Somewhere Over the Rainbow

If all publicity is good publicity, then the ECB should be thrilled, for the Hundred has undoubtedly been a talking point over the last week, whether in the media, social media or (the newly rediscovered) real life social settings. As far as social media is concerned, it’s largely hostile, as it always has been since the announcement of the entire concept. Twitter never has been a barometer of public opinion, and that it is negative towards it shouldn’t be viewed as meaning anything at all, and most definitely Twitter polls, or Facebook polls have no relevance to anything.

But the thing that has been utterly lost – not for the first time – on social media is any sense of nuance, with too many pointing to the entirely reasonable public interest in the Hundred as some kind of stick with which to beat those who oppose it, are uneasy about it or who simply aren’t interested in it. Tweets or single sentence posts tend to do that, with a complete inability to explore the issues resulting in confrontational shouting. A long form like a blog ought to allow for a more considered discussion, but it’s still easy enough for anyone to pull out a single sentence and berate people based on that too, as many a journalist will reflect upon to their cost. Lord knows we are probably guilty of that ourselves, making assumptions about a meaning that leaves the writer aghast at the assumed intent. It’s normal enough and human enough, and if I’ve done that to someone (I’m certain I will have done) I can only apologise.

That loss of nuance has also meant a lack of respect for contrary views. The county supporters are looking on in despair at the potential destruction of their sporting love; to treat them as irrelevant, old fashioned and out of touch is not just unreasonable and wrong, it’s extremely cruel. The starting point, even for advocates of the Hundred, ought to be one of empathy, not dismissal. Equally, those who do believe the way forward includes the Hundred deserve a hearing as to why they think so even from those hellbent on hating it, and why they believe the undoubted costs of it are worthwhile. People will come to their own conclusions about the wisdom or otherwise, but it would help things immeasurably if such a conversation could occur without shouting. This, undoubtedly, is a pipedream.

There is no contradiction whatever in some people being opposed to the Hundred but enjoying the cricket. They are, after all, cricket fans and are not betraying any greater cause by liking watching people bowling, fielding and batting. Nor is it any switching of sides to acknowledge that some elements of its start that look to be quite promising – the popularity of the women’s competition being high up in any such list. It is true enough that it might not have needed the Hundred for this focus in the media coverage to have occurred, but it’s also quite possibly true that without it, it simply wouldn’t have happened. It’s the Olympic regeneration argument – of course a city could – and probably should – sink billions into resurrecting a derelict area, but would it happen without such an event? Likely not. There have been significant missteps from the ECB in their approach to the women’s game, pushing the idea it is equal to the men’s when it clearly isn’t, either financially or in profile was to create an argument where there didn’t need to be one through overclaiming. In the same way, creating the impression that the women’s matches have no value through the cancellation policy looked awful, even if the intent was honourable. To their credit, they have acknowledged with something of a wince that they need to look at that again – more of that please, errors are forgivable, responding to them is a good thing.

Sam Morshead’s article in the Cricketer (do have a read if you haven’t already) noted some interesting dynamics with their social media engagement that provides a tantalising suggestion there may be some genuinely new engagement .  This is inherently a very good thing already, and were it to continue then a sceptic might well need to revise some preconceptions. That’s a big if, but it can only be a good thing and hoping for it not to happen because of a dislike of the Hundred would be a very skewed set of priorities.  Cricket needs engagement, it needs a wider demographic showing interest, anything else continues the slide to irrelevance.  Whether it required the Hundred to do that is a very open question, but it doesn’t mean that it isn’t intriguing and it should most definitely not be ignored. Another area that is worth watching is the level of supporter identification with the teams. In this I declare an interest that’s not an interest: I don’t follow a particular county, and my overriding problem with the overseas T20 franchise leagues is that I couldn’t care less who wins and who loses. That lowers the degree of interest substantially, but mileage clearly varies in this, and creating a fanbase out of new franchises is both concerning and perhaps in another sense pleasing. It depends how it’s looked at, either a shallow level of interest, or a large market of potential cricket lovers waiting to be tapped.

