No issue in cricket in recent times has been more divisive than the launch of The Hundred. Prior to the tournament’s postponement because of the coronavirus pandemic, Nick Hoult told the story behind its creation in the 2020 Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack.
Desert Springs, a five-star golf resort in southern Spain, is not the obvious place to start an English cricket revolution. In late October 2017, ECB chief executive Tom Harrison, chairman Colin Graves, and Andrew Strauss, director of the England team, had flown in to size up the venue as a winter training centre. But their trip took a twist. Called together by Sanjay Patel, then the board’s chief commercial officer, they were soon listening to the latest idea from his department. It was a meeting that changed the sport, possibly for ever.
Patel’s PowerPoint presentation described a new game comprising 100 balls per side – shorter than Twenty20 and, in his opinion, simpler to understand for the new audience the board were desperate to attract. It is not known who first dreamed up The Hundred. Patel will say only that it was born out of many discussions; even Graves is unsure. “Sanjay came out with this presentation,” he says. “We all looked at one another, and said: ‘How the heck is that going to work?’ To give him his due, Sanjay said: ‘Don’t prejudge it. Just go away and have a think.’ He had the vision – and he stuck with it.”
So began one of the most rancorous periods in the history of English domestic cricket. It led to accusations of betrayal and bullying; included PR blunders that damaged the game’s reputation; pitted the board against their richest county; stirred impassioned resistance from the sport’s supporter base; sparked constitutional change that dramatically reduced the influence of the 18 first-class counties; and triggered fears about a widening of the gap between the so-called super clubs at the Test-match grounds, and the rest.
Graves stands down in November 2020, after The Hundred’s first season: the job of making it work in the long term will be his successor’s task. But he will leave office convinced a new format was needed. With Test cricket on the wane around the world, the ECB fear it will lose value even in England. And, in 2018, they received a jolt as they set about trying to renew their Indian broadcast deal, only for Star Sports – who had recently spent $2.55bn on the IPL – to cut ties. It left Sony to pick up the five-year contract, for what sources have described as “tens of millions” lower than the Star deal. It was the first serious sign that Test-match rights cannot be banked ad infinitum. The hole needed filling.
The Hundred is owned by the ECB, which means they now have a property to sell to global broadcasters; each county (and MCC) have a nineteenth share. If, for the sake of argument, a rich Indian investor wanted to buy a team, the board – and thus the counties – would earn a windfall. Without The Hundred, Graves believes, there would have been no £1.3bn television deal with Sky, no £1.3m extra annual payment to the counties, no cricket on free-to-air television. In their first live coverage for two decades, the BBC are set to show ten games a summer between 2020 and 2024: eight in The Hundred, and two T20 internationals.
“Cricket does not stand still,” says Graves. “A lot of people talk about tradition, and say we cannot change this or that. It is rubbish. If we sit and do nothing, we will get left behind. We have created something that is different. When we launched T20, we missed a trick. We should have patented it and, if the rest of the world wanted it, said: ‘Cough up.’ We gave them T20, and a lot of countries did it better than us.
“Not many at the ECB believed in T20. They thought it was a gimmick, so we did not get behind it. Not this time. We do not want to miss an opportunity with The Hundred. If we do it properly, we will have something unique, and worth a lot of money. Yes, we have had a rough ride, and some of that was of our own making. But, behind the scenes, the guys have been determined to develop something good for cricket.”
You may argue that a rough ride is a choppy ferry crossing from Dover to Calais, or a day stuck in traffic on the M1. What the ECB and English cricket have experienced over the past two years, ever since The Hundred was made public in April 2018, would have had the hardiest traveller reaching for the sickness pills. Yet, whatever your view, it has been an incredible feat to pull off such radical change within a sport renowned for conservatism. To shepherd 18 counties and MCC down the same road took planning, focus and ruthless decision-making. And it has left feelings of anger and bitterness.
