new people into the game or to make money.

Being completely honest about the current form of county cricket I just don’t think it’s doing particularly well at meeting any of those purposes. I’ll start with the first one which is providing quality players for England and I’m sure everyone would agree that over the last couple of years England’s test team has struggled especially playing in alien conditions. Now The Hundred obviously won’t fix this on its own because the bigger solutions may be held in the type of pitches that are prepared and what type of ball is used in the championship. The issue of red ball cricket being pushed to the bookends of the season could however be helped by The Hundred as Ashley Giles two weeks ago did hint at playing the two together.

This is something that is simply not possible with the Blast as the amount of players that the tournament uses. In fact it helps with most of the issues including preparing England red ball players such as Burns, Crawley, Sibley, Andersen and Broad. It also gives a player such as Stokes or Buttler who play all forms the choice of playing a championship match before a test match if they so choose.

This also must be an improvement for county members who can watch red ball cricket in the height of the summer. I strongly feel that championship cricket shouldn’t be played in the test match grounds in front of over 20,000 empty seats. It’s a horrible look compared to that of out grounds where a much more festival/community atmosphere is generated.

Taking 2-3 rounds which are currently played in April and putting them in August is surely the closest thing to a solution there is. With that and the new found popular streaming service of county games is the best way to grow the County Championship. Obviously some money would need to be spent on the facilities at the out grounds to get them up to scratch.

Why City based?

I’ll talk about finances a little later but now I want to get into the specifics of The Hundred compared with the Blast and how cricket fits into today’s society. I think to call teams after counties in the year 2019 is a bit old fashioned and not really something young people generally engage with especially where a lot of the major test grounds are (in cities).

I’ve recently spent the last few years at university and out of everyone that I’ve met and asked where they’re from only one person has said a county, that’s because this particular person is from a remote part of Norfolk. Now I know this isn’t exactly proof my little experiment but I encourage you to have a go at asking your kids, nieces, nephews or grandkids where they identify with being from to see their response for yourself.

I’m now going to try desperately hard not to offend anyone here but it’s certainly a generational thing identifying with a county. The chances are if you can remember a time before the 1970’s boundary change you probably still think of yourself being from a county but due to devolution, modern culture and football the cities have taken over. No one thinks of Oasis coming from Lancashire or god forbid UB40 coming from Warwickshire and let’s not forget that the likes of my home ground Old Trafford isn’t anywhere near Lancashire.

I actually wish that more of the teams were named after the host city for instance in Nottingham I feel they’ve tried to make everyone happy but in turn made no one happy. Trent Bridge is next to two big football teams named after Nottingham right in the heart of the city so would be a perfect opportunity.

Staying with the cities theme and another reason I think the switch is a good idea is that cricket probably currently does better in what political analysts may call Conservative heartland. The shires and villages and the more upmarket places where people can afford Sky, membership and the equipment are perhaps not where cricket needs to concentrate its efforts.         

In and around cities and more deprived areas cricket seems a lot less relevant, this is where a lot of the ECB’s target market is for The Hundred. Large south Asian communities where cricket already is very popular but the Blast has been unable to connect with is a real area where The Hundred can come into its own. The tournament will replicate popular tournaments such as the IPL and PSL which are already hitting the spot in these communities.

We’re already seeing the positive impact of reducing the amount of teams to eight by the fact that it allows more money to be spent per team on marketing. I’m sure even the most anti-Hundred person there is has probably come across some form of advertisement for their closest team, the PR is only likely to get bigger the closer we get to the tournament beginning. Not to mention that with only eight teams and one game a night all the matches can be televised which will create a much stronger narrative for casual fans.

Changing to 100 balls.

So having talked about why I feel a change to city based competition is better let’s talk about the actual 100 balls idea. The ECB claim they did research into how to make cricket more accessible which I’m sure everyone would agree isn’t a bad idea for a governing body to talk to people about the barriers that stop them from becoming customers.

As to what I eluded to earlier this part probably wasn’t too well managed by the ECB and professional journalists have talked about the fact that this research wasn’t published. The findings that the ECB talk about appear to make sense for me. They say the message they got back was the Blast goes on to late which in 2019 quite a few matches were going on till around 10pm and cricket can be a little complicated.

Now ok the actual flesh of the research hasn’t been exposed by the ECB but surely those findings aren’t too surprising and are what you would generally expect to hear. 10pm is late for school children and families to be out till and that’s just when these matches are finishing. As for cricket being too complicated well if you think cricket is simple compared with other sports then you’ve spent too long in the game, sit someone who knows nothing about cricket in front of a scoreboard and ask them to explain it to you.