On the other side of the ledger, the determination by some media figures and journalists to act not as guides or observers of the competition, but instead as rampaging zealous missionaries is intensely irritating and playing the audience for fools.  Even the most ardent believer in it would accept there are wider issues that cause disquiet, and while it is not reasonable to expect that to be a topic of debate in coverage, it goes beyond that to steamroller any possibility that this isn’t the greatest sporting show ever created. It shows scant respect, not just to critics, but to those who on balance are enjoying it and looking forward to it, but can spot the Pravda editorial a mile off.  Media coverage should not be akin to politicians announcing their latest initiative to party conference, and it’s something of a betrayal of journalistic values, and broadcasting standards, to treat it as such. 

Some in the media will undoubtedly believe in the concept and the tournament, there’s not a thing wrong with that, and an inability to accept that someone might have a different view without it meaning they’re somehow evil is one of the curses of modern times.  Others, it is less clear that it is anything but glowing support for the purposes of getting paid – there is still nothing wrong with that, except inasmuch as there’s a pretence at impartiality that isn’t plausible.  Therein lies the problem, most employees are expected to toe the corporate line – I have no intention of going wildly off message about those for whom I work, because I’m not an idiot – but if journalists are to claim that their role is different, and they are open-minded truth seekers, they can’t jump into bed for the company shilling and still maintain that air of separation and independence.  They can be an arm of the PR team or they can be journalists, they can’t be both. 

It’s a mild annoyance in the coverage, and it’s a reflection of where we are rather than a particular stand out, but it damages everyone else working in the sector by association, which may be partly why Huw Turberville and George Dobell are so clearly annoyed about the “Kim Jong-un school of journalism” as Dobell put it.

None of the perceived successes of the competition to date alter the initial objections to it, nor have they been in any way answered by the overly-enthusiastic response of some of its adherents.  The relegation of the 50 over competition to irrelevance, the further sidelining of the red ball competition, the potential for county cricket to be marginalised even further, the effect on the Test team – these are all live, real issues and won’t go away.  The amusement at the pickles the ECB got themselves into over the format matter little when the games are on, but the determination of the likes of Michael Vaughan and others to dismiss all criticism by saying it’s just a game of cricket is to attempt to bypass any discussion of the greater issues by focusing on the least relevant subjects.  For it IS just a game of cricket.  And cricket is a bloody brilliant game, messing with the format was never going to change that, and since cricket fans have been trying to tell everyone for decades how good it is why react with surprise?

But the same applied to T20.  There’s a distinct air of revisionism and straw manning in some of this.  There is no doubt that there were some, often journalists, who saw it as the end of civilisation when it was launched, but those didn’t include people who actually played cricket, for club, village, school and parks cricketers were familiar with the format on the simple grounds that they’d played it their whole lives, and they largely shrugged when it was first brought in professionally and wondered why it had taken so long.  That a retired colonel (this is a completely arbitrary assumption – see how easy it is?) wrote to the Daily Telegraph bemoaning it matters in no way whatever, and shouldn’t be used as a pretence that concerns about the Hundred are grounded in a widespread belief that the clock should be turned back to 1920.

Indeed, the initial explosion of interest in T20 when it first arrived should signal something of a warning sign for the Hundred.  So much of that pointed to as success for the new competition applied to 2003 as well (clearly not the women’s element) with the same novelty and excitement.  And while it is undoubtedly true that the ECB would be entirely thrilled with the same pattern and popularity, it also points to one of the other objections that T20 was already highly successful and didn’t need to be tinkered with.

