Elephants in the room abound as ECB seeks to vanquish its Hundred doubters

Elephants in the room abound as ECB seeks to vanquish its Hundred doubters

The gestation period for a camel is approximately 13 months. Appropriately enough, that is also how long it’s been since the conception, last April, of the ECB’s very own horse-by-committee, the “new city-based 100-ball competition”. On Wednesday, amid much grunting, groaning, and frantic dung-shovelling behind the scenes, the infant Hundred made its first wobbly public appearance … and was instantly overshadowed by all the elephants in the room.

First, let’s address the day’s avoidable errors. In its infinite lack of wisdom, the ECB chose to illustrate the big unveiling of its tournament logo with a stock photo of an exclusively male audience at a gig by the American rapper, Logic. As if that wasn’t bad enough, they then compounded the error with four further changes of image (including a girl at a generic football match, with shirt digitally altered from red to pink), before finally settling on a bunch of kids in England cricket gear, at … you know … a cricket match. One of those things that kids these days apparently don’t watch.

On one level it was, as Sanjay Patel, the tournament MD, insisted: “just an image on a website”, the sort of gaffe that would be forgotten in an instant when the real excitement of The Hundred starts to take hold – ideally as soon as October 20 this year, when the “First Major British Sport Player Draft” takes place live in front of a Sunday-evening prime-time audience on Sky Sports.

And yet, having controlled the narrative so jealously for so long, the ECB must have known that every last detail of the launch would be pored over and picked apart. Instead, at precisely the moment that they had hoped to start convincing people of the real and rigorous merit behind their new competition, they instead reiterated an impression of aloof incompetence, not to mention an embarrassing lack of faith in the product that they believe is so in need of reinvigorating.

“We’ve definitely made mistakes in the build-up, but this is about the future of the game; this is about growing cricket,” said Tom Harrison, the ECB’s chief executive – and that was before the full extent of Stockgate had taken hold. “It is about giving more people the opportunity to be part of cricket’s future.”

But back to the main thrust of the day. The board’s Hundred omerta had been punctured by a curious briefing in January in which Harrison attempted to row back on suggestions (from Eoin Morgan, no less…) that the aim of the new competition was to “upset people that already come to a game”. But Wednesday was the first time that the media had been properly invited inside the tent, to be serenaded with statistics, and browbeaten with buzzwords, as the research and rationale for the sport’s dramatic reboot were finally laid bare … or selected highlights of that research, at any rate.

According to Patel, there were some 100 million “data points” in the ECB’s original analysis – exhaustively gleaned from more than 100,000 “potential fans” as well a raft of market research across sports and society. Disappointingly, that had been condensed to a single side of A4 by the time the media were allowed anywhere near it, although a few compelling numbers still managed to survive the crunching.

At present, cricket tucks in alongside rugby with a latent interest from some 10 million potential fans, and it remains the second most popular team sport in the country behind football. Furthermore, there are 21 million adults in what might be described as “sporty” families, who will form the basis of The Hundred’s potential audience.

“Those Average-Joe Has-Beens in the ECB’s research were 15 years younger when the board committed its Original Sin of selling the sport, lock stock and barrel, to Sky in 2004”

However, cricket’s interest levels among teenagers and primary school children were way below the levels that you’d expect of the national summer sport, and it is upon this point that the success or failure of The Hundred will pivot. Because, to give Harrison the credit that he does deserve, his ambition for English cricket isn’t merely a laudable aim, it is an existential imperative.

After all, no-one with the sport’s best interests at heart – least of all those, like myself, who still play the game recreationally and can sense the average age of the participants rising year-on-year – can be blind to the challenges posed by a society that expects everything here and now. It is not a betrayal of a wonderful and beloved sport to concede that standing in a field for hours on end, often to no apparent end, can be of limited appeal to the uninitiated.

On that note, here’s a side-serving of cautious optimism. For reasons of time and (gently) advancing years, I play far less often than I would like to. As a parent I cannot justify spending every spare Saturday with my team-mates rather than my children, and as a consequence, most of the cricket I now play is of the parks league variety – starting at 6pm, 16 overs a side, eight in a row from one end to speed things along. It is still recognisably cricket. It is not “cricket in clown suits, on your heads”, as Ashley Giles, the director of the England men’s team, rather flamboyantly said of The Hundred’s perceptions at the launch.

