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25 August 2021

How the Hundred has changed cricket

English cricket's latest short-form revolution has brought glitzy marketing, compulsory fun, and a ruthless power grab.

By Jonathan Liew

This is our last song,” Liz McClarnon of Atomic Kitten announced to an unmoved Nottingham crowd, “and then you can all get back to your cricket.” The year was 2003, the occasion was the first ever Twenty20 Cup final at Trent Bridge, and if the largely unenthusiastic reaction to one of the country’s leading girl groups was anything to go by, the marriage between English cricket and popular culture was going to need a little work.

Eighteen years later, it was tempting to wonder if anything had changed. “Lord’s, make some noise!” the chart-topping DJ Jax Jones bellowed across the vast expanse of green outfield before him. Behind him, a vivid light show was unfolding on the big screen. To either side, dancers dressed as animals descended the steps of the Compton Stand, dodging the punters returning to their seats with pints in their hands.

Still, everyone was absolutely loving it. The way we knew this for certain was that you couldn’t go more than a few minutes without one of the presenters informing us in molten, ear splitting tones that everyone was absolutely loving it. Perhaps this, ultimately, was the major difference between the launch of T20 in 2003 and the Hundred, English cricket’s latest short-form revolution, which concluded its inaugural season on 21 August. Back then, the fun was discretionary. Now, it is pretty much compulsory.

[See also: How to solve English cricket’s summer problem]

The revolution would be televised: hours of prime-time coverage on BBC Two, and Sky, with a marketing budget of tens of millions. A spectacular assemblage of musicians, DJs and social media influencers was hauled in to promote the new competition. The branding and slogans were pummelled home with all the message discipline of a Lynton Crosby election campaign. And whether it was the spikily aggressive tone of the TV commentary, the tireless effervescence of the stadium announcers or the relentless love-bombing on social media, the Hundred was resolute and unswerving in its determination for everyone to have a good time, whether they liked it or not.

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The irony here was that the cricket largely sold itself. Even with many of the planned overseas stars absent due to Covid concerns, the eight city-based franchises produced a concentrated and consistently high standard of competition. There were new breakthrough stars: the unorthodox spinner Jake Lintott, the tearaway fast bowler George Garton, the exciting teenage all-rounder Alice Capsey. Indeed, the biggest transformation was on the women’s game, where players used to crowds of a few hundred were suddenly performing in front of 10,000 people, seeing placards bearing their names, and given equal billing to the men for the first time in their lives.

Naturally, having bet the house on its shiny new competition and its ability to reach beyond cricket’s traditional 18 counties, the England and Wales Cricket Board was keen to trumpet all this as an untarnished triumph. It boasted of the 500,000 tickets issued (many of them given away), the £10m profit it had generated (actually a £15m loss once you factored in solidarity payments to the counties), and the unprecedented diversity of the audience (80 per cent of ticket buyers were male).

But of course, this was only ever half the battle. To complain about the aggressive PR spiel or to quibble with the sums is really to miss the point. The Hundred was never simply about creating something new within English cricket, but about burning large parts of it down. To this end it has sought to drum up a kind of culture war within the game, pitting its audiences against each other, deliberately degrading its existing assets – and particularly its older fans – in order to make the case for change.

[See also: Why there will never be another cricket writer like John Woodcock]

Very quickly, a narrative was constructed around the Hundred whereby it was the sport’s sole outlet of diversification, its only vehicle for inclusion, cricket’s last chance to save itself. And so to object to it in any form was to mark yourself out as a staid traditionalist, a county bore, a reactionary gammon who hates not only change, but very possibly also brown people and women.

In truth, the ECB’s primary objective was not altruistic custodianship but profit and control. By moving into the sports-entertainment sector, it could tap the lucrative and growing event-going market: people who want to attend some sport, eat some street food and take some cool selfies, but don’t necessarily need to know the rules or remember any of what they saw. And by breaking the stranglehold of the counties, it has ruthlessly centralised English cricket’s decision-making power and revenue-generating ability.

On these terms, it has clearly succeeded. A magnificent cricketing feast has been set forth. But what happens now the party is over? The existing white-ball county competitions – the 50-over cup and the T20 Blast so memorably inaugurated by Atomic Kitten – have been starved of publicity and many of their best players all summer. The smaller counties that rely on these competitions for gate money are now more beholden to the ECB than ever. Meanwhile, the men’s Test team, which for all its travails is still English cricket’s biggest money spinner, is in free-fall: hopelessly underprepared, mentally exhausted, 1-0 down to India and in grave danger of losing consecutive home series for the first time since the late 1990s.

The Hundred arrived promising to change English cricket forever, attracting new fans who would provide the next generation of players and spectators. To its critics, it’s a reckless gamble that will kill off the smaller counties. The truth is, it’ll be many years before we really know the answer. And if there’s a note of bittersweetness there, it’s because by the time we do, it’ll be too late to do anything about it either way. 

[See also: The English cricket board is “not fit for purpose” says Azeem Rafiq]

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This article appears in the 25 Aug 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Retreat