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English cricket's 'Hundred' looks to co-exist with Test team

This was the brave new world of The Hundred, a competition created by the England and Wales Cricket Board to “inspire generations” and broaden the audience of the sport.

London Published on: August 23, 2021 17:35 IST
England's Joe Root makes his way out to bat during a nets
Image Source : AP

England's Joe Root makes his way out to bat during a nets session at Headingley cricket ground in Leeds, England, Monday, Aug. 23, 2021

While England’s national team was collapsing inside two sessions against India at Lord’s to lose the marquee test match of the summer, a huge crowd was gathering on the south coast for a decisive game in cricket’s newest and shortest format.

Sixes were being smashed into the stands by players in bright and loud uniforms. Kids held up signs and danced on their seats to loud music. Beer-drinking fans were getting gradually more raucous.

This was the brave new world of The Hundred, a competition created by the England and Wales Cricket Board to “inspire generations” and broaden the audience of the sport.

But at what cost?

The inaugural tournament of The Hundred wound up Saturday with the men’s and women’s finals at the home of cricket at Lord’s. The champions were the Southern Brave (men) and the Oval Invincibles (women), teams that didn’t exist until five weeks ago.

Yet the very presence of The Hundred — which, as the name suggests, features matches of 100 balls per side played by eight teams from cities in England and Wales — poses some issues.

Firstly, the new competition was intentionally placed at the heart of the British summer, enabling children to attend while off school during the holidays. With the ECB wanting to put The Hundred front and center, it meant county cricket’s 50-over tournament — The One-Day Cup — was mostly overlooked while the traditional county teams also lost many of their best players to the new Hundred franchises. England, remember, is the 50-over world champion.

The Vitality Blast, England’s domestic Twenty20 competition, has been squeezed into a shorter window either side of The Hundred. Most crucially for many people, red-ball cricket in the County Championship has taken a six-week break at a time when England is playing its high-profile test series against India.

India won the second test by 151 runs at Lord’s last Monday, when England collapsed to 120 all out in 51.5 overs on Day 5, to take a 1-0 lead in the five-match series. Traditionalists were understandably concerned at how the basics of test-match batting seemed beyond England at a time of so many shorter-form competitions that, crudely speaking, often turns cricket into “see ball, hit ball” spectacle where technique goes out of the window.

The Hundred is here to stay, so can it co-exist with test cricket? The ECB says it can.

“The reason why The Hundred has had a successful start is the caliber on show,” ECB chief executive Tom Harrison said on a video call Monday, “because it's electrifying content, stuff that people want to watch.

“At the end of the day, test cricket is the pinnacle of that electrifying content that you see played out around the world. Players are still judging themselves by their performances in the test format, predominantly, and I think we should celebrate that fact.”

The ECB said more than 16 million people watched The Hundred on television — “that’s more eyeballs than the men’s World Cup in 2019,” said Sanjay Patel, managing director of The Hundred — and 55% were new to cricket. Some 19% of the 510,000 tickets sold for the 32 matches were for children.

There were 7-8,000 fans for most women’s games and 90% occupancy for men’s games, Patel said, surpassing expectations. He said the ECB was on course to meet its expected revenue of 50 million pounds ($68 million) for the competition, while a surplus of 10 million pounds ($13.7 million) from the planned costs associated with The Hundred would be “put back into the game.”

“The Hundred is all about throwing cricket’s doors open and we’ve seen in year one how it’s already delivering,” Harrison said.

Harrison said there would be some “learnings” to take into next year’s second edition, such as the anti-social behavior of some fans, some tweaks to the TV production, as well as changes to the schedule in a summer when the Commonwealth Games come to England.

Key, he added, was how to migrate the audiences for The Hundred — especially the younger viewers — to test cricket.

Fears for the future of the longer format have been around for years, particularly since the advent of T20 cricket, but test cricket remains king in England. It is a money-spinner, too, with men’s test matches accounting for the majority of a broadcasting deal worth more than 1 billion until 2024.

Harrison knows better pathways need to be developed to not just get fans to watch test cricket but for players to be able to perform in it.

“It’s something that’s been highlighted this year because we have had issues like losing the test match at Lord’s and because we’ve had a difficult start to the test series against India,” he said.

“There is not a silver-bullet solution that solves all the problems that a schedule will raise … We have to get to a place where we provide opportunities for players to get into good form and players to continue to play red-ball cricket when they are out of form. That's not an easy thing to solve. We are hard at work at that.”

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