But that potential for common ground makes the ECB’s botched attempts to reach out to their elusive new audience all the more frustrating. Despite insisting that the sport’s aim is for unity and shared vision – of embracing a “growth mindset”, as Harrison put it – their default setting is still to vanquish rather than engage, not least in their patronising tone and subtle blame-shifting towards the affluent, white, 50-year-old males who make up the average current cricket watchers.

To address each element of that demographic in turn. It is not the fault of those lucky few who will attend the Ashes this summer that ticket prices for ECB events are so extortionate that only the richer elements in society can afford to cough up for them (and on that note, the ticketing structure for The Hundred is one of many aspects of the tournament that haven’t yet been finalised).

Also, it is clearly not the fault of the enthusiastic Asian cricketers who make up some 35 percent of the country’s 670,000 active club players, that their numbers dwindle to mere dozens once they’ve been filtered through – and for the most part discarded by – the sport’s existing coaching set-ups. The ECB, to be fair, has made significant strides in recent years with its South Asian Engagement Programme, but they have been stewards of the sport for considerably longer than they have been actively nurturing it.

“At precisely the moment that they had hoped to start convincing people of the real and rigorous merit behind their new competition, the ECB instead presented an embarrassing lack of faith in the product that they believe is so in need of reinvigorating”

As for the age issue, well, we all get older, and it’s bloody annoying. But it is disingenuous to ignore the fact that those Average-Joe Has-Beens in the ECB’s research were 15 years younger – and in many cases still active players in their mid-30s – when the board committed its Original Sin of selling the sport, lock stock and barrel, to Sky in 2004.

As Wisden’s then-editor, Matthew Engel, wrote the following year: “Live cricket has now disappeared from the screens of more than half the homes in the country. The damage will be incalculable.”

The sport’s participation levels have been holed below the water-line ever since. And therefore, instead of denigrating the lifelong love of the game of those who grew up on free-to-air cricket, the ECB ought to be pathetically grateful for their continued patronage – not least because, in many cases, that love is now being passed onto their own kids (daughters included), the very players that English cricket requires to stay afloat until it works out what it’s really going to take to address its participation crisis.

That was a point that Harrison, with the deft swerve of the seasoned politician, avoided addressing head-on. Sky are, he insisted, “cricket’s best friend”, and a “huge part of [this] opportunity has been created by the[ir] investment”. But when it was put to him, by one journalist who has been conducting his own research in clubs up and down the country, that the majority of people that he had spoken to hated the concept of The Hundred, Harrison inadvertently channelled his inner SS Kommandant.

“I respect that there are some pockets of resistance around,” he said. “It’s no surprise to any of us, it was the same 17 years ago [when the Twenty20 Cup was launched], it’s the same every time something disrupts. We will do everything we can to excite cricket fans about this, cricket fans will absolutely get behind this. I think cricket fans are going to love it.”

Well, we’ve got no choice really, do we? As Daryl Mitchell, the Professional Cricketers’ Association chairman, put it recently: “If it doesn’t work, then we’re all in trouble.”

The format aside, the wider worry is that numerous other elephants are still in the room, and will need urgent addressing before the ECB’s ambitions can hope to fulfil even the most basic aims of their inception.

We still don’t know any team names – Surrey’s significant status as a Hundred sceptic remains to be adequately resolved – while the claims that the tournament will feature “Best v Best” players is slathered in significant doubt. India’s superstars are sure to give the tournament the flick, while England’s own marquee names – Joe Root, Jos Buttler, Jonny Bairstow, Ben Stokes (and by then, you’d presume, Jofra Archer) – are doubtless going to be double-booked in Test series against West Indies and Pakistan. After all, 90 percent-plus of the board’s income will still be derived from international cricket, long after they’ve reinvented the wheel.

“There are inevitable challenges with the schedule,” said Harrison. “We are a sport that does not have enough time to fit everything in. and our windows are becoming more and more challenged as ICC events and domestic leagues grow.”

Well quite. As might have been mentioned once or twice before – is a fourth format of the game really the way to make life simpler?

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