Cricket-Watching Resumed: Part 2

28th July 2021

It is difficult to exaggerate the general opprobrium with which “traditional” cricket supporters greeted the announcement in the Spring of 2018 by the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) of the format which its new “The Hundred” competition would have. (I acknowledge at the outset that, as things stand, I am also in this camp). The tournament – which had been scheduled to begin last year, but which commenced at The Oval last week – is being contested by 8 city-based sides playing matches of 100 deliveries per innings over a month in the middle of the summer.

The main difficulty I have with The Hundred concept is that it has been parachuted in from above. There is neither a sense of tradition nor of history – the emphasis is entirely on the “new”. By design, there has been an abandonment of the county-based structure of the sport, in which a significant number of players come through local clubs and academies and where followers of the game can enjoy a sense of reflected pride when some of those players go on to the highest level. As a consequence, I was bound to wonder if there risked being only a fragile identification by The Hundred’s spectators with their “local” side.

On the last of these points, the ECB – through its combination of an auction system and the central allocation of players – appears to have attempted to have things both ways. Hence, whilst the Northern Superchargers have 7 Yorkshire players and 4 from Durham in their 16-man squad, the two Yorkshiremen with currently the highest profile (Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow) have been allocated elsewhere (to the Trent Rockets and the Welsh Fire, respectively). Likewise, Ollie Pope (Surrey and England) finds himself in the Welsh Fire squad, the Lancashire captain Liam Livingstone is lining up with the Birmingham Phoenix, Steven Finn (a Middlesex player since 2005) is one of Manchester Originals and the Welsh Fire have a total of one Welshman in the whole of the men’s playing squad. And so on. It all feels a bit arbitrary.

At a more general level, the traditionalist’s ire is raised by The Hundred’s domination of the central part of the summer, which further relegates the 4-day County Championship to the season’s margins, diminishes the identity that has been established by the (successful) T20 competition and effectively reduces the Royal London One-Day Cup (played over 50 overs per side) to an under-nourished exercise for county Second XIs – or, at least county 1½ XIs. It’s also reasonable to suggest, I think, that, given The Hundred’s stated aim of reaching a new – and younger – cricketing audience, its overall image might not have been enhanced by one of its major sponsors being a firm of crisp manufacturers.

The cricket correspondents of (some of) the national media captured this overall perspective. In The Guardian (8th September 2019), Simon Burnton reported that “[the ECB] is convinced that cricket’s fortunes will be transformed when the players are finally free to wear truly garish colours and the logo of a popular prawn cocktail-flavoured snack…”. He was particular damning about what he had seen on the tournament’s official website: “In particular, the final team names and the descriptions of their characteristics were so extraordinarily inane… Manchester Originals are “celebrating a global city of firsts” and “laughing in the face of limits”. Birmingham Phoenix are “a celebration of the strength in diversity, because different is good”… .[The] ECB, which had been repeatedly criticised for using ludicrous marketing-drivel during private meetings, had used even more ludicrous marketing-drivel in public”.

The critical theme was picked up in the same newspaper the following month by Matthew Engel: “The ECB’s strategy of forcing their new hyped-up contest…on an unwilling game is completely incoherent, staggeringly expensive and potentially disastrous… [The Hundred is] made-up teams playing a made-up game to sell junk food to children. Me, I hope it rains solidly for the next four Augusts”.

This general stance continued through to the eve of this month’s launch. George Dobell on ESPNcricinfo (15th July 2021) stated that “The [Hundred teams] have no pathways, no academies and no existing support base. They are parasites feeding on the players and supporters the county game has produced”.

I reproduce these quotes here not for dramatic effect, but because their sources are amongst the most respected commentators on our national summer sport. Engel is a former editor of the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack. He and Dobell (and others) are writing about a game that they know about, care about – and fear for.

