Circular Firing Squad

Sometimes it’s hard to escape the nagging feeling that the ECB  appears to actively dislike its own sport.  It’s also easy to think they are deliberately and specifically trying to kill county cricket, particularly in its four day format.  It’s one of those thoughts that passes through a mind, dismissed as ludicrous, but re-appearing with every new announcement that appears intended to do exactly that.  The Hundred, the marginalisation of the county championship to the edges of the season (and a rather odd celebration in some quarters when a couple of fixtures are not at those margins), the apparently deliberate disdain for its existing audience.  The notion seems preposterous, but if it were to happen, it’s hard to believe the attempt would be done much differently to the way it is now.

There needs to be some full disclosure here:  I am not and never have been a passionate adherent of county cricket – it’s been a matter of relative indifference to me except as a pathway to the international sides, while club cricket was always my focus, with a healthy (or unhealthy depending on who you speak to) disdain for the conduct of the counties over the years.  To that extent, I don’t have an emotional bond to that strata of the game, more a recognition of how vital it is as a cog in the larger wheel, albeit one that could have been managed rather differently over the last fifty years.

And yet, at the same time, I also recognise how much it matters to many others, not least the other writers on this site, who have been spectators at many more games than I have, and who care about the tables and outcomes far more than I do.  That’s just me, I don’t defend it, and I don’t propound it, it’s just how it is.  And yet the finalisation of the format of the Hundred, to start the year after next, remains a subject to stoke my ire, due to the sheer arrogance of its creation and the dismissal of any opposition to it as somehow irrelevant.  Few businesses can survive with such a lofty view of those who might attend, and since the ECB have gone down the route of being a pseudo-business in the first place, it’s a fair stick with which to beat them.  New audiences are all very well, but existing ones are much easier to keep than winning brand new ones – indeed creating an entirely new market would be considered as nigh on impossible in equivalent circles.

Here, a reminder of why the Hundred is deemed necessary is worthwhile.  There is already a T20 tournament in place, but the deal with Sky for exclusive rights to it meant that there was no chance of any of it being free to air.  And the ECB have belatedly realised that their decision to remove any visibility for the sport has had catastrophic effects – the plummeting participation levels being one obvious result.  Therefore a second competition was necessary, one that could be sold to free to air television, at least in part, while also flogging it off to pay TV for more money.  I say sold, but the rumours are that the BBC are picking it up for peanuts, so desperate are the ECB to at least have some degree of public awareness it’s going on.

Having decided that a second short form competition is essential, the ECB were faced with a couple of problems – firstly to shorten it somewhat (although it should be noted that in all the early announcements it was stated to be a T20 competition, and presumably the BBC knew it), and second to give it at least some differentation from the Blast.  Hence the mad scramble for something shorter and with different playing conditions.  Likewise, the franchise idea came about by noting how other countries had fewer teams to make it work, and as a rather useful way of bypassing the counties themselves, given the feeling that 18 sides is too many.  An irony here is that in football, the very strength of the game in England is that there are so many teams – something other countries view with envy.  For cricket here it is deemed a problem, and not an opportunity.

Naturally, a smaller competition means that brand new teams need to be created, and thus the desire for city based franchises came along, preferably with a ready made audience who might affiliate with the urban centres in which they were based.  The trouble was, it was still going to be just another T20 tournament, and one that might even make sense as a financial centrepiece, were it not for there already being a competition in place that provided that.  So why not fiddle around with all the rules and make it “simpler” through various initiatives to render it vastly more complex?  And here we are with the Hundred, a format no one really wants, and no one asked for, all to fit around a succession of requirements forced on the ECB by their own actions and their own long term goal.

The confirmation of five or ten ball “overs” to fit the decimal headline number smacks entirely of trying to force a game into a title, and while it is hardly sacrilegeous to change the number of balls (8 ball overs were a thing for many years – indeed in order to shorten what became T20 many clubs have for years played 15 x 8 ball overs in evening leagues), it is the attempt to present a solution to a mathematical problem of their own making as somehow revolutionary that generates sarcastic responses.

