Cricket’s administrators love a good warehouse, don’t they? From England’s kit launch in the Tobacco Docks in May, to the arrival of the World Cup captains on the set of Dragons’ Den later that month, and now back to that favoured hub of multiculturalism, Brick Lane, where the World Cup countdown had been set in motion back in 2018, the urban-chic metaphors were once again climbing the exposed brick walls as The Hundred took its most decisive step yet into existence.
Bedecked with funky lights and blocky fonts to fit the brutalist surroundings, the day’s chosen venue was awash, quite literally, with snackable content. There were casually scattered team-branded helmets on the floors, and actual bowls of crisps and popcorn on every surface, as KP flexed its brand muscles and showed the gathered media that its sponsorship of the ECB’s newest innovation wasn’t merely a chance to have a very public giggle at one of the ECB’s oldest betes noires.
But on this, the morning after the night before that was the PCA Awards dinner, England’s icon players looked more in need of bacon than Butterkist – not least the heroically hungover Chris Woakes – as they rocked up to give their collective blessing to cricket’s latest edge towards edginess.
The timing of this event was cruel but apposite for the players, for Woakes’ eyes in particular bore testimony to the japes that had carried on into the small hours at the Roundhouse in Camden, where cricket’s glitzy end-of-season bash had had more than your average summer to celebrate in 2019.
And thus, as he fronted up in his new team’s garish orange-and-red kit – a «grower», as he obligingly put it – Woakes and his partied-out team-mates were already galloping gamely into the brave new world that awaits in the transformative summer of 2020.
The Hundred. It Is Coming. And that is a fact will continue to cleave the sport like a Brexit referendum. For some, this morning’s unveiling was the opening of a new portal to hell; for others (mostly, but not exclusively, in the ECB high command) it was the most concrete development yet in a project that is as exciting as it is agenda-setting and, as some would claim, essential for the long-term health of the game.
As for the rest of those who know and love the sport in its current guise, the whole shebang remains deeply and uncomfortably conflicting – like the feeling I got as a kid, when Angus Fraser and Robin Smith were dropped for the 1994-95 Ashes tour and I briefly found myself wishing unspeakable and damning ills to befall a team that I could no longer call my own.
It didn’t last, of course (my antipathy, that is, not English cricket’s ills – those cracked on for another decade of Ashes misery) and that is the hope, or rather expectation, in and around the sport at this critical juncture.
The ECB’s fervent belief is that, once the angst and the anger has subsided by this time next year, all that will remain is a top-class cricket tournament that gives some TLC to a sport that truly does need it – whatever you think of the existing merits of the county structure, and no matter how extraordinarily successful England’s overworked elite players were in framing the zeitgeist this summer.
For the hosting of the World Cup was a once-in-two-decades opportunity, and the manner in which the trophy was won was a once-in-a-lifetime miracle. As in 2005, on the eve of cricket’s disappearance from terrestrial TV, the sport got extraordinarily lucky at precisely the moment it needed it the most, and then as now, the ripple effect will be sufficient to sustain the game for the next five years at least.
But after that, where does the sport’s next adrenalin shot come from? For, as the administrators have clumsily tried to explain for the best part of 18 months, this really isn’t about those who already know what they like about cricket. It’s about those who might not otherwise engage with it, but will stumble upon the odd match when they are expecting to see Homes Under The Hammer on the BBC next summer – or who might find themselves listening with unexpected interest to what Eoin Morgan has to say when he pops up on The One Show or Newsround.
And, in due course, it will be about those who pop out to the corner shop, or get the round in at the pub, or open their packed lunch on a school outing, and see cricketers being marketed on the backs of their packets of Skips, or Tyrells, or McCoys, or Pom-Bears (the toddlers’ gateway snack). Without wishing to pay undue homage to a corporate giant (or to gloss over its contribution to childhood obesity) it has been easy to overlook quite what leverage The Hundred’s title sponsor can offer to the fledging competition. With that calibre of stable-mate, and regardless of what else happens as this brave new world takes root next summer, it is not going to pass unnoticed.
Does any of the above justify the «massive punt», as Wisden put it, of shredding the fabric of the game to hand over the plum weeks of the English season to eight untested teams, and a format that has been played at a professional level in just a handful of trial runs? Self-evidently not. The only thing that is going to justify The Hundred’s creation is the quality of the competition. On that note, the condensation of eighteen teams to eight, and the who’s-who of international talent (India excepted for the most part, of course) that will make up the draft next month will form the truest means to whet the appetite.
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That is not to say, however, that the animosity that already exists will be easily glossed over. I know colleagues who simply will never forgive the betrayal that has brought the game to this point, and as for the gaffe-ridden shambles that has been The Hundred’s PR, it simply beggars belief that so many errors can be made so often by so few. Even Thursday’s pre-announcement «sizzle reel» couldn’t help but join the catastro-shambles, spluttering into three false starts like a petrol-starved Trabant as the assembled media arched those habitually cynical eyebrows once more.
But, once again, it’s necessary to stop and breathe, and remember. It’s not about us. It’s not about people who will read this take of The Hundred’s latest developments, and sigh. It’s about people who don’t yet know what they want from a game that has never previously appealed to them, and who won’t instinctively know, for instance, that the Nathan Barley-esque hipster-wibble that screeches out of The Hundred’s vapidly awful website is contrived nonsense.
Or is even that another observation that misses the point? Perhaps, as they announced on Thursday afternoon, Welsh Fire’s «hunger will prove the haters wrong» (even those from Somerset and Gloucestershire?). Maybe Manchester Originals are able to «laugh in the face of limits», maybe Trent Rockets’ «volume [is] up, ready for launch», whatever TF that means.
It’s scary to look at such witterings objectively and realise that the sport has no option but to wish this new enterprise well, but it seems also that it is a vital part of the process. According to the American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, interviewed on the BBC’s Politics Live show on Thursday morning, the world has become so polarised in the social media era that we will «never again» have a shared sense of what is good, bad or downright ugly.
And if Haidt’s analysis had in mind global events rather more weighty than a salty-bar-snack-themed cricket competition, then the fury that The Hundred has generated is an interesting test case – and certainly a telling rejoinder to the sort of unequivocal joy that this country felt when Jos Buttler whipped off those bails at Lord’s, or when Ben Stokes belted that drive through the covers at Headingley.
We can only hope to feel that sort of communion again, and we surely will given half a chance. But it will not happen if the sport’s relevance in the interim dwindles to vanishing point. That is the point of The Hundred. You can disagree with the solution the ECB have come up with, but you can’t fault the realisation that the status quo is unsustainable.
Well, obviously, you can… and you can point out until you are blue in the face the strategic errors that holed the sport beneath the waterline in the early 2000s, and left it relying on miracle matches to keep the sport’s fires burning in the interim. But it’s probably time to start gargling the kool-aid, and accepting that what will be will be. Because this is the chosen path to a brighter future, and there is genuinely no going back from here.