The Hundred has the potential to make or break English cricket
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
“Let’s take a breath,” said Gary Lineker, at half-time in the Euro 2020 final between England and Italy at a febrile Wembley Stadium nine days ago. “It would not be an English summer without a bit of cricket…”
It was at that point, with a captive audience of 25 million and a 55-year itch waiting to be scratched, that the state broadcaster decided to screen a 30-second advert for The Hundred – the new competition which begins on Wednesday evening and has the potential to make or break English cricket.
It was a bold statement of intent from the BBC, and the kind of exposure cricket has craved for decades, yet that attempt to place The Hundred in the mainstream of sporting conversation should not be deemed proof that the competition has won over its army of sceptics. Far from it: 12 months after it was originally due to launch, the sport remains hopelessly divided on the merits of its new flagship tournament.
To those who back it, it will bring a new audience to cricket and a fusty sport steeped in tradition will speak a language younger people understand, acting as a gateway into other versions of the game. To those opposed it will strangle county cricket and foment division between the haves and have-nots at a time of existential financial crisis.
But how did we reach this stage, and what happened over the previous 20 years since the counties agreed by a majority of one vote to create Twenty20 cricket, a decision that set the game on the road to The Hundred?
Powerpoint at a golf club
Desert Springs is a golf resort with “emerald fairways” in the desert region of Andalucia in Spain, and one of the more unlikely destinations for a group of cricket administrators plotting the biggest overhaul of their game for generations.
It was on a recce of the cricket facilities at Desert Springs in Oct 2017 that Colin Graves and Tom Harrison, the then chairman and current chief executive of the ECB, were told of an exciting new format.
The counties had already voted for a new tournament, a Twenty20 based on eight city teams, on April 26, 2017 (38-3 voted in favour) but the 20-over format was taking too long, dawdling to over four hours in some cases. It did not chime with a young, family audience that market research told the board wanted to be leaving grounds by 9pm.
Sanjay Patel, then the ECB’s chief commercial officer before he became head of The Hundred, delivered a Powerpoint presentation in a conference room that would change English cricket forever.
“I had no inclination it was going to be different to a T20,” says Graves. “I did not think outside the box. But the one thing the counties said after they voted for it was, ‘Yes, we want this new tournament but don’t take anything away or copy the existing T20 Blast’. After the initial shock we chatted it through and everyone said, ‘We can see that working’.”
Nobody claims credit for coming up with The Hundred – for now it is attributed to blue sky group think between ECB and external agencies – but Patel admits that finding a family-friendly format was key, given the T20 Blast’s metamorphosis into a rowdy lads’ night out, with grounds being turned into “the biggest pub garden in the city”, according to one county chairman.
“We felt at the time one of the things we had to tackle was a format played in the shorter window for that family audience,” said Patel. “That is where the conversations started. Now here we are, ready to launch it.”
How will The Hundred work?
‘It was a shocker’
English cricket may have pioneered Twenty20 cricket, but – as is so often the case – it did not work hard enough to maintain it. Instead, the rival Indian Premier League and Australia’s Big Bash became the world’s marquee franchise leagues, leaving the Blast to play catch-up.
Plans to introduce a breakaway nine-team T20 league had been floated since 2008 but with the arrival of Graves at the ECB in 2015 there was an added urgency for a new competition to be established. An ECB working party was set up under Andy Nash – a member of the ECB board and chairman of Somerset – which recommended a two-division Twenty20 competition in 2017.
It was agreed by the counties but they also gave the green light for the board to explore the potential for a city-based tournament which would appeal to broadcasters. The ECB promised an extra £1.3 million in revenue per county,
Harrison delivered the TV deal, worth £1.2 billion and the new competition was passed later that year.
Nash was furious that the two-division T20 was not pursued (“an enormous opportunity missed,” he says now) while Graves accused him of “ throwing his teddy out the cot.”
Nash later resigned after falling out with Graves as the atmosphere turned increasingly toxic. NDAs were forced on counties and some say Graves threatened to resign if he did not get his way, something he denies.
Colin Graves (right) pushed for the introduction of The Hundred
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
Richard Gould was chief executive at Surrey at the time (he recently stood down to join Bristol City Football Club) and believes the format of the proposed new competition was “a bit of a red herring. That was just something they got carried away with in terms of trying to put forward the argument that it was not going to strangle county cricket. But we always knew the new audience thing was b——s anyway which is why we were so angry about it. You don’t need a new format for a new audience, you just need to be able to do things better with more resources.”