Still, it’s going to happen, and despite the self-imposed strait-jacket, it will doubtless cause some initial interest, simply as something new, and as an event.  It may even catch on, given that the pressure from gambling broadcasters and governing bodies for ever shorter and more numerous forms of cricket is certainly there – as evidenced with T10 tournaments.  If it does, then the question of what happens to the T20 Blast will come up, for that competition can be seen as something of an barrier to what the ECB wish to achieve here – sidelining the annoying self-interested counties and producing a competition that can attract international attention for the benefit of the self-interested ECB.  It’s easy to be sceptical about the ECB’s motives (usually because being sceptical about their motives proves the correct attitude), but the current season structure is not going to be sustainable in the long term, and the creation of franchises moves the professional game in the direction that the avaricious will far prefer.

The other fly in the ointment is the county championship itself.  Although it ought to be a proving ground for Test cricket, the changing nature of Test cricket itself (and the selection of short form specialists to the team) has rendered it less vital in the eyes of those who must be obeyed.  It’s a nuisance – it takes too long, the crowds are small, and the counties need to be subsidised to play in it.  Why would anyone want such a competition when there’s so much money to be made elsewhere?  Thus, the heart of the season has been given over almost entirely to limited overs matches of one form or another, whether domestic or international, with the annoying red ball cricket kept out of the way, like an embarrassing uncle.  Some might argue that it could be nurtured and helped, a format of cricket that needs assistance rather than contempt, but this is not the way the ECB do things.

Having in 2018 created a fixture list that managed to avoid any cricket on a bank holiday (people might go along and watch – can’t have that), for 2019 they have gone the extra mile, avoiding any matches at the weekend where possible, and ensuring that those who work for a living won’t have a chance of getting along to see any play.  The sarcasm is justified, because there are only two possibilities here – firstly that the ECB are so completely incompetent that arranging fixtures at a time people might be able to go is something they’ve never considered, or that it is deliberate.  Despite the feeling that ineptitude is written into the ECB’s mission statement, they can’t possibly be that lacking in basic ability, so it can only be on purpose.  A deliberate decision to make the county championship even less accessible to spectators.  A deliberate decision to make membership of a county even less attractive.  A deliberate decision to turn away people who love the game.

Those who go and watch county cricket might be relatively few in number compared to other sports, but they are also very often the people involved in grass roots cricket, administrators and volunteers – those whose passion for the game exceeds the casual spectator by orders of magnitude.  They get laughed at and belittled, including by some members of the press, let alone the ECB who are supposed to be on the same damn side, but these people have a disproportionate value to the game that goes far beyond them sitting isolated under a blanket at New Road.  All ignored.  All treated with contempt.

This scornful attitude is why those who insist the Hundred is given a chance are missing the point.  It’s not that it can’t succeed, it’s not even that it won’t succeed, for even some free to air live coverage has a chance of generating interest far beyond the niche sport cricket currently is.  It is that the ECB really do not care about taking those who love the game with them.  They have no interest in trying to manage the 21st century commercial realities with the responsibilities that their supposed husbandry of the game of cricket in England and Wales ought to instil.  The dash for cash is the primary aim, the actual game of cricket a cipher, not the end in itself.

Those who play up and down the country are irrelevant.  Those who love cricket for the sake of the game they grew up with are irrelevant, unless they can be switch-sold and monetised.  The game of cricket itself is irrelevant, it is merely a means.  And that is the reason for the anger, not messing around with the rules, not trying to square a circle that wouldn’t be easy in any circumstances.  It’s that they don’t care about you, they don’t care about me.  That you played the game all your life is no more than a footnote, that you watch the game only of value in so far as you can be added up in revenue stream.

The ECB.  The only sports governing body that regards the game for which they are responsible as a hindrance to their aims.