It’s been a bit of a strange time over the last month or so – the conclusion of the domestic cricket season caused a fair bit of retrospective comment about how successful the summer had been – the World Cup victory being the clear stand out, with the scraped draw in the Ashes being recast as something of a success by too many people who ought to know better.
Much of the recent cricketing action in this country has been off the field – the ongoing Hundred debacle most central to that, including the hearing at the DCMS committee. It’s particularly notable the way the ECB have pushed their entire tournament to the media has shifted slightly, almost a tacit admission of the horrendous balls up they’ve made of it to date, while at the same time continuing to block any direct questioning, even by MPs. Yesterday Ashley Giles talked about the Hundred being played alongside the County Championship, raising a fair few issues in the process. Giles has tended to be rather more thoughtful and honest than most in the ECB, and while that’s not saying a lot, if ever anyone was going to acknowledge, even obliquely, the problems raised, it was always likely to be him. The ECB have decided that the domestic professional game will go in a certain direction, and the consequences of that are more or less impossible to avoid – as such this is perhaps the first time anyone has even publicly considered how to mitigate them.
The main problem with the Hundred has never been the format itself – it might have attracted scorn and derision, and deservedly so, but it remains a short game of cricket, even if the added funkiness does little to further it. The impact on the rest of the season however is far more pertinent and permanent – even were the Hundred itself to fail and be turned back into T20, as some hope, it wouldn’t alter the general balance of the season the ECB have determined.
The initial response to Ashley Giles’ comments about running the Championship concurrently is interesting, partly because it’s been almost universally negative. So perhaps it’s time to challenge that somewhat, albeit a rather lukewarm challenge and a thought experiment as much as anything. But it could be argued that given where we are now it’s as good an idea as is practicable. The impact on Test techniques of short form cricket has been a concern for a while but there has also been some divergence, especially in batting and spin bowling, between those players who prioritise white ball cricket and those who aim to be long form players.
There is always the balance to be struck between insisting on purity in the response (“Hundred bad, sack them all”), and thinking about what might be feasible as mitigation, given stopping it at all appears out of the question. The call to get behind the new competition may be nonsensical, but equally opposing the Hundred to the point that any and all suggestions made around it are automatically dismissed isn’t hugely helpful either. If there were a genuine prospect of changing the direction of travel, that might be a different thing, but this seems desperately unlikely. This is how it is going to be for a number of years at minimum, whether people like it or not. Since that is the case, it bears examination whether Giles’ idea might then represent a better outcome than a normal county championship pushed ever more to the margins of the season? It’s an open question, but one worthy of consideration. There are serious downsides to Giles’ idea, but whether the upsides improve the overall position compared to doing nothing should be considered properly, without a knee jerk “no” as a response to everything.
The suggestion that only half points should be awarded for the championship games played during the Hundred window is particularly controversial, but it does also offer up the intriguing prospect that even with half points, counties might need to balance their squads rather better than they do under next year’s regime where it makes no difference. Essex and Somerset for example might be especially weak if 2020 was repeated, but under Giles’ thinking then rather than necessarily being a bad thing, it might encourage them to ensure they have sufficient red ball specialists in the leftovers to prevent them being repeatedly crushed.
Such a proposal would also have the knock on effect of requiring some of the matches to be played at the outgrounds rather than the eight stadia where the Hundred matches will take place. This too is a mixed blessing – certainly such venues tend to be popular with spectators, but there is a considerable cost involved in making them ready for Championship cricket, and the quality of pitches can be variable. There is also the matter of the value for money involved in county membership, given some matches would be rather distant from the main ground, yet a proposal that offers an unclear picture as to whether something is good or ill rather represents progress – such is the reality of ECB planning.
