By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) - The launch of The Hundred was postponed until 2021 on Thursday as the coronavirus pandemic forced the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) to put its new limited overs experiment on hold.
The innovative franchise-based league, including an American sports-style draft and featuring eight city-based men's and women's with names such as London Spirit, Manchester Originals and Trent Rockets, was scheduled to begin in mid-July.
Last week the ECB extended the suspension of all professional cricket in England until July 1.
"The situation we find ourselves in as a country means that delivery of The Hundred will not be possible this summer," ECB Chief Executive Officer Tom Harrison said in a statement.
"Whilst we are naturally disappointed that we won't get to realise our ambitions this year, The Hundred will go ahead in 2021 when we are safely able to deliver everything we intended to help grow the game.
Matches would have comprised 100 balls per innings with a change of ends after 10 deliveries.
Bowlers would deliver either five or 10 consecutive balls and no more than 20 balls per game.
The ECB has invested heavily in The Hundred, a competition it believes will attract a younger audience to the sport. The organisation said staging it without fans would have directly contradicted its goals.
Critics have suggested The Hundred's costs were prohibitive and that it would detract from the already-popular T20 Blast -- a competition involving every first class county.
Running costs for the inaugural season have risen to a reported 35 million pounds ($43.69 million) before factoring in lucrative player payments.
A home broadcasting deal with Sky Sports is worth 36.5 million pounds but it was likely the competition would initially run at a loss, prompting criticism and even an inquiry by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).
Despite the delay, however, Harrison says the ECB remains firmly committed to the competition, saying it has the potential to help cricket recover from the financial impact of the pandemic that has cut off cash flows.
The 18 first-class counties were due to each receive 1.3 million pounds each from The Hundred.
"As we emerge from the fallout of COVID-19, there will be an even greater need for The Hundred," he said.
"Our survival as a game, long-term, will be dependent on our ability to recover financially and continue our ambition to build on cricket's growing fan base. That need has not gone anyway, if anything, it is now more critical."
According to the ECB, more than 180,000 tickets had been sold for matches scheduled in 2020, all of which will be refunded.
The domestic cricket calendar in England has been severely impacted by the coronavirus crisis.
England's three-match home test series against West Indies scheduled for June and the women's T20I and ODI matches against India in June and July will also be moved.
Nine rounds of the English County Championship will be lost while the T20 Blast, which was due to start on May 28, will be pushed as late in the season as possible.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Ken Ferris and Toby Davis and Christian Radnedge)