Would broadcasters have bought into a T20 with two divisions and county teams? Graves, who once described the Blast as ‘mediocre’, is certain they would not. “It would have been nothing different to what had been on television for 15 years. It was that newness that attracted them to it.”
That argument certainly has traction with Bryan Henderson, head of cricket at Sky, one of The Hundred’s two host broadcasters and who have pumped millions into the tournament. “We are in the business of storytelling,” he says. “This is the first time we have had a concentrated tournament in domestic cricket in the UK. It is much easier to tell the story of that competition when you are on air every day and every game is televised. The Blast is great but it is hard to tell the story of 138 games.”
The Hundred was sprung on the counties in an ECB boardroom at Lord’s on April 19, 2018. Gould describes it as an “ambush” and pre-meditated to quell dissent.
“It was a shocker, a disgrace,” he says. “There were fake agenda items to get us to a meeting. In the boardroom all the 18 counties were given a presentation on The Hundred. We were then handed the press release and told it had just gone out. We were then required to stay in the boardroom for another hour or so doing made-up stuff to keep us in the room. It was like a grade one ambush. Three or four counties had been on working parties but for the rest of us it was like, ‘By the way, we are changing the format’.”
Jos Buttler will play for Manchester Originals
A new audience – but at what cost?
The story of The Hundred lives in a world beyond meeting rooms with Sky and ECB execs: it goes to the heart of what fans of cricket in this country want.
Concerned supporters formed an action group called Stop The Hundred, and even wore T-shirts wearing the logo when the ECB chiefs appeared before MPs at a select committee hearing in 2019.
“This is not like Brexit – that was a 52-48 split,” says Ian Lomax, who runs the campaign and is part of the Lancs Action Group pushing for representation on the Lancashire board. “If you go to county grounds and ask members or those who attend county cricket whether they want The Hundred it would be a 95-5 split.”
Many county supporters feel left behind and ignored. A recent survey by the Cricket Supporters Association found 63 per cent feel negatively about The Hundred, with social media suggesting that figure is far higher.
“The Hundred is devaluing three competitions,” Lomax adds. “In the Royal London Cup, and don’t forget we are world champions at this format, the quarter-final, semi-final and final are all in the same week. If you like championship cricket then all you want for Christmas is a blanket and thermos flask because it is played in April and May or September and even October now. It is absolutely disgusting.”
Dan Gidney, the Lancashire chief executive, knows he has a membership that puts the county first, even before England, so buying into The Hundred would always be tough.
“It is like pushing water uphill. I grew up a Birmingham City fan. It is like trying to persuade me to be a Villa fan,” he says. “I have some members who will fancy a bit of it but I have others who have zero interest in international cricket and The Hundred. Why would I wind them up by trying to convert someone to something they have no interest in seeing?”
Ultimately, however, The Hundred is less concerned with appeasing current supporters of county cricket than attracting whole new ones – whether that be women (still chronically under-represented in English domestic cricket crowds), or those from ethnic minorities, especially the immigrant audiences from South Asia. Early data from the ECB’s Hundred website suggests 30 per cent of those engaging are women.
“I was asked to speak at a dinner to the MCC and pointed to the room and said, ‘This is the problem’,” says Rod Bransgrove, Hampshire’s long-serving chairman. “I did not see a single woman in the room and not one brown face. I put my tongue in cheek and said I doubt if any of us is under 40 but I could have said under 60.
“We have to find configurations of the game that young people, families, Asian people and women can all enjoy. They don’t all want to be sitting out at a beer-swilling, Friday evening hit-fest. They want to go and enjoy a sporting occasion where you can go as a family, enjoy the game and go home safely.”
Ben Stokes will play for Northern Superchargers
The ECB used all sorts of techniques to gain support, from comparing cricket to BMW (the car manufacturer bought the Mini brand to appeal to women when it realised its customers were overwhelmingly male) and called on Eoin Morgan to speak to county chairmen about the IPL. They realised the constitution allowed them to spread the vote among all county boards, an electorate of 41, and that diluted county opposition. In the end only three voted against The Hundred when it was agreed in 2018.