Along with one or two political matters that Will Not Be Talked About Under Any Circumstances, the polarisation caused by the advent of the Hundred makes a nuanced response difficult to maintain. Without question, the ECB are culpable for this – it’s not just the principle behind the Hundred that can be criticised, but also that the ability of the ECB to make the worst of things is genuinely impressive. Purely from a business perspective, they are an extraordinarily incompetent organisation. The continual omnishambolic leaking, the genuinely dreadful marketing (as an aside, it’s endlessly amusing reading former cricketers who know nothing at all about such things defending the ECB to the great unwashed, many of whom might actually know a bit about the subject) all points to an organisation that is amazingly amateurish. This is then always the problem with those who say that the fact that it is coming is sufficient reason to get behind it – they don’t deserve anyone getting behind them and haven’t done for many years. An acceptance of the reality that it’s going to happen is not approval, and certainly not support, and pointing out the inherent flaws and idiocies remains perfectly appropriate. Andrew Strauss once talked about the Kevin Pietersen issue being a matter of trust, but the ECB have long since burned any residual trust they had with those who love the game of cricket, which is why their pleas forever fall on deaf ears. Sporting governing bodies might not be popular, but only the ECB is at war with its own supporters. It is therefore particularly irritating to be told to pipe down by those who stand to benefit directly, and speaks to the consistent failing in all circles of professional cricket in conflating what is in their own interests with the general interests of the sport itself.
It’s long been my contention that “the game” doesn’t mean the wider game, only their small part of it, but it is equally beholden on those of us on the outside not to oppose just for the sake of opposition. The Hundred might well drive a coach and horses through traditional cricket, and provide little to no benefit further down. But there is little merit in screaming into the void at every single suggestion ever made and assuming it can only make things worse, even if scepticism about the rationale behind their latest wheeze is perfectly reasonable. Giles’ suggestion would also return the 50 over competition to being a first team one rather than a development tournament, albeit early in the season, and to that end would undo some of the crass stupidity of the ECB abandoning the format domestically in which England have become World Champions – often at the expense of the Test side.
The County Championship would certainly be diminished by playing it at the same time as the Hundred. But the problem is that it’s diminished anyway, and if next year’s schedule was repeated, that diminution is only going to continue and get worse. Rugby provides some interesting comparisons with cricket in many ways – far more so than football. And rugby does cope with players disappearing from their club sides to play internationals at the same time as the domestic championship takes place. Perhaps it can be said that is no different to how cricket has always been, but this Rugby World Cup is a good case in point of radically weakened sides still competing in the main domestic tournament, and making use of that by bringing in younger players and developing them. Perhaps the lesson there is that it is possible for such things to be a net positive. In this case that is a highly contentious proposition, but it does at the very least deserve a fair hearing.
Of course, rugby has also been notably different to cricket in terms of the exposure it seeks. This morning’s World Cup final will doubtless have been watched by many millions of people (albeit a lot might have turned off with 10 minutes to go), but the contrast in that is not just with the ECB. World Rugby specifically have a policy that the World Cup should be free to air wherever possible – it’s written into their mission statement for the entire tournament. Japanese TV coverage was an interesting example, where they had to negotiate to ensure some matches were free to air. This is antithetical to the ICC, who sell off the rights to the highest bidder and have no interest in who they are sold on to, and whether people then have to pay to watch. It’s a stunning, startlingly huge difference in approach by the two sports, and it’s hard to dispute that rugby has done a better job of promoting itself. Even the presence of rugby sevens in the Olympics while cricket continues to show ambivalence about T20’s involvement demonstrates that, while if ever a difference could be identified in profile, it could be seen in the way on the eve of the Rugby World Cup final, it was the number one item on the BBC Six O’Clock News. The number one item.
For us as a group, the post summer period tends to be our quiet time of the year, partly because we take a bit of a break, and partly because those people who pay us to work do expect us to turn up and do it. We’re fortunate that our really chaotic periods tend not to often coincide with each other, if ever there’s a gap when cricket is on, that’s what’s happened. So it’s a pleasure to note when we make our return that we still have plenty to talk about. The winter tours (three of them) have begun, with a T20 against New Zealand that rather passed everyone by, but we are back, and we are as annoyed as ever.