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.