They failed at first to engage with players, which led to a fractious meeting at Edgbaston with representatives from the Professional Cricket Association. Players had read about ideas like banning lbws in The Hundred or free hits for wides and only really got on board when they played a series of pilot matches in 2019 and enjoyed it. Inevitably, professionals will realise they are being paid money to do less work (reduced by £24,000 to £100,000, thanks to Covid) but some of those not picked in the player draft in Oct 2019 will have felt a sense of injustice. Managing jealousy might be an issue in county squads.
“I played in three or the games and once we worked out the skill-set is very similar to T20 cricket people were a bit happier,” says Daryl Mitchell, Worcestershire’s opening batsman and former PCA chair. “Most players are looking forward to the competition.”
Morgan will captain the London Spirit at Lord’s and has made no secret in recent years of his support. With little input from Test players and overseas stars due to Covid restrictions, it will be England’s white-ball players that will be the main draw.
“Accessing a newer audience and broadening our game beyond county cricket is very important for us,” he says. “I have witnessed in different countries that people not interested in cricket find the game brilliant entertainment from watching a new competition.”
Jofra Archer will play for Southern Brave
‘It’s cricket for people who don’t like cricket’
Scepticism remains rife. The ECB’s public relations drive has been clumsy – Graves was prone to using forthright language that can offend, and Harrison, while eloquent in private, does not enjoy being the front man – and within the county game there are still misgivings over the how the new competition is structured, with Bransgrove disappointed the counties do not have an equity share. The Hundred as a company is owned wholly by the ECB. They will earn a percentage of any profits above the £1.3m but the ECB has total control.
So, what will success look like? Some battles have already been won. The gender-neutral marketing that has put the women stars alongside the men has been genuinely groundbreaking, and the free-to-air exposure on the BBC and all games being streamed free on Sky’s YouTube channel will provide a huge boost to women’s cricket.
Gender-neutral marketing that has put the women stars at the forefront alongside the men
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
There was widespread anger when Telegraph Sport revealed this summer that the word “wickets” would be replaced by “outs”. Ultimately it was dropped but there will be a change in tone, with Henderson not wanting “dressing room speak” such as “bowling into the pitch”.
Big challenges remain, most notably those thrown up by Covid, the great disruptor which is one element that could not have been foreseen by the ECB. Overseas talent has been heavily diluted to the point where Patel, trying to remain upbeat, said last week that he was looking forward to seeing Devon Conway bat. Conway is a fine player, and a good hitter, but he is not exactly AB De Villiers.
Ticket sales are said to be more than 350,000 but it seems clear that while the London games are selling very well, other grounds are struggling. The ECB says the tournament will cost around £40m to put on but bring in revenue of £50m, although it does not include the £1.3m to each county as part of the profit and loss, a piece of nimble-footed accounting. There is no shame in not making a profit in year one – it took the IPL and Big Bash years to do that – but there is a determination to make The Hundred look more profitable than it really is.
There is commercial interest, with new sponsors including Lego and Universal Pictures, who have advertised The Hundred alongside promoting its family film Croods 2, as well as a controversial shirt deal with KP snacks. YouTube is awash with Hundred adverts and Topps Cards says its Hundred edition is the biggest seller in Sainsburys. But one source involved in sponsorship paints a different, more confused picture of backers being asked to pay up to an extra £200,000 for LED board space on the boundary – double the normal fees – and other late changes in plans.
The Hundred has a controversial shirt deal with KP snacks
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
Will it work? “Not a chance,” says Nash. “Ultimately it is cricket for people who don’t like cricket. Who is going to back it? The research has never been released. Who is it for? It is like the third runway at Heathrow. Great theory but practical difficulties are insurmountable and nobody wants it at the end of the day.”
Gould is more optimistic but it is the unintended consequences elsewhere that are the worry. “It will do pretty well. The opening game and final will be successful in the venues that are used to pushing in big crowds, but not enough of the other matches will be at capacity. I just feel we have split our game. We are going to split the supporters, split the players and I don’t think we have enough of either to do it successfully in the middle of summer. The question will be what gives over the next couple of years.”
Graves will go to the first two games, confident his baby will quickly learn to run. “The promotional activity with Sky and BBC is starting to cause a stir. A lot of people come up to me and say they are looking forward to it.”
The divisions will linger way beyond Wednesday’s first game but there is no question cricket is changing more than any other sport in the world and it is happening under our noses. “My plea is for everyone who loves cricket to be open minded. It does not have to be so combative. There is something for everybody if you are a cricket fan,” says Henderson.
The next few weeks will decide if that is true.