Hundreds of mistakes but get ready for tons of fun as ECB’s new 100-ball format finally hits lift-off

·4-min read
 (Getty Images for ECB)
(Getty Images for ECB)

After a tortured, tortuous years-long build-up, it will be a relief when a ball is finally bowled in the Hundred tonight.

It was more than three years since, in April 2018, the ECB revealed - in farcical fashion - that the shiny new T20 competition that had already divided the English game would not, in fact, be T20 at all. It would be a fourth format, the Hundred.

Exactly what was going on, nobody really seemed sure. There is not space here to chart the twists and turns, the muddled thinking and mud-slinging that the game has seen since.

But, a year later than scheduled (like so much else), we are on the verge of cricket actually breaking out.

Nothing in the Hundred has ever been as black and white as its proponents or detractors will make you think. This will be on show in the opening game: a standalone women’s match between Oval Invincibles and Manchester Originals at the Kia Oval, where there should be a decent crowd in – and it barely matters if they have paid for the pleasure or not.

Almost all the angst around this tournament relates to the men, and ignores that the Hundred will do wonders for the women’s game.

It has provided eight new teams, giving them equal promotional footing to their male counterparts. The prize money is equal, too. What is not equal is the salaries, which are risible.

The lowest-paid men still take home more than the highest-paid women. This has played its part in overseas stars withdrawing, and is testing semi-professional domestic players’ ability to take time away from their other jobs to play.

The ECB would do well to acknowledge these shortcomings and to correct them promptly. Just as they need to stop harping on about the music they are pumping out alongside the cricket, which should be plenty good enough to sustain itself. And just as they should include the annual £1.3million golden handshake each of the counties receive in their profit-loss calculations.

Covid-19 has changed the tournament. It has seen women’s games tacked on as double-headers - which, in the first instance, should be no bad thing - and it has denied them almost all their first-choice overseas players. The pingdemic could yet deny them many more players (and fans). England men’s Test stars will play just two games, a blow.

But some things have landed in their favour. The sun has come out. ‘Freedom Day’ was well-timed, so crowds can come. They can massage the figures in one of their most troublesome venues, Cardiff, because the Welsh government are still capping capacities. The London grounds will help pad out the average attendance (they are hoping for an average 60 per cent).

Certainly, the ECB have made missteps — hundreds of them. They have been guilty of some absurd blue-sky thinking. They have insulted their current audience. They have patronised the audience they are chasing. They have deepened divisions. They have failed to share research. They have parked 50-over cricket, immediately after England men won their first World Cup. Who knows what all this means for the future of the county game?

Their communication remains dismal, just as it was on the day they ambushed the counties back in 2018. Economy will be the watchword for bowlers in the Hundred. Economy of truth has been the ECB’s guiding principle.

In many ways, they have been making up for missed opportunities of the past - particularly allowing other nations to steal a march on T20 after they played it professionally first.

And yet, to say these are idiots operating out of pure greed and arrogance is incorrect. They believe this will future-proof the game. To say English cricket, right now, is for everyone would be wrong. In the 21st century, more needed to be done to grow it. Whether it needed to be this radical is another matter.

They have found some terrific partners: Lego, Topps trading cards and the Croods movies. It ties in well with the other ways they are looking to grow the game at grassroots level, through their All Stars and Dynamos schemes.

And, most importantly, they have made it free to view. Sky will broadcast every game (every women’s match is available free on its YouTube channel), and is looking mighty slick. The BBC is charged with taking it to the masses.

The cricket on show will be excellent. The men’s competition condenses the quality of the Vitality Blast. The new format might feel forced and perverse, but we will become accustomed to it.

Who knows what metrics for success are here, and certainly we should not simply judge on the first night or even first season, particularly in a pandemic. But at least now we can actually judge what is in front of us.

You know what? It will still be cricket, and it will probably be pretty fun.

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