In the wake of the announcement of the format Colin Graves was perhaps a little too loose lipped when talking about the fall in interest for cricket from children. People said he was talking nonsense because they took his words literally which they had the right to do as you would like to think that the chairmen would be a little bit more careful about what he says. This did however deter everyone away from the point Graves was trying to make which was absolutely correct that cricket had become irrelevant among much of the younger generations.

This argument is well supported by facts such as lowering participation figures, WWE wrestlers being more recognisable and the age demographic of test match viewers (hence why Specsavers sponsor the test’s). A lot of talk has been about why there is still the need for The Hundred after such a successful summer in 2019. Well we probably had a bigger breakthrough summer in 2005 which went nowhere because the ECB weren’t ready to build upon it.

Next year there won’t be a World Cup final that goes down to the wire on channel 4 nor will Ben Stokes pluck victory from the jaws of defeat in an Ashes test match. It’s surely a cheap excuse to not have The Hundred and certainly failing to learn anything from history. It was after all in the ECB’s vision to build on what they were hoping would be a successful 2019 summer which is why they waited till 2020 to launch it.     

Terrestrial TV  

Now comes the big fish argument in terrestrial television. Before the format of hundred balls was announced the BBC did post an article talking about how the ECB were under pressure from broadcasters to find a way to shorten T20 because they were worried about the time being taken at the IPL. I have since struggled to find the article but did manage to find a similar one from around the same time in the Mail Online.

Mixed messages have come out about whether this is true as Tom Harrison played it down on BBC radio but Colin Graves did confirm it in parliament a few weeks ago. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle as the BBC would not have been happy with having to show eight matches at the very minimum requiring three hours of coverage over a six week window.

There is very little precedent for that sort of programming on terrestrial TV and made the chances of the cricket venturing onto BBC 1 a complete impossibility. Another point worth remembering is that the ECB will want the BBC to continue to show cricket beyond the current agreed contract and cricket fans in this country know all too well what happens if you don’t try and adapt your product for terrestrial TV.  

Everything wrong with the Blast.

Now let’s look at what we already have in the T20 Blast as most opponents of new tournament say we already have a successful short format tournament why change it? Well just is it though? First of the bat as I’ve already explained it needs a lot of space in the calendar so no other form of first team cricket can be played. Secondly it makes very little money, according to Simon Hughes by adding up all the counties balance sheets you reach a loss of £2.4 million and that’s after The Hundred’s cash injection from the ECB, plus £180 million worth of debt floating around county cricket.

Wow a modern sporting tournament making that little money, must be dare I say “mediocre” especially comparing it to its counterparts around the world or to other sports. On Twitter I saw a Hundred hater say that calling our teams after counties was the Blast’s USP, well I’m afraid it just doesn’t sell.

The attendances aren’t good I’m afraid and this is where English cricket’s small sport mentality really shows at the joy of having a crowd of 4-5 thousand. That is a small number for a sporting event and leads to the blast of having an average attendance of around 7,000 in 2018 (according to Wikipedia, if you don’t trust it I’m happy for you to find your own figure but I’m sure it won’t be anything higher then 10,000). Japanese 2nd division football got a higher average that year and in cricket the Big Bash is around 20,000 and the IPL is 30,000. The Blast then coming in way short and we need to do better as even the women’s big bash has a higher average attendance.

The set up with the percentage of matches shown on TV in the Blast is very low and often there can be five or six games being played at once with only one of them on Sky. This means for the rest of them very poor quality video clips is all fans have in terms of watching any of the action. This is just another area that the Blast lags behind other tournaments and The Hundred will rectify it.

Another position that is held by many is scrapping The Hundred and putting the same amount of Blast games onto terrestrial TV. This will not have the same impact as nine games is barely a drop in the ocean for the amount of matches that are involved with the Blast. No narrative will be told over the weeks and not even every team will be shown. The BBC apparently isn’t keen anyhow on showing county cricket.

Now I’m sure if you’re a Hundred bashing county member you’ve probably stopped reading a few hundred words ago but I want to finish with a hearts and minds appeal. I do genuinely think an eight team tournament based in the country’s biggest cities is the best way to connect with families and young people. I hope that the Hundred with the power of free-to-air TV could become the Premier League of the summer months. There is definitely a gap in the market for that type of event in the months of July and August as we’ve seen with the successes of the Fifa World Cup and Olympic Games that have been on at the time of year.   

I just want to conclude by simply saying be careful what you wish for. This is a tournament that’s going to have a considerable amount of it being played out on prime time BBC television slots that’s sure to be fantastic entertainment for people who haven’t seen cricket before. If you’ve got this far into the article thank you very much for reading it.

SillyPoint

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