As to where we go from here, perhaps there is one overriding issue that may dictate things, and that is the success or otherwise of the England team.  T20 was launched with the backdrop of a national team on the up, by no means a dominant one, but where the investment in the county game was beginning to show signs of success in the Test arena at least.  The current depth of red ball cricket in England doesn’t hold such promise, and with series at home to India and away to Australia (assuming it goes ahead), the results therein will be watched closely.  India have had some red ball practice in advance of this series, the England players have not.  Australia, for all the Big Bash hype, have maintained a greater degree of balance with their nursery for Test cricket.  There is something of a hope that things will turn out for the best, but if England don’t produce Test cricketers, they will be soundly beaten more often than not.  The wider damage a weak England causes the Test game is a separate, though vital, part of the equation – the patience of the public with such an eventuality may be a different question.  For the ECB do rely on a degree of ignorance among the casual supporter, those who will watch the Hundred and have no awareness of the potential problems ahead, or the impact on other elements of the professional game.  But they do tend to notice if England get thrashed a lot.

There was hope from some that the Hundred would fail, but there was rather more widely made accusation that anyone who expressed reservations about the concept hoped the Hundred would fail.  A curious assumption that those with deep concerns wanted it made even worse.    People have varying views and reductive and simplistic attack lines are no more valid for all on side than they are the other.  Those who approve of the Hundred often do so for the very best and most thoughtful of reasons, and it’s about time that was recognised as a possibility too. There is a contradiction in that with some of the criticism herein, but if there is an intention behind it, it is to try to comprehend a motivation that moves beyond catcalling for daring to hold a different opinion. We all do it, and we all need to do better.

We are where we are is one of those phrases that manages to be true and yet still annoying when used to express an indifference to what might happen next. But the Hundred is here, and it is not going away for the forseeable future no matter how much some might wish it to. But the battle for English cricket is only just beginning, for the unwieldy nature of the domestic season is not sustainable for any length of time, and what happens next is where the action is.

Hit, Feel, Rap, Sweat

A shorter post, I promise, on today’s men’s Hundred fixture. Some brief observations on the game and the surrounding hoopla. Once again, I watched it on BBC as this is the main reason it seems to have this format and competition.

The main thought was that yesterday felt like a major occasion and the game rose to it. A good game can be a good game because or, or despite, the format, and the fact Oval dug themselves out of a hole with clever cricket, and that the technical level of the batting was pretty good made it a reasonably captivating experience. That this got more viewers than the Women’s World Cup Final speaks volumes at how the game has inexorably blown it over the years.

Today’s game felt like just another T20-type game with a load of players put together in teams that they really weren’t linked to. Saqib Mahmood for the Oval team? Phil Salt for Manchester? I know the draft is part of this but if the players aren’t really linked to a team it feels a bit false. I know you start somewhere, and that players might get established over the years, but when the game needs results now, it feels desperate.

The line-ups utterly underwhelmed. That’s obviously down to player withdrawals, but it is really hard to get the excitement up for Colin Ingram, Colin Munro and to a lesser extent Carlos Brathwaite or Sunil Narine. It feels a bit of a seniors or rejects tour. If this tournament had the top top players I could see it getting more traction. Again, does it have a year or two to wait? When Jos leaves Manchester, Sam leaves Oval, one fears for the replacement level talent because both teams felt a bit thin. It doesn’t feel like a quantum leap in quality.

BBC really need to look at themselves. I don’t want the occasion to be given royal-level gravitas, but don’t treat your viewers like idiots. Links didn’t work, at one point there was inane chatter (outside of Vaughan and Tufnell) over a delivery (it might have taken a wicket) and putting Jimmy Anderson on the boundary who gave the impression he’d rather be anywhere else even if he didn’t feel that way simply didn’t work. I liked Tymal Mills, the right blend of enthusiasm and analysis. Isa is floundering on live work, especially the filler at the end when there’s only so many ways to ask everyone the same question (but really, football bantz?), and that needs to be tighter. Is there an alternative to the secondhand car salesman Vaughan and his faux cockney spiv sidekick Tufnell? Please tell me there is. We do need the BBC to get this right. Yesterday they outnumbered the Sky audience 4 to 1. If the coverage stays at this sub-par level they are going to hear it from much more influential people than a mere grumpy blogger.