The counties can roughly be split into three groups. There are those who simply need the money: the annual payout will sustain the likes of Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Northamptonshire through the dark winter months. From those at Test venues, including Lancashire, Nottinghamshire, Warwickshire and Yorkshire, there was wholehearted backing: they will be hosts, and central to the tournament. The final group were either openly against the idea – such as Essex, Kent, Middlesex and Surrey – or privately lukewarm but reluctant to make enemies at the board.
It is at Somerset where a sense of betrayal lingered, so much so that they sought legal advice about suing the board over what they perceived as a broken promise. Originally, Andy Nash, chairman for ten years, had voted in favour of the new competition, believing Somerset – a well-run club at the heart of local life – would be a host venue. In a letter in April 2017, received before a crucial meeting of the Somerset committee, Graves had described Taunton as a “key part of the future of the game, with an opportunity to stage matches like all other major venues in England & Wales”.
— Wisden (@WisdenCricket) May 6, 2020
Ambiguous? Yes – and carefully worded. Graves strongly denies assurances were given that Taunton would be one of the eight host grounds, and points to an email he received in August 2016 in which Nash had stated his support for an “EPL [English Premier League] with six to eight teams. Set criteria for qualification, e.g. 10,000 min capacity. Counties/ECB own the sides, and profits distributed fairly across the game.”
Later, Nash and Graves fell out badly; when Nash resigned from the ECB board, he published a stinging letter criticising Graves’s leadership. But the Somerset committee had already taken Graves’ letter as confirmation they would be at the top table in any new competition, and voted in support when it was agreed – 38 to three – by the ECB’s members in April 2017. Once it became clear from meetings with the ECB later in the year that Taunton would not be a host venue, Somerset were incensed.
Bloodier battles lay ahead. To introduce a competition not featuring the first-class counties required constitutional change, and a two-thirds majority: the ECB’s articles of association stated that all 18 had to be involved in any tournament at professional level. The ECB’s legal department realised the voter base could also include the Minor Counties, diluting the 18. Their representative on the ECB board is Devon’s Jim Wood, who is close to Graves. With extra revenue promised to the Minor Counties – now, after 124 years, rebranded the National Counties Cricket Association – they pledged support. The dissenters had been neutered, the two-thirds majority achieved.
Graves believes part of the difficulty of selling The Hundred to the counties has been the turnover of chairmen: in his five years, he says he has dealt with 37. It takes chairmen at least a year to bed into the job, in which time they also have to assess decisions that have a wider impact. Critics of The Hundred believe that is why some fell into line so quickly: it is hard to rock the boat when new to a business. But it works both ways: Graves feels he had to start all over again with counties who had already agreed to his reforms.
“I never threatened anybody,” he says. “But I said: ‘If you don’t support this, you are going to have a problem, because going forward I cannot guarantee you anything financially. Where is your revenue going to come from? If the television deal goes down, some of you are at risk.’ ECB revenue has to keep rising for the counties to survive.”
The Hundred was worked on quietly behind the scenes for six months after Desert Springs, but not revealed to the counties until a meeting at Lord’s on April 19, 2018. No agenda was issued in advance. The meeting lasted two hours. Patel presented his idea to the counties, who were told a press release would be released immediately: badly burned by the Kevin Pietersen saga, the ECB were suspicious of leaks. It is understood senior voices at Sky begged them not to go public. Details were still too vague: let the leaks happen, but keep quiet officially until everything is fleshed out, then launch in style. The ECB ignored the advice. Journalists learned of the plans over a chaotic conference call with Harrison, Patel and Clare Connor, head of women’s cricket. Beyond the innings lasting 100 balls, there was little that was concrete.
“There was no consultation,” says Surrey chief executive Richard Gould. “The county CEOs were brought into a room, and told The Hundred was happening. It was released to the media ten minutes later, while we were still in the room. It was delivered as a fait accompli. The ECB then used all their leverage to make their dream become a reality.”
It was now that the mud started to fly. Harrison did not give a media interview for the rest of the year. And, as the ECB fell silent, their critics filled the void, and fed the news cycle.
The original message was that The Hundred was for new fans, not existing supporters. This left some county followers, and those who pay good money for Test tickets, feeling abandoned. The board undertook market research, but it would be another 12 months before they made any of it public. When they did, it was light on detail. The policy of silence was also an error. “People were asking questions, rightfully so, but we had nothing to say because we had not finished building it,” says Graves. “It was conceptual. That was difficult. If we had been able to keep it confidential, it would have gone a lot quicker and smoother.”
All the while, the relationship with Surrey, the richest county, was disintegrating. They challenged the ECB’s perception of the average fan as pale, male and stale – a central plank of the board’s argument that cricket needed a new demographic. “Fifty-two per cent of our ticket purchasers last year had never bought tickets before, and our membership has doubled in the last eight,” says Gould. “We sell out most of our games, even though we don’t play Yorkshire or Lancashire.” That is why Surrey instead supported a two-divisional model for a new Twenty20 tournament.
When Nash chaired the ECB’s Domestic Structure Steering Group in 2016, he had proposed precisely that, with the top clubs in the Premier Division, plus promotion and relegation. But while Deloitte valued the annual broadcast rights for a two-tier county T20 tournament at £4.7m, their figure for a competition with eight new teams was six times higher, at £28.7m. Four years on, those valuations remain a sore point. The ECB issued non-disclosure agreements, so county chief executives – forbidden to discuss the details – could not get a second opinion. The board say this protected their commercial interests; counties felt gagged and bullied. Mutual suspicion reigned.
Nash believes The Hundred is the start of a takeover by the Test-match counties. “We don’t play cricket for money, but you cannot play cricket without it,” he says. “For those counties struggling to remain solvent, the guarantee of seven-figure sums over a five-year period would be extremely hard to resist. But it will be the end of the T20 Blast. Fewer professional counties will assume greater power. Once you unleash the forces of Darwin, the market will do the rest. It will be interesting to see at what stage the counties decide their lack of representation on the national governing body’s board necessitates steps to ensure they can protect their own interests, as in soccer and rugby union.”
Just in: https://t.co/85YIEfFZMi
— Wisden (@WisdenCricket) May 1, 2020
The media can be misleading, and PR plans sunk by outside influences, but there is no doubt The Hundred has been beset by self-inflicted wounds. When the ECB announced their long-awaited data at Lord’s in April 2018, they revealed research showing that ticket buyers for professional matches were male (82 per cent), white British (94 per cent), and had an average age of 50. But officials were secretive under questioning, partly because most of their research painted a bad picture of cricket: it is not good business to slam your product in public, even when building a case for change.
Harrison admitted mistakes had been made, and tried to reassure existing fans they were part of the new concept. But the board blundered when it emerged that the image used to launch the home page of the Hundred website had been taken from a rap concert in Miami, and depicted an almost entirely male crowd. To compound the error, it was then replaced with one from a football match. It appeared the ECB were desperate to use any picture, as long as it did not come from a game of cricket.
The board then used the eve of England’s important World Cup match against India to slip out the fact that the tournament would be sponsored by KP Snacks. It seemed like a good day to bury questionable news, but the decision came back to haunt them. Healthy-eating charities and obesity campaigners, including the outgoing chief medical officer of England, lined up to criticise the ECB when the tournament’s kits were launched in October, replete with branding from McCoy’s, Skips, Kettle Chips and others. In January, KP Snacks announced their branding would be absent from children’s replica shirts, making Butterkist and Pom-Bear for adult consumption only.
And on it went. When all the head coaches turned out to be foreigners, the argument that the competition would promote English talent fell flat. One of the coaches, South African Gary Kirsten, added to the haplessness. “Can’t wait for The Hundred Draft and to pick the [insert team name] squad on Sunday at 7pm,” he obligingly tweeted.
