This was originally published in Issue 42 of Wisden Cricket Monthly
Phil Walker talks to some of those on the frontline tasked with turning ‘Oval Invincibles’ from a marketing concept into something real.
They’re calling it “Surrey in drag” round Kennington-way, in a manful effort to link The Oval’s long-time residents to the new lodgers-to-be.
For 33 days in the height of summer, the ground’s decking will be consciously de-Surrey-fied, repackaged as the sparkly new home of the Oval Invincibles. Down with all that branding for a prominent car maker, up with a logo that looks like an ad advising the vincible lifers of south London to get their prostates checked.
Surrey’s customary season, meanwhile, will keep edging along the platform past the onrushing train, hoping to reach the exit unscathed.
It’s pointless to deny the tension here. Ten of the 15 names in the Invincibles men’s squad spend their day jobs playing for one of Surrey or Kent. When it finally gets going in late July – kicking off, significantly, with a women’s pipe-opener at The Oval – the tournament will run alongside the men’s 50-Over Cup, a once-grand competition now shorn of its best talents, in which every player would rather be somewhere else. At the last count, Surrey themselves will have 12 first-teamers unavailable, with eight of those players instead wearing the turquoise of their new temporary masters.
Sprinkling the squad with local talent was a deliberate move, says head coach, Tom Moody. “One of the conscious things that we did in building the squad was to create some sort of backbone to southern England,” he tells WCM. “We’ve got some players from outside those areas, but there’s a reasonably common thread throughout, which gives you that ease in the dressing room. Everyone’s got a common history.”
Moody can say this freely, because he’s not affiliated to either club, though his assistants are, with both Vikram Solanki (Surrey) and Matt Walker (Kent) head coaches of their counties. While they too offer some extension of local identity, they’re less keen to be drawn on the way the squad was compiled, lest certain players that they oversee for all but 33 days of the year feel aggrieved to have been overlooked.
The recruitment strategy, done in cahoots with CricViz, is sound enough. A local flavour will help with team cohesion and offer a facsimile of the county set-up for ambivalent local supporters torn between distaste and curiosity. Put it this way: a south London spillover team featuring Jason Roy and Will Jacks is an easier sell than one with, say, Jonny Bairstow and Liam Livingstone; the flipside, and there is always a flipside with this tournament, is that the Surrey stiffs XI taking the field down the road becomes a much harder one.
The “feeling of detachment”, as one club insider described it to me, is one of the many knotty problems with the whole centralised endeavour. Here we have an ECB concept made flesh by their own diminishing reserves, costing north of £35m for the first year alone (with the best part of £5m going just on marketing), run by their own appointed departments, with their own ticket-selling functions, their own names and their own branding draped over eight international venues – and all bound up in an overarching philosophy of shared ownership and mutual beneficence.
The Hundred will tear chunks out of the established season, relegating the 50-over stuff to a feeder competition and squeezing the T20 Blast to the extent that Surrey, to use them as an example, will play six home games in 12 days. Even a club as commercially adroit as they are, with all those enviable benefits of location and scale, will have a job packing out those fixtures. And this is the richest and most ambitious of them all.
Not that it’s really their job, but the club is confident that The Oval’s magnetism will ensure packed stands for Invincibles games. They point to the fact that something like 60 per cent of their T20 crowds are newbies anyway, who fall outside their registered fan database. The whole notion of ‘old’ and ‘new’ audiences, for so long an ECB mantra, feels reductive in this corner of the domestic game.
But further afield it could be a different story. A Cricket Supporters’ Association survey last year found only 12 per cent of fans declared (or were prepared to admit to) any intention to watch The Hundred live at a ground. In certain parts of the country resistance is very real, not least in the rural cricketing hotbed of the south-west, where their nearest Hundred team resides many miles away in Cardiff.
The ECB’s best rebuttal to such opposition remains the extraordinary five-year £1.1bn TV deal signed in 2017 – predicated on the creation of a new competition to be screened across Sky and crucially on free-to-air – and the subsequent annual £1.3m windfall (or bribe, depending on your position) awarded to every county.
Privately, administrators will acknowledge that this is a made-for-TV product. But it still needs to look right. Optics matter, and of the many gambles made by the ECB, the one where they stake their reputation on getting punters through the doors is up there with the biggest. They have basically bet the house on the idea that the elemental pull of the bat and the ball, in whatever format, in whatever shirt, will ultimately prove irresistible. “Much of it boils down to the look, on the TV, and getting the crowds in,” admits Laurie Evans, the Invincibles batsman. “People want to be part of something that looks amazing, almost regardless of what’s happening on the pitch. It’s something the Big Bash in Australia has done so well. It markets itself brilliantly. It needs to be a great TV spectacle.”
It’s a hefty punt, with hefty consequences should it fail. As the former PCA chairman Daryl Mitchell put it to WCM last year, “If The Hundred doesn’t work, we’re all in trouble”. And yet he could just as easily have added that success brings its own troubles, for while some county CEOs understand that £.1.3m as a lifeline, for others – invariably those further up the chain – it’s understood as a stay of execution. The 18-club model is perpetually under threat. Now more than ever.
It is worth recalling briefly what prompted all this. Five years ago, when the ECB asked a few thousand schoolkids to name the first 10 sports that came to mind, 60 per cent of them didn’t even mention cricket. Three kids in five, had not a clue. The evidence sent a shudder through the organisation, dismantling what was left of its highfalutin claims to be a part of the national conversation. It’s true of course that since that research was carried out, both national teams have become world champions on home soil, with all the good things that flow from that. But then there are other measures, concerned with social narrowness and cultural and ethnic underrepresentation, which have reinforced those findings. One thing we know for sure: there are whole communities in the UK not just unserved by cricket; they don’t even know it exists.