I had to go out, so missed the end. The game seemed frenetic, and while a lot of it will come with adjustment, I am still working rates out as runs per over and bowlers having a set number of balls is just a change in mindset. Whether it is necessary, others can survive. I wonder how much Winviz are paying for their input. Importantly, I didn’t get a sense of occasion like I did yesterday. Some bloke I have never heard of, playing a tune I couldn’t here reminded me of the time Sky wheeled out that act who did a terrible version of Baker Street for a Premier League fixture. They abandoned that soon enough.

Anyway, I’ll leave it there. The last thing is that the social media buzz before, during and after was markedly down on my feed. Whether that was the same for you, I don’t know. The sense I get is that this has got off to a steady start, and steady isn’t good enough for what this competition aspires to do. It could really struggle if Team GB does well in the Olympics, and really struggle when the Premier League starts. which is when this ends. I don’t sense it has gripped the nation enough, certainly the men’s competition, but it is early days.

On A Happy Honey Day, Am I Being In The Way?

It is something that is becoming more and more prevalent in the world we live in. Something new has to be good. Evolve or die. The only constant is change. To sit still is to be complacent. The Hundred is a seismic change and after one game you are either on the side of one, or the side of the other. No middle ground. So because of that the lines are drawn and the result is anger and I told you so. The results haven’t even begun to be evaluated – this is a long-term project, not a short-term feelgood factor. There are a lot of people hurting today, like me and you, cricket fans. Division, as I know, is not resolved in a day, months, even years. You can’t pretend not to care when you do.

So, it is the morning after the night before. The Hundred launched itself properly with a game played at The Oval between the Invincibles and the Manchester Originals. The women put on a pretty good game of cricket, with a quite exciting finish, with the key moment being Mady Villiers’ six off Sophie Ecclestone. I am not, for a number of reasons, most of them time related, a regular watcher of women’s cricket (and indeed men’s these days as well) but this was not a surprise to me. That it appeared a surprise to the host broadcaster I watched, and some of those on Twitter, is another thing.

The immediate aftermath from the game appeared to be that as this had been a brilliant game, with a fantastic finish, that the Hundred was a rip roaring success, and that the haters might be advised to pipe down a little. I mean, this ignores that there was a T20 with a similar exciting finish the day before, so it might be the sport that’s doing well, and not necessarily down to the format, but 24 hours is a long time in this day and age. On the evidence of last night resistance is futile. Now, if you think this is a straw man I am sticking before you, let’s see Paul Hayward’s tweet:

To put it mildly, this is nonsense. An experienced sports journalist should not be writing this arrant nonsense. Who knew that when someone bowls to someone who bats, and the game is in play, that it can get close and be quite good to watch? It’s still cricket, and cricket is really, really good. Why the host broadcasters, the ECB, Paul Hayward and others seem so unsure of this is beyond me.

Because I watched it doesn’t mean I am fully on board with this format, fully on board with the ECB for doing this and putting the game in huge jeopardy and therefore going to sing its praises. On a night when there was no other sport on the TV that I was hugely bothered with, it was something to watch. I mean, I hated what England did back in 2014, but I still watched them, and I don’t think anyone would consider my outpourings on How Did We Lose In Adelaide as acquiescence.

To make a sort of comparison, and with a sport that was on TV last night, darts messes around with the format of its competitions, be it the number of sets played, or a double to start, or a straight legs total like they use in the Matchplay. They can have knockout competitions, league competitions, groups then knockout competitions. It’s still darts. If you shortened a Premier League football match to 80 minutes, made the goals a bit bigger, had 10 players a side, and you scored 1/2 a goal if you hit the woodwork, put two good teams against each other and it would still be something to watch.

For me the format was too gimmicky. As my boss is inclined to say, a solution in search of a problem. I can’t see how it makes the game simpler, but then maybe I am too pre-conditioned against change. When the captain of the Invincibles, Dane van Niekerk said she was trying to work out how many runs per over were needed, it was a reasonably damning indictment, issued in a really honest and soft way. I am sure people will get very used to it with time, but you are asking yourself, as a person who has followed the game since he was a kid, why do this? Why change the concept to the number of balls? You could allow someone to bowl two overs on the bounce if you wish. I don’t know.

