It might just work but probably not for a lot of the reasons we’re being sold.
The risks associated with the ECB’s latest innovation have been well covered elsewhere. For those opposed there are genuine concerns around the financial liabilities, the impact on other forms of the game, the excluded players and the viability of the Counties themselves. For proponents, The Hundred is the potential gateway for a legion of new fans who will secure the long-term future of cricket in England and Wales, and be a useful money-spinner to boot.
There doesn’t seem to be much room for a middle ground. To take the position that it is a big risk but could work. The Hundred seems to be either a disaster waiting to happen or a brave new world feared by traditionalists and nay sayers.
One of the problems could be that, while The Hundred may have potential, it doesn’t lie in the rationale we were originally sold.
“The Hundred will be fast-paced, high-energy action simplified into an easily digestible & approachable format for everyone to enjoy.”
This had been the basis of the justification from the start. The ECB frequently pointed to its own and ICC research that pictured a large, younger, more diverse, audience that would be drawn to cricket were the game not so darn complicated. Yet, the tool devised by the ECB is by no stretch of the imagination simpler that T20 other than the ability to say “100 balls” rather than “20 overs”.
In fact, the new format is probably more difficult to understand. Rather than six balls delivered from one end by bowler A and then six from the other by bowler B, we have ten balls from one end which may be bowled by bowler A or may be divided, five each, by bowlers A and B. Throw in a PowerPlay available to each team and a timeout, all to be explained to this audience who didn’t watch cricket because it was too complicated. It’s not rocket science but is not simpler.
The match will be shorter than T20 but not as short as T10, which already exists. Ticket prices will be lower – though why a new format is needed to adjust the amount charged for entrance to a cricket match is unclear.
So, without an innovation that actually addresses many of the issues raised by the research, the selling of the promised spectacle has instead been to the fore:
“Lights, music, entertainment, and world class sport. The Hundred is coming. Bringing blockbuster entertainment for the whole family to enjoy.
“We’re excited to reveal our new main stage in the stadium, which will be your focus in the venue, giving you the chance to be closer to our superstar players.
“Here come our stars! We want to give your heroes the welcome they deserve. We’re excited to show you our brand-new entrance to the playing arena. It’s going to be spectacular!”
Back in 2001, ITV staged a coup by stealing the rights to show highlights of the English football Premier League – then trading under the moniker ‘the Premiership’ – from under the noses of the BBC via a, then, enormous £183 million payout. BBC’s Match of the Day was no more, ITV’s The Premiership was born and it was on a mission to reach audiences that its predecessor had missed. It would be on earlier – 7PM; be younger and funkier – U2 singing the theme, kids!; it would use the latest technology – ‘pro-zone’!; bring viewers closer to the players – ‘the tactic truck’!; and hear the voice of the fans in their very own show – ‘The Premiership Parliament’!
It didn’t work. Amongst all the innovation and difference-signalling, one central point seemed to be missed: that people tuned in to watch the football and all the other stuff just got in the way. You could be the biggest U2 fan, a total technophile or a lover of middle-aged men in shiny football shirts voicing ill-thought-out opinions, you weren’t going to watch the show for any other reason than football highlights and a bit of informed punditry. It’s why the Match of the Day formula had achieved such longevity. Predictably, viewing figures sank and soon the show had moved to the traditional 10:30PM, dropped the gimmicks and became a MOTD-a-like, but with advertising breaks. By the start of the 2004/5 season, Premier League highlights were back on the BBC.
So runs a danger for The Hundred.
Enticing people with whizz-bangs is fine. Providing entertainment for children to wander off to when their attention span wanes works. Ultimately, though, people are only going to go to a cricket match and keep coming back for the cricket. Fun fairs are available elsewhere all year round. Or as John Arlott much more eloquently put it: “The marginal spectator might come once to see cover point fielding on roller skates, but he would not return. And when he went out, he would be followed by the old regulars.”
The good news for advocates of The Hundred is that, in many way, for all the bluster and tinkering, it is not hugely different from what has come before and worked and it has a couple of additional advantages. The current short-format game of T20 sells well, draws crowds where families are a notable component; aided by the Counties who ensure there is plenty going on around the game and, mostly, make sure players are accessible for the autograph-hunters at the end. The Hundred does not need to invent this.
Where the new competition has a potential edge over T20 is in the quality of the squads and the return of live cricket to free-to-view television. By reducing the number of teams and increasing the overseas representation, each match will provide an enticing line-up of cricketing talent. There will be noticeable absences – Indian players remain exclusive to the IPL and an England v. India Test series will mean many key figures will be mostly otherwise occupied – and that is a shame, the pulling power of an Kohli or an Archer would be enormous, but names like Warner, Morgan or Healy, cannot be sniffed at.
The availability of matches on the BBC is also huge. In the UK, selling any sport other than football and turning the players into household names is a Herculean task when hidden behind a paywall. What is noticeable about these undoubted selling points is that they are about the game itself, not the novelties scattered around it.
Neither of those things needed the invention of a new format to be achieved but the impetus for that decision likely sits elsewhere. In some ways just being different allows the ECB to make the level of noise it needs – Look! It’s different! – and the many loud dissenting voices have no doubt helped them with that. Just as important for the ECB is that the changes have allowed them to place the copyright symbol on the format and try to avoid a repeat of having to watch on as the BCCI took the ECB-initiated T20 and made it their very own cash-cow.
Whatever the inspiration, with quality cricketers on the field and the exposure of free-TV, there’s a very good chance the ECB’s bet will, pandemic allowing, pay off, all depending on how you define that.
In the short-term, crowds should come and money should be made, eventually. If the profit margins look healthy enough, it may entice other boards to enquire what it would cost to adopt The Hundred brand (or see a proliferation of other quirky formats with their own copyrighted logo). Those returns – should they arrive in large enough amounts to cover the significant outlay already committed – could be a genuine boost for the finances of the ECB.
However, would bums on seats and signs of a future profit be enough to call this a success? What of the huge new audience this is meant to be predicated on? Will those turning up to The Hundred be a significantly different audience from that which already comes to the T20 Blast? There will be no way to determine that quickly, so it will remain a moot point. How will a pipeline from Hundred to County support work for any County other than those picked as hosts? How will any money made be used to support the game outside of the new franchises and those lucky enough to be picked? These are just as important questions as to whether ticket sales are initially good – though without the crowds buying into it the whole thing falls apart.
In the short term, The Hundred may well look a success. The real challenge for the ECB is how to turn any extra income or interest into a genuine long-term benefit for the wider sport. The real danger is that any success will be attributed to the quirks, flashes and short-term attractions and taken as a signal for more of the same. If it works, it need to be part of a well thought-out plan for the game on these shores and that is where the greatest uncertainty about the ECB’s strategy lies.