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At Large: Love it or hate it, the fate of the Hundred really counts

As the ECB's bold new format suffers further turbulence on its soft launch, SportsPro editor at large Eoin Connolly looks at what's really at stake for English cricket and sport in general.

by Eoin Connolly
At Large: Love it or hate it, the fate of the Hundred really counts

Cricket. Am I right? The world’s favourite bat-and-ball game - the biggest niche sport on the planet - has worn its share of lively descriptions. Chess made flesh. Baseball on valium. It’s the greatest thing that God ever created on Earth, or an English simulation of eternity. 

It’s a lot of things, but at its core it’s about the constant balance of risk and reward. And that balance has changed a hell of a lot since the creation of Twenty20. 

Depending on who you ask, the England and Wales Cricket Board’s (ECB) latest venture is either a bold, firm strike down the ground or an ungainly hoick that will soon be punished. The Hundred will launch next year with eight new teams across seven cities, a unique playing format, and a broadcast home on Sky Sports and - the crucial part - the free-to-air BBC. It will follow a tantalising summer of cricket, with England’s men favourites in a World Cup before an Ashes series against Australia, that is being greeted by some of the community like that heatwave back in February - inviting, but with cataclysmic portents. 

The Hundred has its supporters and will probably gather a few more before the first ball is bowled next July. Yet the reaction it draws from critics goes beyond scorn or cynicism to anger and even anguish. This is a debate about a very specific game in a very specific place, but it could repeat itself a hundred times over in sport over the decade ahead, so it’s worth getting up to speed. 

Originally expected to be a T20 affair, the new competition came to our attention over a few clunky lines in an April 2018 press release, the mysteries of its 100-ball-a-side regulations smothered in a communications plan of forced fun and unforced errors. Details about the new rules have arrived in a trickle, some through leaks with traces of mischievous embellishment. Hard facts have been scarce - the names of the eight teams won’t be known until later this year - and frustration has risen at this tell-don’t-show approach and a perceived lack of inclusivity in decision-making. 

The gaffes have flowed more readily; the latest, for the soft launch this week, involved the fleeting use of a rap concert stock photo, an early Google entry for ‘male audience’, to promote a tournament aimed at women and families. It’s a harmless mishap in the greater scheme of things but hostility and incredulity have rushed into an information vacuum. 

The Hundred arrives as a kind of reckoning for England’s national summer sport, one that comes at the end of a generation of trade-offs that could only hold for so long. A succession of exclusive pay-TV deals that yielded much-needed cash at the cost of a broader fanbase; a cherished domestic county system that is pivotal in community and talent development, but dependent on centralised subsidies.  

And in 2003, the ECB reinvented cricket by mistake. Twenty20 was established as a means of bringing more people into county grounds. It was never meant to subvert the entire commercial model of the sport. Every year since the Indian Premier League (IPL) emerged the originators of this rampant innovation have lost a little more control over their own destiny, despite the creditable recent growth of England's own T20 Blast. 

After years of half measures, the Hundred is meant to offer an answer to all of those challenges, throwing a UK£1.3 million guaranteed annual payment to existing county teams into the bargain. It is better suited to addressing some of them than others, and its fundamental purpose is to reinvigorate an audience that leans male, pale, and full of ale. The argument is that younger, more diverse support can be found through a tournament that is recognisably cricket but noticeably different - a space that newcomers can make their own.  

The IPL has taken short-form cricket to a level not foreseen when the ECB introduced Twenty20 cricket in 2003

In the early 1990s, when England were bad at cricket and cricket was badly underfunded, Test matches at least had an enviable place on the summer schedules - after the school holiday cartoons on free-to-air TV. It was the kind of slot that allowed for accidental discovery by a third-generation Irish kid with a funny name that he would, ironically, one day share with an England captain. 

That opportunity does not exist today. Non-specialist broadcasters don’t like the economics and the TV environment is completely different: children’s TV has its own channels and many kids prefer YouTube. For the Hundred to succeed on its own terms, it needs to sell tickets, and wow fans inside grounds - the Independent reports an annual UK£6 million event production budget. 

And it must also make the most of its time on air, developing storylines that live on various channels from the televised player draft in October through the end of every summer. The daunting remit is to break into the national conversation, like Love Island or The Great British Bake Off but with a fresh tactical dimension.  

People involved with the tournament, who’ve seen the closely guarded research and added up the numbers, are firm in their conviction it will succeed. For the record, I really hope it does. There are misgivings I don’t share - derision about the format, in a scenario-based game forever switching up rules and duration, seems a little confected. Then there are those that I do share. 

These are challenging times to be dealing with fans of things - when people who don’t like the ending to their favourite films or TV shows harass actors and demand reshoots - but the ECB risks alienating a community: people who have given their free time, and their less free money, to sustain a sport that has been widely neglected. The Hundred may not be for them but it needs at least their qualified blessing to prosper as intended.   

It’s very clear, and this is something that my background has taught me, that whenever you’re going to market with a property, you’re not thinking about the deal that you’re doing, you’re always thinking about the next deal

ECB chief executive Tom Harrison

A little over 18 months ago, I spoke at some length to ECB chief executive Tom Harrison, at that stage still basking in the glow of a Women’s World Cup win and the UK£1.1 billion, five-year deal with the BBC and Sky Sports that is now the foundation for this new enterprise. “It’s very clear,” he said then, “and this is something that my background has taught me, that whenever you’re going to market with a property, you’re not thinking about the deal that you’re doing, you’re always thinking about the next deal.”

The Hundred is pretty unusual in the history of sport. New elite formats are normally incorporations of something played elsewhere, in schools or parks or on the streets. This one was inspired by a single focal point - a scoreboard counting down from 100 - and built around that. It’s a messy process, and is bringing out the reality of glossy buzzwords like ‘disruption’. But fluidity is the watchword now. As the pressures of the attention economy, splintered media and venture capital are brought to bear, the ECB will not be the last sports body to try this. 

Harrison didn’t expand too far on what he had in mind for that next deal, but it matters that this works on the right level. If something like the Hundred can be pulled off, bringing a new audience to an old game, and protecting the community’s interest at the same time, it will reassure the paymasters and fans of sports around the world. If not, we risk losing a lot more than 20 deliveries per innings.