A Turning Point

In About the Game by Bill Ricquier

It looks as though The Hundred might actually work.

I haven’t actually watched any of it myself, for the various reasons associated with being in Singapore that I have referred to before, not because I don’t want to watch it.

That is not to say that I do especially want to watch it. I am curious about it of course. And I have seen enough highlights to have a view.

In the weeks – months? years? – leading up to the start of The Hundred, it was a bit galling to hear all the major stakeholders predictably saying how wonderful it was going to be, when the very notion seemed somehow pointless and contrived. The England and Wales Cricket Board (“ECB”) had put so many resources into the new competition that it really did have to work.

What does it mean to say that it works? Really, just that it captures the public interest sufficiently to justify and, with luck, recoup the massive investment. The initial impression of any more or less casual observer has to be that this goal is likely to be met. The first few games, for both women’s and men’s teams, have produced exciting contests and high quality cricket.

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Before it started I found the changes like the five and ten ball thing just annoying – like the ludicrous franchise names, something put together by overpaid consultants who know little and care less about a game that means so much to so many people. But if these changes work, they work: time to move on.

My other main concern was that there was already a very successful short format tournament in England, the T20 Vitality Blast; do we really need another one?

Even there, they may be right. Dedicated county supporters love the Blast. For the casual observer, though, it’s quite a challenge. There are so many teams, so many games. One good thing about The Hundred is that, as a competition, it is well defined, straightforward and reasonably concise. It’s the casual observer the ECB want to attach. If your average county member likes it, that’s a bonus.

The real question is, is it a good thing if The Hundred really turns out to be working. In one sense, obviously yes. From a financial perspective it is vitally important for the English game that it works. But the traditional cricket supporter, especially the county cricket supporter, must be viewing this development with, at best mixed feelings, if not outright worry.

It is not just the fact that The Hundred is a city-based competition, while first-class cricket in England has had its foundation in the historic counties almost since the days of Hambledon (which of course was not a county) in the 18th century. That is part of it but by no means all. The real problem is scheduling. The Hundred is given pride of place in the English summer, July and August. The red ball County Championship had already been banished to the seasonal outposts of April/ May and September/ October (ironically, perhaps because of climate change, this may turn out to be a blessing in disguise). Now it is the 50-over competition that is the victim, some games bring virtually second eleven contests, because it coincides with The Hundred. This all seems slightly odd given England’s status as 50-over World Cup champions. But what options are there? The real concern is that in future years the ECB will take the opportunity to make further cuts in the number of games in the County Championship. This year the Championship, boosted by live streaming, has been readily accessible and very interesting. It is this possibility of a further reduction that makes “traditional” supporters distrustful of the ECB and resentful of The Hundred.

Such was the ECB’s desperation to get the thing going that they were prepared, having postponed it once, to launch The Hundred in the midst of an apparently surging pandemic. Touch wood, it will continue to do well in that regard; one really cannot predict these things. But COVID has caused problems. Lots of big names, especially from the West Indies and Australia, have pulled out, and the England stars will be retreating into a pre-Test series bubble in the later stages of the tournament and will not be available then.

The Hundred does, however, have the incalculable bonus of having attracted the most exciting young cricketer in the world. India’s prodigy, the 17 year-old Shafali Verma, is playing for the Birmingham Phoenix Women’s team. She first came to prominence in the Women’s T20I World Cup in Australia in 2020. She displayed astonishing maturity as well as appropriate fearlessness, even against the renowned Australians, the best in the world. She has all the shots but her favourite is the drive, ideally back over the bowler’s head.

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So is she a short format specialist? It can be difficult to tell in the under-funded – even, inexcusably, in India – women’s game. In mid-June, India Women played their first Test match for four years. It was against England in Bristol. England Women batted first and made 396 for 9, with solid contributions from Heather Knight, Sophia Dunkley, Tammy Beaumont and Nat Sciver. India made 221 and, following on, 344 for eight. Verma, opening the batting in her first Test, made 95 and 63. Her stroke play was magnificent.

Verma’s presence should make a big difference to The Hundred. And on Sunday, Oval Invincibles’ Alice Copsey (feaure image), who is 16 years old, opened the batting against London Spirit at Lord’s, made 59 off 41 balls. I, and others, have said this before: if cricket is to become a genuinely global sport, it will be by way of the women’s short format game.

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