Seven stakeholders with different roles in the game share their thoughts on the opinion-dividing new competition and how it will affect the overall landscape of English cricket.
First published in issue 28 of Wisden Cricket Monthly
Are you in favour of The Hundred?
Brown: I don’t have an issue at all with the tournament in many respects, having seen a lot of the figures around recreational cricket and participation. I can absolutely see the need for it and Gloucestershire have been supportive from a very early point in the process. What I worry about is that we’re dropping a stone into the middle of the pond. I don’t have an issue with the stone; what I worry about are the ripples it’ll create.
Mitchell: A quiet optimism is probably the best way of putting it. It’s happening and, as players, I think we’ve got to do all we can now to get behind it. Obviously there’s been a lot of opposition but for the good of English cricket we need it to be a success now.
Buttler: Absolutely not. What the ECB have done with The Hundred is a massive gamble with the future of our game. For existing cricket fans who now feel disenfranchised, it is a gimmick and not cricket. For the targeted new audience, it is still cricket and therefore why are they likely to be any easier to seduce? By centring the tournament around seven cities, a huge raft of the country is being geographically excluded from attending matches. And what about the allegiance that supporters have with their current county? Cricket needs to move with the times and open itself up to all communities. The problem is The Hundred is not the right way to do it.
Lloyd: It will be a success because it has got the best players. It is going to be great fun – the broadcasters will ensure that it absolutely zings. There’s a lot of resistance on social media but in my experience social media is wrong the majority of the time. I’m a massive champion of county cricket – I owe it everything – but it can’t stand still.
Law: Everyone fears change, and it is a massive change. We can’t really make an educated assumption on its success or otherwise until we’ve seen a couple of editions. No one thought the IPL would take off, and here we are a decade later and it’s stronger than ever. Personally I’m focusing on the 50-over competition with Middlesex. I see it as an opportunity for us to grow a great young team, and a competition where they can really stamp their authority.
Fairlie-Clarke: In our recent Cricket Supporters’ Association (CSA) survey, only 12 per cent of fans showed any intention to watch The Hundred at a ground, although this rose to 28 per cent for 16-24-year-olds. Slightly more intend to watch online or on TV, with the average figure at 29 per cent, rising to 53 per cent for 16-24-year-olds.
Why has the gestation period been so rancorous?
Harrison: Well, despite cricket having a proud history of innovation in line with changing times, one thing that unites us all in cricket is our deep passion for the game. It is natural that people have their own view on the future of the sport and we welcome the debate! We are constantly asking ourselves how we can balance protecting the long-term interests of the sport, while also upholding and building on the game’s traditions. The Hundred is a fundamental element of our plan to do this and has been developed in partnership with the whole game. It has also been a very long gestation period, which has inevitably involved lengthy and constructive discussions both in private and in public. We also understand that it’s a significant step for the game to take to create new entities for a new competition, so some opposition and debate is entirely in line with what one would expect from passionate fans of county cricket.
Mitchell: Ultimately, the people who are against it are county stalwarts and they don’t like the perceived knock-on effects. They love their counties and that’s understandable. I very rarely feel sorry for the ECB but I think it has been an incredibly difficult thing for them to manage. Everyone is looking after their own backyard and to please everybody all the time is an impossible job.
Fairlie-Clarke: It was launched after no consultation with existing fans. Indeed, it was originally positioned as not being for existing fans. There is a general agreement among our members that cricket needs to evolve for future generations to play and watch the game. How it does that isn’t something that is easily agreed upon by fans, but letting us have our say and be a part of the process must be a good place to start.
Brown: Some people just hate the tournament full stop. They think it’s turned cricket into a Mickey Mouse sport and it’s devaluing the game they love, and they jump on comments that were made at the beginning by people who should never have made them. So those things get thrown back at you. The view we take at Gloucestershire now is that we’ve got to give it a go. We’re in a unique position because we know that we just missed out on becoming one of the eight host venues, and that hurts, and we understand the reasons for it now – and they might be more political than they are practical – but we also know that we’re probably the next cab off the rank. We want to embrace this because we believe it can benefit the game, but also this is something that as a club we want to be involved in.
Buttler: The ECB have taken a Donald Trump approach, defending the new tournament by repeatedly stating that everything is marvellous, when the view from the shires is very different. The marketing of the new concept has been consistent in its awfulness. Crass announcement after naïve proclamation has been the feature of the missives from ECB HQ.
What do you forsee as the biggest obstacles to the success of The Hundred?