The key elements of this competition are that the BBC will cover it, that it gives the women a competition on an equal footing to the men, and that it is shorter than T20 to meet the BBC’s programming needs. We have been told by those inside cricket that the BBC would not countenance a county-based competition, which is about as large a case of the tail wagging the dog as you might ever see, so we have eight franchise-organised, city-based teams, with no history or overly tangible support base, and you are asking the public to get invested in it. Not only that, you are asking new cricket fans to be the driving force, because you’ve shown you didn’t give a damn about existing ones. You can’t replicate the IPL here, because India won’t let you (being very protective of their own product, and who can blame them) and the Big Bash in Australia is based on the six existing state teams and an additional side from the two largest cities.

So while we had a decent attendance last night – it remains to be seen how many of them at the game were paying spectators (free tickets can be a really good marketing strategy) – and the BBC got in on the act, let’s not start doing a victory lap if you are the ECB. This is a colossal gamble for the game, and one nice night has not changed that.

I chose to watch the action I did on the BBC (I took a 4 mile walk during the game as part of my 5 million steps for the year challenge that I have set for myself). I know I am not the key demographic here, not the target audience, although, frankly, I don’t know why not when I might be one of those persuaded to pay for tickets for this. The fireworks were naff, but then I hate fireworks anyway. The BBC found a young child who loved them, which was nice. I had no idea what was going on with the toss, and the BBC had about six people working on the game, which given two of them were Vaughan and Tufnell, was two too many. More of them in a minute. Isa Guha did a reasonable job, but below her usual standards, and people were switching around and moving, due, of course, to Covid. It wasn’t an easy job last night. My overall impression of the BBC stuff around the edges was I missed the professionalism and slickness of the BBC Sport team in years gone by. In an attempt to engage a new audience it looked borderline amateurish. Carlos Brathwaite, who impressed last year, was disappointing in his analysis, when repeatedly mentioning “old-fashioned cricket” to describe how van Niekerk and Kapp rebuilt the innings. Say it once, Carlos, but not over and over.

Overall there was a defensiveness over the place that the women had found themselves in, probably understandably the tone was one of justification at times (they really shouldn’t be doing that, and perhaps it is sad that they still feel they need to). I am just not interested enough in the teams, the competition or the format to actively seek out further matches on a regular basis, and that goes for the men’s game as well as the women’s. I was actively considering putting as the song lyric in the title “you can’t pretend to have fun” from the Was Not Was song “Shake Your Head”, but it’s more like trying to force you to have it. I went into last night attempting to divorce the game itself from the circus surrounding it, and while it was in progress, and I was concentrating on the sport, I largely did that.

There is always a but, though. There are plenty of good women broadcasters around, and probably a lot more quite good or average ones. Any one of those would have been preferable to 2 and a half hours of Vaughan and Tufnell. I’m not a fan of Shiny Toy, you know that, but he’s a tedious arse who has alienated me and many others. He isn’t even a good commentator, doesn’t bring much in the way of tactical insight, wings it, relies on cliches and frankly, his selection as the lead was a joke. Tufnell spent the first few balls guffawing in his faux comedic geezer schtick at Lizelle Lee playing defensive shots, giving the impression that he’d done next to no research on the teams, and that he was there because someone might recognise him from Question of Sport (Oh that’s him, is it?). Isa Guha was a little too enthusiastic, and that put her off her game a bit, but she was most importantly for all concerned in selling mode and will settle down, I am sure. Kate Cross appeared underused, I am not sure quite what the roving reporter was up to (and that stuff when interviewing kids makes my teeth itch), and as I said earlier, Carlos Brathwaite had an off night.

