Winners and losers of The Hundred have been hailed and damned ever since the competition was first conceived, but across the course of this weekend the coronations will, for the first time, take place in objective fashion on the cricket field.
Starting with Friday night’s eliminators at the Kia Oval, between Oval Invincibles and Birmingham Phoenix on the women’s side and Southern Brave and Trent Rockets on the men’s, the tournament reaches its climax, the winners going on to face the Brave and the Phoenix in their respective finals on Saturday across the capital at Lord’s.
It has become cliched to suggest that the views on either side of The Hundred debate have been so entrenched for so long that minds are not for changing, but in the chasm between the stubborn extremes, something approaching a consensus has emerged: one of being frustrated with obtrusive TV graphics but otherwise mildly impressed by the entertainment on offer from a format that benefits from a concentration of talent not on show in the T20 Blast, and more than mildly impressed by the provision of an elevated platform for the women’s game, one of the competition’s key stated aims.
The tournament began with a standalone women’s fixture and while huge pay disparity remains a major issue, concerns that a double-header format born out of pandemic penny-pinching might degrade one half of the competition have proved wide of the mark.
Coverage has been excellent, quality beyond anything seen in English women’s domestic cricket and crowds strong, in spite of mainly mid-afternoon midweek starts. Given a Sunday at Lord’s earlier this month, London Spirit and the Brave set a new women’s domestic attendance record at more than 15,000. You don’t envisage too many stragglers at the same ground for Saturday’s 3pm final.
Short-term wins come with the caveats that fears for county cricket have by no means been dispelled, and the the jury will remain out for some time on the more complex aspects of The Hundred’s impact on the rest of the game, including the men’s Test team.
The timing of England’s continued batting woes, set against the backdrop of a carnival of colourful, crisp-logo-clad six-hitting, has been symbiotically unhelpful. The Hundred’s dominance of the domestic schedule might have left contenders to fill the top order void - such as Dawid Malan, short of red-ball cricket - but Test collapses have also seen the likes of Jonny Bairstow and Moeen Ali called away from a tournament which they were lighting up, though the latter is back with the Phoenix.
With most of the biggest overseas names missing because of Covid, this has felt like a ‘lite’ version of the star-studded IPL-esque tournament the ECB wants to create, but it is no coincidence that the teams to have made it this far are littered with the best of those that remain, as well as England internationals not double-booked with Test action.
The Brave can call on South Africa’s Quinton de Kock alongside James Vince, who scored an ODI hundred earlier this summer, England stalwart Chris Jordan and Tymal Mills, who may yet bolt his way into Eoin Morgan’s T20 World Cup squad. The Rockets boast probably the best T20 bowler on the planet in Rashid Khan and officially the No1 batsman, Malan, plus Alex Hales.
As well as Moeen, the Phoenix have Liam Livingstone, the country’s form white-ball cricketer, who blasted them straight into the final with a magnificent 92 off 40 on Tuesday.
Off the back of a breakout summer with England, Livingstone has undoubtedly been one of the individual winners of The Hundred’s debut. Now, finally, two teams are about to get their reward.