Brown: There’s certainly a prevalence of opinions around The Hundred but actually most of the target market are probably still waking up to it. There will be those who aren’t yet sure if they’ll give it go, and there are those who aren’t even aware of it yet. And they are the ones I suspect the game is trying to go after.
Mitchell: It’ll be judged on how many people we get in the ground and what the spectacle looks like on TV. It’s great having some of the games on free-to-air. To get cricket into primetime BBC slots can only benefit the game as a whole.
Buttler: My communication with fans suggests that the vast majority will not attend games. Some are open and a few are excited, but the construct of the competition and the way it was promoted has disenfranchised many, geographically excluded others and selling tickets will be a tough task. Tickets may be cheap but people still have to get to games.
Harrison: We know we are competing for attention in an ever-changing world. We all have so much choice for how we spend our time, and we know that this challenge is most pronounced across younger generations, who spend on average 30-plus hours a week online. However, I am convinced that both new and existing fans of cricket will want to watch some of the best players in the world compete in a new and exciting format of the game. Aside from inclement weather, our biggest obstacle to success is the unknown. Whilst we are confident in the insights we’ve explored and the enormous amount of work we have done, we also acknowledge that anything new and innovative is often accompanied by concerns.
Brown: A big challenge for Gloucestershire is the name of the franchise that we’re affiliated to (Welsh Fire). I understand there was a big bidding process behind it, with a huge amount of support from the Welsh Assembly and Cardiff City Council, and the expectation was that it would have a strong Welsh feel to it. Do I think there will be lots of people crossing the bridge from Bristol to Cardiff? I think that’s a challenge, and it’s even more of a challenge from Taunton to Cardiff. The challenge we’ve got is hosting women’s Welsh Fire. Where we’re lucky is that women’s cricket has a strong footing in our part of the world, and it’s not as tribalistic as men’s cricket. I think people will come because we’ve got Meg Lanning in our team. But it is a challenge.
Does cricket need a fourth format?
Mitchell: No is the honest answer, but I can understand why they’ve got to it. A new eight-team competition was going to be directly competing with the Blast. I think the change of format is a lot to do with that and not having two T20 competitions in the same summer.
Law: When I first played county cricket we had four competitions. We haven’t actually moved the bar that far forward. Whether or not 100-ball is going to be the answer remains to be seen.
Harrison: The 100-ball format itself emerged from a significant amount of research with current and potential fans. Through this research we uncovered that more people would engage with cricket if the game was simpler to understand and took less time. We also want to ensure cricket is positioned as a game for everyone. At an elite level, it is also very important for us to ensure the competition is differentiated from our existing short-format competitions, which a new format enables. Our plan for The Hundred is for it to grow the interest in cricket and complement existing formats by acting as a gateway for people to engage with our sport for the first time, and then go on to become loyal fans of the game in all its forms.
Buttler: Three formats is tough enough to fit into the English summer. Divide the T20 Blast into two divisions. Make the top tier the Premier League and spend a fraction of The Hundred budget on marketing the living daylights out of it. The beauty of that idea is that all 18 counties are involved, they all have existing support that doesn’t need creating from scratch. How a T20 is any more complex for a new audience to get their collective heads around than The Hundred is beyond me.
Will 100 rather than 120 balls make much difference to the cricket itself?
Mitchell: No, not really. I played a number of the trial games and I was captain as well. It probably took half an innings to get my head around the five and 10-ball blocks but after that it felt pretty natural. The skillset is identical. I don’t think there’s any problem with the format.
Law: A five- or 10-ball over, that’s a massive thing to get used to. It takes a lot out of a bowler in T20 cricket to bowl six balls in a row. If they’re going to bowl 10, it makes it very interesting.
Lloyd: From a broadcasting point of view, we will demystify the game for new people. We cannot, as commentators, be saying things like, ‘He’s just moved from a short-leg position to a backward of square-leg position’ or anything like that. It’s new people that we want. If you look at Lord’s, who get 25,000 spectators every match for a T20 – they ain’t MCC members, most aren’t Middlesex fans. Of course you can pick holes in it but it’s a night out and it’s a lot of fun.
Buttler: If you can get around some of the gimmicks, it probably won’t be much different. I’m sure there will be some very entertaining games. It isn’t the games themselves that put me off; it is the potential repercussions to the wider game that massively worries me.
Does the new competition threaten the 18-county model? And, if so, why did 17 of the 18 counties support the proposals (with only Surrey vetoing)?
Lloyd: The 18 counties will benefit massively from the city set-up. It is absolutely necessary. Take a county that draws in £200k through membership per annum – two players alone could take that.