There was little revolutionary. The branding appears to have come straight from the London 2012 school – make it bright, make it quirky, sell it everywhere, you’ll make the people like it – and while the onscreen graphics could do with some work (I am sure many of you, like me, had bits of the side-bar scoring missing because my screen wasn’t wide enough), they weren’t too intrusive (for example, in the BBC’s Open golf highlights, the scores for the players are enormous – do they think we all have fading eyesight!) and I really didn’t mind them. Other quirks went un-noticed (did they have a time out in the first innings), and for all the requirement to squeeze this in to a 2 and a half hour slot, the game over-ran, so we had some blank airspace to fill with a load of old rabbit to wait until 9:30.

The final few observations are my own. The press, and the print media in particular, are not our friends. They are not the friends of cricket lovers up and down the country. Let’s say I am disappointed, but not surprised, when strident critics of the format and what it has done to cricket in the UK, sometimes priding themselves on being on the side of the county game, are photographed on a freebie at the game. They will get prickly at the suggestion, but they must have thought “this doesn’t look good”? Me having a go isn’t going to make a difference, they have to look at themselves and say have they been honest with their punters? Their conscience not mine. If I pay for a ticket to watch it, I’d feel reasonably comfortable with that as I have not been as strident a critic of the game as others. I still paid for a test ticket for Cook’s final game even though I hated the ECB and felt Cook had a lot to answer for. If you give me a freebie, well, fine. I’m answerable only to the readers on here, and that’s fine. I think a good friend of the blog summed it up in a DM I received. Remember how the print media and so on kept mum about Sanford, how they saw it as a chance to put the IPL in its place which had rewarded KP and Flintoff so handsomely, and that when it turned bad, they all said “we told you it was bad”. Let’s not even go there on 2013-14. I was disappointed.

Does the WinViz stuff do anything to add to the show? If not, then why have it. I don’t need to be paid money for bogus analysis by some people who saw what happened in baseball and thought, we can do that, to tell me after it got to 3 balls left and 1 to win there was a 100% chance that Invincibles would win. Having been 86% a couple of balls before. That’s not really simplifying the game for punters watching. Can’t they just watch and see how it is going. Why do you need to quantify and analyse everything. It’s a game to be enjoyed. Oh, no, of course. It’s a damn business.

The men’s competition starts tonight. We will be told, no matter what, that it is great. That the newness is the charm. The concentration of the elite sport into 8 rather than 18 teams will make things more exciting. The quality will be better, when the audience it is trying to attract won’t really know what to compare it against. The ECB have all the cards and yet they are still exposed. They have bent England and Wales’ cricket constitution to its will, made the counties dependents on their largesse to an even greater degree, made them sacrifice the golden goose of the Blast, with all its faults, and rendered the 50 over competition even more irrelevant. They have sacrificed their reserve pot, most of it gone even before the Covid disaster hit. They have launched a competition as an Olympics is about to start, with the EFL starting in two weeks, the Premier League a week after, and a public who may have found other things to do. There’s the risk that if cases continue to rise at scary levels, that teams and public will find more problems. Given the close links between the ECB and their primary broadcaster, you aren’t going to hear much negative stuff. They are in pure sell mode. This is a Tom Harrison, and therefore ECB, vanity project, which will succeed on their terms because they will set the success criteria. We will need the journalist corps to hold them to account.

Many loyal, domestic cricket lovers feel utterly abandoned, reviled and borderline humiliated by what has happened in the last few years. They are in agony over this. If they are against it and campaign as such, they are participating in a disaster, and will be blamed. If they compromise and go to the games, or hope it succeeds “because it has to”, then they are betraying the team they support. These are your sports biggest advocates, its biggest supporters, its volunteers, its conduit for access for kids and the recreational game. This competition has called them “haters” (see Welsh Fire blurb) and its founding father has dubbed them “obsessives” and “it’s not for you”. It’s arrant madness even if it does succeed. Remember. It wasn’t the supporters who made the sport less visible by putting the national team exclusively on a pay TV channel. Yet these people stuck with the game despite that. And when they were needed, they were told they weren’t. So, Paul Hayward, think about that next time when you jump in to make an observation like that.