Marcus Hook’s Surrey CCC column: No easy answers with The Hundred – scheduling and a lack of identity are two big issues

Now that the dust has settled on The Hundred, county cricket can return to normal, or can it? The Hundred proved a success, which will come as a relief to the England and Wales Cricket Board, which, despite making a 16.5million loss in 2020-21 – prompting more than 50 redundancies – is committed to investing £180m in the tournament over five seasons.

A significant chunk of that – £117m – is the £1.3m each of the 18 first-class counties will receive per year to offset the hit to T20 Blast income.

Indeed, a little more than 16m people watched The Hundred on television. Many of them will have been newcomers to the game thanks to the current TV deal ending a 16-year gap during which domestic games were taken off free-to-air.

The women’s game benefited the most, with attendances totalling 267,000. As a result, the ECB have announced that the salary bands for the Women’s Hundred (which currently range from £3,600 to £15,000) will be increased.

Of the 510,000 people who attended a men’s or women’s match in person, 19 per cent were children and another 21 per cent women.

Sixty per cent of spectators were under 45, which still means 40 per cent were over 45; suggesting some of the game’s traditional audience blanked the new format.

The fact that the crowd for last Saturday’s final was 24,556 compared to the average of 27,075 for the T20 Blast fixtures staged at Lord’s two years ago also indicates some did.

The question remains as to how The Hundred fits into the English cricket calendar.

There is no easy answer, given the new tournament took, and will no doubt continue to take, the prime mid-July to mid-August slot.

If, as is expected, the competition is expanded – from eight to 10 teams, to make it more accessible to those who live in the west and the north east – don’t be surprised if the 31-day window widens to 40.

Many felt this year’s schedule left England’s Test team under-prepared for the series against India, with no four-day matches in the lead-up.

So don’t be surprised, either, if more than a quarter of County Championship matches take place in parallel with The Hundred with promotion and relegation in the red-ball format being abandoned, due to the uneven playing field created by some counties losing as many as 12 players to The Hundred.

If, as some claim, cricket survives to make money rather than seeks to make money to survive, anything that undermines the popularity of Test cricket in this country will not only hit ticket sales, it will also force broadcasters to re-appraise the £220m they pay per year for the rights when the current TV deal is renegotiated in a couple of years’ time.

The purpose of the County Championship is, after all, to develop Test cricketers.

Vic Marks, one of the BBC’s Test Match Special’s team of pundits, said: “Test cricket may be ailing around the globe, but, actually, it’s an amazingly successful product in England.

“I don’t always believe the notion coming from the board that the game here is in absolute decline. In terms of spectators in this country you don’t go to a Test match these days and see lots of empty seats, or even a one-day international. They keep coming at huge cost; so the game is not in terminal decline.

“I’m not a huge fan of The Hundred. I just see it as a tweaked version, as a game of cricket, of T20. You can’t be opposed to that, because it’s great to watch, but I don’t see anything that’s radical about it. It’s just like Twenty20 with five-ball overs.”

And that’s just the point, The Hundred, as a format, isn’t a departure from the Blast. The main difference is the make-up of the teams, some of which struggled to engender any form of identity.

Welsh Fire Men have one Welsh player, Birmingham Phoenix Men just two from Birmingham. So if Welsh Fire beat Birmingham Phoenix, does it really amount to anything? Even some of those playing in The Hundred couldn’t tell who was who.

Last week, England’s one-day captain, and skipper of London Spirit, Eoin Morgan backed Northern Superchargers for the title, even though they had already been eliminated.

The obvious path, all along, would have been to beef up the domestic T20 competition by allowing the counties to field three or even four centrally-funded overseas players, selected via a draft, and then market it aggressively.

The ECB must now possess a huge mailing list of Hundred ticket purchasers.

Who thinks they’ll use it, for example, to publicise the climax of this year’s T20 Blast or to remind people there are still 36 County Championship matches to come?

I think we already know the answer from the tweet on The Hundred’s feed last Saturday, which pictured two downcast-looking cricketers accompanied by the caption: “When #TheHundred is over and you don’t know what to do with yourself for the next year”.

The ECB would do well to remember they’re the guardians of the game in this country, not just The Hundred.

 


 

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