The Playfair Annual 2019
The summer of 2019 should be one all cricket fans can look forward to, with both the men’s and women’s Ashes and the ICC World Cup to entertain us. England go into all three tournaments with confidence, and victories in any of them would boost the profile of the game throughout the nation. But, despite all of this, along with the renewed energy shown by many of our counties to attract fans, the rising profile and support for the Kia Super League, and the excellent crowds to watch Joe Root and Eoin Morgan’s sides, cricket goes into the 2019 season at something of a crossroads. And there is one major reason for this.
On 21 February, the ECB announced the playing conditions for their new competition, The Hundred, which will be played over a five-week period in the height of the summer, starting in 2020. As such, they have decided the new format is to be the centrepiece of the season. By doing this, they diminish the three formats that already exist, while supporters of the 18 counties will either see their teams deprived of their best players, or they will have to decide if they want to switch long-held allegiances to a new franchise entity.
To say that The Hundred has not been universally welcomed by cricket fans is an understatement, not that you would know it from the press release, which stated that a county vote 17-1 in favour of the new competition showed ‘overwhelming support’. But to many cricket fans, it appeared little more than a version of the game invented by a marketing ‘genius’ who didn’t much like or understand cricket. One of its aims, apparently, was to simplify the game for those who found T20 too complex to follow. But how bowling ten balls from one end at a time, with either one or two bowlers used, is simpler than one bowler bowling six deliveries will never be clear to me. For the ECB’s chief executive Tom Harrison, it has ‘optimised short-form cricket’. And we all like a bit of optimisation.
The ECB has tried to justify its decision by pointing out that a few games will be aired on terrestrial television, and that this should attract a new audience to cricket. Could the ECB simply not have tried harder to find a way to bring their current formats to terrestrial viewers? The fact is that we already have three compelling formats of cricket, and it is difficult to see why, if you don’t currently like it, 100 balls a side will appeal when 120 balls doesn’t.
After all, a good game of red-ball cricket can be like a great novel or box set, keeping you glued to the end, with a series of twists and turns along the way. Examples of that would include the tied Championship fixture when Somerset needed 78 for victory last summer, but Lancashire took the last two wickets with the scores level; or Sri Lanka’s stunning one-wicket win over South Africa in Durban in February, when Kusal Perera’s brilliant unbeaten 153 helped his side home with a world-record last-wicket partnership of 78 to win a match. By comparison, the 50-over game is like a film or a mini-series, with scope for colour and context, but with fewer subplots. Twenty20 is like Death in Paradise – enjoyable and fun to watch, but rarely lingering in the mind. Where does that leave The Hundred? Insert your own example of shallow TV dross.
But for now, let us hope England have a successful summer, as there is no doubt that winning the World Cup and the Ashes would do much more to inspire the next generation of cricketers and bring new fans to the game than The Hundred will ever do. A key part of both men’s teams is Jos Buttler, this year’s cover star, whose recall to the Test side was a typically bold decision by Ed Smith, the chief selector. Buttler has shown himself to be one of the most innovative and exciting batsmen in the world, and his form could prove crucial to England’s success in both competitions.
Eastbourne, 18 March 2018