Law: This hasn’t just come about recently. I remember talking to [former chairman of selectors] David Graveney 15 or 20 years ago, about cutting down the teams from 18 to six or eight, as they do in other countries. But look, county cricket is special. It’s special for reasons that other countries probably don’t understand. Unfortunately everyone’s looking at the bottom line, which is how much money it’s making. First-class cricket around the world doesn’t make any money. It needs a strong national set-up to help produce and nurture the talent coming through. I think if we keep looking at the stuff going on below to find the dollars, then we’re kidding ourselves.
Harrison: The Hundred protects the 18-county model. It is all about growing the game, which is fundamental in protecting cricket’s long-term future, and with it our 18-county structure, Test cricket and all the other non- negotiables. I can assure you that the ECB is committed to the 18 first-class county model.
Buttler: It has to threaten some of the smaller counties. If the eight-team model works, the ECB can potentially point to the success of The Hundred and say that the other competitions should trim down to similar numbers of teams. In my view Surrey got it right, and they would be OK whatever happens. Glamorgan, Hampshire, Lancashire, Nottinghamshire, Warwickshire and Yorkshire will survive as they are operating from the same grounds as sides in The Hundred. Middlesex don’t own Lord’s but you’d expect them to be fine too. Of the other sides, the only reason they can possibly have voted in favour of the new format is the £1.3m bribe they have been promised each year. That is big money for some smaller counties. If we scroll on a few years and that money is potentially withdrawn, will they still view that vote as wise?
Brown: I believe that the people at the top of the ECB, and Tom [Harrison] in particular, do care about the 18 counties and they want them all to be there. At every single meeting that I’ve been to every CEO has been supportive of the other 17. I believe we’ve got a group of CEOs who are supportive, though if things were to get tough, it’d be interesting to see who broke ranks first and how they would do so.
How vital was the £1.3m – which each county will receive annually throughout the five-year period of the new media rights deal – in securing support for The Hundred?
Brown: It’s massively important. My caveat is that it’s not actually as clear-cut as £1.3m. Over the last five years most counties have received £3.3m as payments from the ECB – and that’s entirely discretionary, they haven’t had to do this. So what it means is that over the last five or six years we’ve received on average about £600k extra from the ECB. So actually with that £1.3m, we’ve got to be a bit careful, because all those exceptional payments as we understand it have now gone and won’t be on the table, so in reality it’s something like £650-700k extra. The money makes a massive difference, and we’re very grateful for it, but it’s not as much as people think it’s going to be.
Will the four-day game be pushed further to the margins by The Hundred?
Mitchell: If you look back at the last few years there’s been a lot of Championship cricket played in April and September anyway. I think it’s another easy thing to kick The Hundred about without actually looking at the bigger picture.
Law: We’re getting caught up in the glamorisation of cricket, which has taken place since the inception of T20. Phenomenal sums of money, TV rights deals going through the roof – but you’ll find that the best cricketers come from the four-day system. Four-day cricket produces a higher-skilled and mentally tougher cricketer – someone who can work out a problem, and fix it. You can’t do that from the crash-bang-wallop of the T20 format. What T20 cricket has created is a player who plays one way. You stand, you step, and you swing through the line.
Harrison: The current domestic structure was agreed by the first-class counties, after a review process led by the first-class county CEOs and directors of cricket, so it predominantly reflects where counties themselves want the balance of the red- and white-ball season to be. The domestic season is not something the ECB has control over. Test cricket remains a priority for the ECB at domestic and international level, which is why England men’s red-ball cricketers will be available for every Test match throughout the summer.
Brown: Red-ball cricket in 2020 is actually no different. We’re playing Championship cricket through to the middle of July, then breaking while we host another tournament. Now it just so happens that over the last three years that’s been T20 cricket rather than 100-ball cricket, but the ECB’s first feeling has been: let’s protect the sanctity of the four-day game and not do anything to marginalise it, or anything that could be perceived as marginalising it.
Lloyd: This issue isn’t about The Hundred. As it stands, I don’t think Championship cricket is developing cricketers in the proper way, because of the surfaces. Putting my coach’s hat on – with 14 Championship matches, the 50-over competition, the T20 Blast and The Hundred, there is no way you can prepare players properly. By reducing the Championship to 10 matches, the players would be primed to give the best possible performance. My solution would be three divisions, six teams in each, playing each other twice. And I’d move heaven and earth to come up with a solution that ensures it is played in the summer months.