The effects of the global Covid-19 pandemic continue to be felt on the tournament, as the various travel and quarantine restrictions around the world have prevented the participation in this year’s competition of many of the overseas stars who had initially signed up. This has noticeably applied to the Australian contingent: Steve Smith, David Warner, Mitchell Starc, Ellyse Perry et al. Their presence had been a significant feature of the organisers’ initial hype, not least in the televised auction programme on Sky Sports which in style (according to Engel) “was aimed at the nine-year-olds who are the alleged target audience”.

So much for the background context – as can be seen, generally critical from my perspective – in which I attended my first matches in The Hundred last Saturday: the women’s and men’s encounters between the Northern Superchargers and the Welsh Fire at Headingley. Of course, I recognise that the ECB would probably have been fairly indifferent to any pre-match suspicions (or, indeed, cynicism) that I might have had. As noted, I am a self-confessed cricket “traditionalist” and, accordingly, I am not in their “target demographic” (with apologies if that is not the correct marketing phrase). Nonetheless, I trust that I approached the event with an open mind in attempting to assess the validity of the whole concept.

The women’s match was the first up and, accordingly, presented an interesting test. If the new target audience is genuinely being sought, this game clearly warranted some attention.

I reached the conclusion quite early on in this first game that The Hundred is T20 on speed. Not only are the innings obviously shorter – a maximum of 100 deliveries rather than 120 – but time is saved by changing ends every 10 deliveries (rather than every 6) and then only allowing 50 seconds for that changeover to be made. At the mid-point in the 10 ball batch, which is signalled by the umpire waving a white card, the fielding side can choose to change the bowler. The fielders do have the option of a two-minute “strategic time out” during the innings, but otherwise the general feeling is one of getting on with it, undoubtedly driven by the timetabling requirements of the television broadcasters.

The sense of urgency is complemented by the incessant noise. At the risk of stating the obvious, a match in The Hundred is not the place to go for a peaceful session of cricket-watching. Rather, at Headingley, the breaks between each batch of 10 deliveries – an “over” is not in the vocabulary, apparently – was marked by a update (in the respective first innings, at least) of the runs scored and balls bowled, the on-site DJ blasting out one of her clubland favourites (not all of which were known to me, I must confess) or one of the two roving MCs conducting (yet another) short interview with one of the 9 year-olds in the crowd. I felt that the MCs had a touch of the Butlins’ Red Coats about them, as they led the communal countdown of the last 10 seconds before the first ball was bowled and, later, sought to find out if the spectators in the East Stand could shout louder than those on the Western Terrace (which was hardly a competition between equals, I thought).

In the respective second innings of the two matches, the main scoreboard went into reverse: runs required and deliveries remaining. It was here that the “make the game as simple as possible” mantra was fully revealed. Although the smaller scoreboard at the end of the Western Terrace gave slightly more detail, I could only see part of it because of my viewing position near the front of the Emerald Stand. The main scoreboard focused on runs and deliveries – not even total wickets, let alone the runs scored or conceded by individual players. The announcer did give the name of each new bowler but, when a player was dismissed, the attention was entirely on the incoming “batter” (sic) rather than any summary of the mode of dismissal or the runs he/she had scored.

I think this represented a significant gap in the presentation. Cricket is a game of several disciplines – batting, bowling, fielding, wicket-keeping – and it would have aided everyone’s understanding of what was happening (including mine) if we had been told how many runs an individual had made or what the bowler’s analysis was at the end of his/her maximum 20-delivery allocation or who had held the steepling catch on the boundary edge. If The Hundred’s organisers were to take my advice, I would suggest that they look very hard at the excellence of the in-stadium commentaries undertaken in the National Football League or college American Football matches in the US: in my experience, these are fully informative, without being intrusive, and significantly assist the spectator.

