There was a moment, during a briefing designed to underline the simplicity of the playing conditions in the Hundred, when Alan Fordham found himself explaining what would happen in the event of a rain-affected match.
Fordham used to open the batting for Northants. These days he’s the ECB’s head of cricket operations. He’s been good in both roles.
But he is very much not the sort of fellow you would find in a DJ booth whipping a crowd into a frenzy. And, as he elaborated on the amended Duckworth-Lewis-Stern algorithm to be used in the event of poor weather, the thought occurred that the Hundred was in danger of becoming rather a lot of things it said it wasn’t. For, as a wag on Twitter observed, nothing says simplicity like an amended DRS algorithm.
Did anybody ever say, “That cricket stuff looks good, but I hate it when they call ‘over’ after every six balls!” Has any protest ever featured the chant: “What do we want? The introduction of the decimal system in cricket. When do we want it? We don’t mind, as long as it’s in increments of five or 10”? Is the game really any more accessible for the introduction of the umpire holding a white card up at the end of five balls rather than shouting “over” a delivery later? It seems unlikely. All these simplifications… they’re really complicated.
Just as Atomic Kitten seemed – like ketchup on the table of an excellent restaurant – superfluous on that first T20 Finals Day in 2003, so the musical acts seem unnecessary here. That’s no slight on them. But setting up a stage overlooking a pitch on which no spectators are allowed hardly sets the musicians up to thrive. If you like chocolate and you like baths, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you want a bath of chocolate.In truth, there’s not much new here. Shortened formats? We’ve done that. Music? We’ve had that for years. Fireworks? The best display I ever saw was after the final of the Stanford Super Series. It was incredible. Really, the man spent a fortune on them. Sadly, it turned out not to be his fortune. Ultimately, cricket doesn’t need gimmicks. It remains a great game. Whether it’s played over 100 balls, 100 overs, five-days or four, cricket is a great game.
It’s a shame that cricket administrators don’t have more faith in it. Given decent weather, decent surfaces and decent teams, this game will sell. Whatever the format. What it requires is exposure. Even billionaires suffocate without oxygen. All this gimmickry, all this fighting, all this money, it’s all so unnecessary.
There is some good news here for the organisers. There is nothing in the actual game of 100-ball cricket that need worry or offend anyone. We’ve had eight-ball overs in living memory. We’ve had four before that. We can probably cope with “sets” of five. If they wanted to change the entire T20 Blast to a 100-ball Blast well, most of us could live with that. Here’s a prediction, though: with games regularly spilling beyond their timeframe, what are the chances we are watching T10 cricket within a few years? It’s a format that would, at Olympic level, make a lot of sense*. And even professional cricketers can get through a game of T10 within a couple of hours.
There is, of course, plenty to worry (some of) us about other aspects of the competition. The threat it poses to the existing formats; the threat it poses to the 18-county system; the threat it might even pose to the value of T20 leagues around the world. It really is incredible the divide that this tournament has created within the English cricket-loving world. That cannot be good.
For all the breathless excitement of the commentators – some of who seem to have graduated from the Kim Jong-un school of journalism – who seem unable to see poor fielding or any empty seats, we’ll be in a better position to judge the impact of that tournament when we see how England do in the next 50-over World Cup or how they fare in the Test series against India. We should assess attendances at the T20 Blast, too, and the Royal London One-Day Cup. Sometimes the world changes very fast and there is a danger any of us could be left behind with our outdated beliefs. But this seems a mightily strange way to prepare for either challenge. When England are 40 for 5 against India, it might not look very clever.
There is unquestionably some good here. So, while the official attendance of 6317 at the women’s match is a little misleading – at the start of the match, there were probably fewer than 1,000 in the ground; no doubt some of this audience had arrived in time for the men’s match and with an open mind towards catching the end of the women’s – it is encouraging nevertheless. It’s not so much it was a record for a domestic women’s match outside London, as there’s no reason many of them will not have enjoyed what they saw and seek out more women’s games. The increase in cricket on free-to-air TV is welcome, too. It might all have been the game ever needed.
But just gimme some truth, as John Lennon put it. While trumpeting the record figures, let’s also acknowledge that the crowd for Thursday’s men’s Hundred game at the Kia Oval was well, below what Surrey would expect for a domestic T20. And let us acknowledge that the crowd for the men’s game at Edgbaston was, at 12,137, below what Birmingham Bears (or are we calling them Warwickshire again now that there’s a second Birmingham team in town?) would expect for a T20 local derby against Worcestershire, and in line with a Friday night fixture against Lancashire or Nottinghamshire.
The crowd experience at Edgbaston seemed a familiar one Getty Images
Given the vast marketing outlay – the primetime TV adverts; the thousands of free tickets; the hubris and bluster – that seems a modest return. And while there were some signs of the mythical “new audience” at The Oval on Wednesday, the crowds on Thursday and Friday have seemed very similar to the normal T20 audience. We had the same chants, the same behaviour, the same enthusiasm. In no way should that be perceived as a problem – T20 audiences have kept counties afloat for two decades now; they deserve more respect than they are sometimes given – but let’s just be straight about where we are here.
The use of the name Phoenix in connection with Birmingham is revealing. For those with any real association with the city, it surely evokes memories of the Phoenix Consortium. They were a group of four businessmen who bought the Rover name for £10 – yes, £10 – in 2000. Five years later, having taken £42m – yes, £42m – in pay and pensions from the company, they called in the administrators. A history of car-making that stretched back a century in the city was ended. The Longbridge area, where the car-plant once employed over 25,000 people and stretched over 70 acres, has never fully recovered.
Calling a Birmingham team Phoenix, then, might be compared to founding The Margaret Thatcher Coal Mining Museum. It suggests the link between this team and the city it purports to represent is as flimsy as some of the marketing rhetoric that has accompanied it.
If the idea was really to cut the length of games, they wouldn’t have introduced timeouts; if the aim was really to appeal to non-white communities, they wouldn’t have employed a coach who has been suspended for hurling racist abuse; if the ECB really wanted to protect the 18-county system, it wouldn’t have introduced a format which could endanger them. What was it the US major supposedly said all those years ago: something about being necessary to destroy a Vietnamese town in order to save it? Just give us some truth; we’ll respect it much more than the bluster we’ve been fed so far.
So, what have we learned so far? The format seems to work. Just as the T20 format works. But the cost? Well, we may be working that out for many years to come.
*You’re wondering why it would make a lot of sense, aren’t you? Well, it would enable more teams to participate in the very narrow Olympic window. And at an event which is meant to help develop the popularity of the game, that is a big deal
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo