Is The Hundred good for English cricket?

The highly debated new tournament is dividing England much like Brexit, exposing the class struggle in the country. Its launch in July will quickly reveal if the short format is able to draw in new fans.

The English middle class is in a strange, conflicted place. It has its customs and foibles, its insecurities and blind spots, its heroes and totems. One source of its pride is cricket.

The working class has made great strides in recent times. Upcountry in Yorkshire, Durham and Lancashire, the sport continues to garner enthusiasm across the social divide. South Asians fresh from the subcontinent or born to immigrant families provide a frenetic groundswell for cricket’s pipelines. But success with bat and ball continues to require financial backing and football is still king on council estates, factories and construction sites. It is telling that 43% of English cricketers went to private schools that educate around 7% of the United Kingdom’s population. 

The elite’s historical dominion of the game remains in the plush rooms at Lord’s and on the manicured lawns of private schools that date back centuries, but it is too small to wield authoritarian power.

It is the middle class that keeps the game alive. These are the people who subscribe to Sky Sports with its pay-television channels, attend matches at stadiums and travel around the world supporting their team, boasting about the strength of the British pound in stands commandeered in previously colonised nations. 

But the middle class is divided. It comprises Tories and socialists. Its opinions on the European Union are varied. And, as is the case with the endless trudge that is Brexit, the English middle class finds itself at odds over a simple yes/no question: Is The Hundred good for cricket?

When the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) announced in 2002 that it would trial an additional format, most dismissed it as a gimmick. Critics figured the idea would fade away or be viewed as a sideshow, like the Hong Kong Sixes or indoor cricket.

From gimmick to money-spinner 

Even when international teams dipped their toes into the new game, most treated it as a joke. At Eden Park in Auckland, where the inaugural Twenty20 (T20) international took place on 17 February 2005, New Zealand’s Hamish Marshall wore a large afro wig as his teammates entered the field in retro kits and comically floppy hats.

“Neither side took the game seriously,” Peter English reported for ESPN Cricinfo at the time. “The opening scenes were cricket’s version of Saving Private Ryan as limbs, projectiles and bits of wood flew in all directions.” 

Ricky Ponting earned the man of the match award for his unbeaten 98 off 55 balls, but even he said the format was “hard to take seriously” after Australia claimed a 44-run victory.

Today, T20 is no laughing matter. It has revolutionised the way the game is played and has made millionaires of cricketers. The Indian Premier League deserves to be mentioned among sporting juggernauts such as the English Premier League and the National Football League. The format’s ability to bring teams closer together has seen improved performances from nations outside of the elite Test-playing group.

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The ECB is hoping it will strike oil a second time with The Hundred, which kicks off in July 2020 and features some of the best men and women players in the game. The new format – each team faces and then bowls 100 balls, with overs reduced to five balls apiece rather than the six that bowlers must deliver in other iterations – will fit into three hours and adhere to free-to-air time constraints, thereby allowing the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) to air cricket for the first time since 2006. This version of cricket will, in theory, make it easier for new fans to follow. 

Taking the game to the people 

The ECB’s intentions, as they’ve spelled them out, are commendable. For too long, cricket has remained locked behind a paywall and attracting a new demographic will encourage growth in participation and revenue. But, as the English poet and playwright Samuel Johnson said, “Hell is paved with good intentions.”

From the very first, there has been resistance to The Hundred. Some felt the ECB’s desire to attract “mums and kids” – as former England director Andrew Strauss put it – was patronising. There was a growing sense that the ECB’s desire to dumb down cricket implied that only dyed-in-the-wool cricket afficionados could grapple with the complexities of counting to six or understand the ways in which runs are scored.

Then there was the perceived dismantling of the county structure that has existed since the late 1800s. There are 18 teams that compete across two divisions in first-class, four-day cricket, as well as 50-over and T20 competitions. Teams like Yorkshire, Lancashire, Surrey and Hampshire are legendary institutions. The honours boards in stadiums such as Old Trafford, Headingley and The Oval read like a guest list at the most exclusive party for cricketing royalty across the ages.