Harrison was rightly praised for landing the £1.3bn rights deal with Sky and the BBC: ten games on free-to-air television, plus publicity on the BBC’s multiple platforms, is a crumb of comfort for the critics of the sport’s disappearance behind a paywall in 2006. Sky are satisfied too: they preserved their cricket content, and will show the lion’s share of the new competition. And while other sports have suffered a decrease in the valuation of television rights, the ECB have bucked the trend. Patel is confident The Hundred will make money in its first year, which would be a remarkable achievement given the board have said they will be happy with ground occupation of 60–65 per cent. He also defends the junk-food deal.
— Gary Kirsten (@Gary_Kirsten) October 18, 2019
“The easiest thing for us to do would have been to bring in a financial services brand,” he says. “What we did was get a household brand who understand families better than we ever will, because they sell to them on a daily basis. That sort of insight is so valuable to us. Also, if you reach a different audience, the people who come to the cricket are going to relate to those brands.”
The women’s Hundred, which replaces the Kia Super League, will be marketed alongside the men’s, and hosted by the smaller counties, who have every motivation to get behind it.
“The game needs this for a number of reasons,” says Patel. “People think the driving motivation is money. That is wrong. It is about getting more people to pick up a bat and a ball. It is going to be brilliant cricket. Get behind it, and support it. If people do, and the existing county fans embrace it, we will absolutely be the envy of the world. I hope that is the passion they can share. It will jump us ahead of the curve.”
And what about those existing supporters? It is never wise to read too much into social media, but on Twitter and Facebook the response to The Hundred has usually been cutting – less so on Instagram, mainly used by a younger age group. The ECB believe most of the criticism comes from fans in the South-East and South-West, where the anti-Hundred counties are largely based.
But supporters share Nash’s fear of the growth of super counties, and worry that those who host the new teams will be able to poach the best talent by offering Hundred deals alongside traditional contracts. In December, Lancashire took down from their website an “inadvertently misleading” letter from Manchester Originals head coach, Australian Simon Katich, who said his squad were an “extension of this great county”. The hope had been to encourage Lancashire supporters to back the Originals, yet many considered it proof that lines were already blurred.
Meanwhile, a Twitter account called @Opposethe100 had more than 3,000 followers by the end of 2019, amid fears the tournament would kill the character of the cricket they love. Annie Chave, a Somerset fan, is a vocal critic. “We are going to have 50-over games with seven of our squad missing at The Hundred,” she says. “It must be hard to keep continuity going when you lose that many. And it will cause division. How is it going to work in the dressing-room if one guy is on £125k from The Hundred, and another is just on a county contract? You are making players into mercenaries, not caring who they play for, and that is a dangerous thing. White-ball cricket is exciting and exhilarating, but it is not the form of the game that made me fall in love with cricket. I go to cricket to relax, not sit on the edge of my seat.” Sussex, losing 11, are even more affected.
The player draft, shown on Sky Sports in October, made the tournament feel more of a reality, though some ECB officials were frustrated when Chris Gayle went unsigned. While they saw potential ticket sales, the clubs saw an ageing star no longer worth the money.
The Hundred is inevitable, but the counties will not go quietly. At the end of 2019, Surrey commissioned a report entitled “One Million & Rising”. It recommended a two-division Blast, expanded beyond England with an attempt to build partnerships with IPL teams, and a governance structure separate from the ECB. “An updated Blast is still very much on the cards, perhaps with two or three divisions, and new teams from Scotland, Ireland and Europe,” says Gould. “The counties know there will be significant broadcast interest in T20 when the next rights cycle arrives. Ultimately, it will be up to them to decide. There are lots of options available, and there is no doubt T20 will remain the most important global brand for short-form cricket for the next 20 years or so.”
The Hundred begins at The Oval on July 17, when Oval Invincibles play Welsh Fire. It is the start of a new era, but not the end of the story.
Nick Hoult is chief cricket correspondent of The Daily Telegraph
On April 29, in the light of the coronavirus pandemic, the decision was taken to postpone The Hundred until 2021