While I am on the subject, I also think it was a mistake not to have had any form of match programme. I know that I am swimming against the tide here – many football clubs no longer produce such items – but, again thinking of the target audience, I do recall the pleasure which I derived from sport-related programmes and magazines when I was aged 9 or 10. If well-produced, they represent a well to which one can regularly return; if nothing else, they are a souvenir of the event. On this occasion, they might also have informed me who the umpires were in the two matches; I do not recall that their names were announced at any time.

The Welsh Fire batted first in both the women’s and men’s matches. In the former, I was particularly interested in seeing the visitors’ wicket-keeper, Sarah Taylor. She is undoubtedly one of the most distinguished women cricketers that England has ever produced, her international career stretching from 2006 to 2019 and including 10 test matches as well as over 200 one-day or T20 internationals. She announced her arrival at the crease by reverse sweeping her second ball to the boundary and thereafter looking completely untroubled until she was stumped for 18, skilfully beaten in the flight by the left-arm spinner, Linsey Smith.

The Northern Superchargers looked to be making a bit of a hash of attempting to reach the victory target of 131, when they were reduced to 19 for 4 after 18 deliveries. However, their cause was rescued by a delightful innings of 92 not out by Jemimah Rodrigues, a 20 year-old who is already an experienced Indian international. She played a series of classic shots – drives through extra cover, deft cuts behind square on the off side, wristy whips to the vacant leg side boundary – and was a pleasure to watch. The Superchargers won with 15 balls to spare: a comfortable victory.

The Welsh Fire’s men’s side posted a higher total – 173 for 4 – than their female counterparts, having been given a predictably flying start by Jonny Bairstow (56 from 36 deliveries) with useful contributions from Ben Duckett and James Neesham. (The accompanying photograph, skilfully downloaded by my daughter from the television coverage during Bairstow’s innings, confirms my role as a media superstar – or, at least, “attentive spectator in blue jacket”).

The visitors’ score proved to be just sufficient. Although the Northern Superchargers had fallen well behind the required rate at the half-way stage, they were brought back into contention by the Yorkshireman, Harry Brook, who struck 62 from 31 deliveries. 11 runs were required from the final 5 balls, but the bowler Jake Ball held his nerve impressively and, at 168 for 7, the hosts fell 5 runs short. As in the women’s match, it was a 20 year-old – the Afghan leg-spinner Qais Ahmad, who took 4 wickets for the Welsh Fire – who was the “match hero” (or man-of-the-match in old-speak).

I will end by returning to an issue that I raised at the outset: the extent to which The Hundred’s spectators would identify with their “local” side. I was given a clue about this when I was waiting outside the ground before the start of play. I chatted to a middle-aged woman from Durham who had come to the match with her teenage son. He was fully kitted out in a Northern Superchargers sweatshirt and he enthusiastically relayed to me the members of the squad who hailed from his neck of the woods. She explained that they were looking forward to supporting the side in their matches this week at Trent Bridge and Old Trafford. When I (rather presumptuously) asked if they were regular cricket-watchers, the woman replied that they were both season ticket holders at Durham CCC.

Inside the ground, the size of the crowd built up during the afternoon and early evening to reach something just over 10,000. For the vast majority, there was absolutely no doubt whom they were supporting, given the loud cheers that greeted the announcements of Ben Stokes and Adil Rashid in the hosts’ line-up. As the men’s match reached its climax – and the succession of Brook’s 4s and 6s seemed to be leading the Northern Superchargers towards an improbable victory – the volume of home support was ratcheted up even further. The DJ’s interventions in the breaks in play added to the vibrant party atmosphere. People were here to have a good time. And they did.

The questions remain, of course. How many spectators were attending their first cricket match, rather than temporarily amending their allegiance like the mother and son from Durham? How many will return next time? Or the time after that, when the likes of Ben Stokes have returned to the England test team? Or the time after that, when there might be a much colder evening than we had on Saturday? And, not least – over the medium to long term – what will be the effects of The Hundred on the playing standards of (and attendance levels watching) the England test match and 50 over sides? The jury is out.

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