So it is heartening that in conversations with three ‘Invincibles’, they each return to the same theme of expansion and the common good. Take Alex Blake, one of two Kent batsmen signed up for the men’s team: “The most important thing is that it’s going to attract attention from grassroots and recreational cricket. I know a lot of my friends, and people I play club cricket with, are already talking about how many tickets they can book and when to come and watch.”
Or Georgia Adams, signed as one of the headliners for the women’s team: “The big question is, what can we do for this format of cricket to make it enjoyable and inspiring for the fans? I can only hope that people will watch and go, ‘Well, actually, the girls are decent and just as much fun as watching the men’.”
Or this killer by Evans, the franchise league stalwart: “I don’t think people care enough about cricket in this country. It’s not a religion like it is in India. In this country, I think the goal is to make sure that participation levels increase and that kids and families have fun and get involved in the sport, and that the game generates finances, which then pushes back into the grassroots. When you’re in a country with football – and football is life and death here – the rest of us need to settle for preserving the game.”
This venture may have a hundred problems, but the players aren’t one.
Debates will rage. About ripple effects, and the ethics of the cattle-market draft, and the format’s negligible crossover appeal, and whether it’s even cricket, and the lunacy of confecting passion for randomised teams with their names ranged across three cities, a tube station, two vaguely drawn regions, a river, and a principality. And in response, coaches like Moody will try to choose their words carefully yet still say things like this: “Let’s put it this way, I don’t see what’s wrong with T20 cricket at the moment. Not that I disapprove of the changes that the hundred-ball brings, but I just don’t think we need to think this is going to take over the world.”
When it’s all stripped away, and these games finally commence, what are we left with? A cohort of brilliant cricketers desperate to pull this off. For some of the names attached to this, the big time is their everyday life. For others, it’s all rather seismic.
Alex Blake went “white-ball only” last season and spent this winter watching franchise cricket through gritted teeth. It’s a short and precarious career, and he’s 32. “This hundred-ball is the stage to show my skills. It’ll be the first franchise tournament that I’ll be involved in, and the plan for me will have to be to pick up a couple of these gigs around the world. This is the sort of tournament you want to do well in, one that will be seen all around the world.”
Evans, as a veteran of the franchise circuit, is a few steps ahead of his new teammate. He was the 92nd pick of 96 in the original players draft, eventually going for £30k. The money is good, but the stage is better: “I personally feel that when we franchise a tournament like this, you’re condensing the quality. I think the T20 Blast is a very high standard but once you condense that into the top 100 players it’s gonna be an unbelievable standard, and honestly the best standard in the world.”
Then there’s the women. The most irrefutable of all the justifications for The Hundred is the good it will do for female cricket. Georgia Adams, newly professional like 40 other female cricketers, believes it can transform the women’s game. “The standard will soar. We’ll be playing at these amazing grounds, on TV, alongside the men on an equal footing. Last summer in our regional competition, we were turning up to grounds with no sightscreens and potholes all over the field. It’s not just the financial side, it’s everything that goes with it. It gets us out there, showcasing our skills. We’re huge advocates for it.”
So perhaps this is what it boils down to: the players, and their inner stories, and how willing and able we are to go with them. “Look,” says Moody, the career coach who will pick up the reins in mid-July, hosting a few quick sessions and then into it, “with any change you’re gonna have resistance. In anything. I think that once people see England has a domestic tournament that’s of the standing of other franchise cricket around the world, they will be quite proud of it.”
Moody may not be alone in underestimating the strength of opposition to The Hundred. But then this is the biggest gamble of all: that in the end, when all’s been said and done a hundred times over, we are cricket people, and we won’t be able to help ourselves.
Home ground: The Kia Oval, Kennington, London.
Coaches: Tom Moody (men’s head coach); Vikram Solanki & Matt Walker (men’s assistant coaches); Jon Batty (women’s coach).
Men’s Squad: Sam Billings, Alex Blake, Rory Burns, Jordan Clark, Jordan Cox, Sam Curran, Tom Curran, Laurie Evans, Brandon Glover, Will Jacks, Colin Ingram, Saqib Mahmood, Sunil Narine, Jason Roy, Nathan Sowter, Shamsi Tabraiz, Reece Topley.
Men’s fixtures: Manchester Originals (July 22, The Oval); London Spirit (July 25, Lord’s); Northern Superchargers (July 31, Leeds); Welsh Fire (August 2, The Oval); Birmingham Phoenix (August 4, Edgbaston); Trent Rockets (August 8, The Oval); London Spirit (Aug 14, The Oval); Southern Brave (Aug 16, The Ageas Bowl).
Women’s Squad: Georgia Adams, Megan Belt, Sarah Bryce, Alice Capsey, Tash Farrant, Jo Gardner, Grace Gibbs, Eva Gray, Danielle Gregory, Shabnim Ismail, Marizanne Kapp, Rhianna Southby, Dane van Nierkerk, Mady Villiers, Fran Wilson.
Women’s fixtures: Manchester Originals (July 21, The Oval); London Spirit (July 25, Lord’s); Northern Superchargers (July 31, Leeds); Welsh Fire (Aug 2, The Oval); Birmingham Phoenix (Aug 4, Edgbaston); Trent Rockets (Aug 8, The Oval); London Spirit (Aug 14, The Oval); Southern Brave (Aug 16, The Ageas Bowl).
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