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.