The Hundred has decided to carve a new historical path by opting for an eight-team, city-based competition. What’s more, the teams have sought to establish entirely new identities for themselves.

Bowlers trundling towards the wicket at Lord’s next year will not be doing so with the iconic triumvirate of scimitars of Middlesex County Cricket Club on their chests. Instead, they will sport the jagged hodgepodge of fonts that spell out “London Spirit”. Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire have been bundled together as the rebranded Trent Rockets to take on the Welsh Fire, the Manchester Originals and similarly named franchises – all coached by foreigners – that appear to have been conjured from the imagination of a character from Mad Men

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This restructuring of the old ways has elicited a backlash. Writing in The Guardian newspaper last year, Andy Bull called The Hundred a “baffling move from the ECB” under the headline “Cricket for idiots”. Twitter accounts called “Oppose The Hundred” and “Love Cricket Hate The Hundred” have garnered more than 4 000 followers between them. 

Cricket’s great divide 

Comment sections on social media from some critics of The Hundred mirror those found below articles relating to subjects such as Brexit or Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. There is a strong sense of tribalism with divisions between the camps beginning to deepen.

“The opposition to the format comes from the sport’s current consumer base,” said cricket writer and commentator Tasneem-Summer Khan. “So quite literally, the exact people this is not for. This is akin to men having an opinion on the ease of tampons versus sanitary towels.”

In a polarising article on The Cricketer magazine’s website, Khan writes that ethnic minorities have been treated like second-class citizens in traditional county cricket structures, much like they have in the wider English middle class. This is underlined by the booze-heavy culture that still permeates the country and how members’ stands are still mostly filled with old white men. British Asians turned out en masse during the 2019 ICC Cricket World Cup. Will they do so again?

The Hundred will squeeze an already cramped domestic cricket season and is scheduled to run concurrently with England’s 50-over competition. This will steer talent away from a format that has England – having won said World Cup – as its champion. With 50-over cricket further marginalised, England’s chances of defending their title will diminish. 

And what of the Test team? Pound for pound, the Three Lions are the worst performing red ball side on the planet. Joe Root’s men failed to win a series in 2019, the first time this has occurred in a calendar year this century. Fans of the five-day game have legitimate concerns about its future. 

In October, the UK’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport grilled executives from the ECB’s governing body. On trial was the organisation’s commitment to expanding its audience, better incorporating ethnic minorities and women in its player and fan bases, and appealing to demographics that had, for too long, considered the sport beyond their orbit on the grounds of class and cost. Naturally, The Hundred hovered like a spectre.

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“We’re better placed to address the challenges than we’ve ever been,” was ECB chief executive Tom Harrison’s bold claim. With a men’s ICC Cricket World Cup trophy safely stowed in the silverware cabinet and an ever-developing women’s game, there was some evidence to support this.

But some of the figures revealed at the inquiry are damning. Since the 2005 Ashes, widely considered the most significant event in English cricket along with the 2019 World Cup and the last Ashes to be broadcast on free-to-air television, participation and viewing statistics are down. Between 2006 and 2016, the number of people aged 16 and above playing cricket at least once a week had dropped by a staggering 38 000 across the country. 

Now that Boris Johnson is firmly ensconced at 10 Downing Street, The Hundred shares another trait with Brexit; it is definitely going to happen. But unlike the UK’s disentanglement from the most successful union of democracies in history, The Hundred will only impact those who care about this antiquated pastime. 

The mechanics of the sport will remain the same. A bowler will deliver a ball that a batter will try and launch into orbit. The number of balls or the name on the badge will not change that. 

The ideological struggle currently gripping cricket fans in England is one that contemporaries in South Africa, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe would trade for in a heartbeat. The angst is almost comical when compared to the ineptitude of cricket boards, decaying infrastructure and uninterested fan bases around the world.

It is commendable that so many in England care. That in itself is positive. But these problems are for those who are blessed to live in cricket’s first world while sitting comfortably in its middle class.

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