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The Development Game

The news that next season’s 50-over competition will effectively be downgraded to a ‘development’ tournament, running alongside The Hundred, caused dismay to many cricket fans. In the ICC rankings, England are currently top, so, the legitimate question goes, why will our best players no longer have the opportunity to play in the domestic competition? What will this mean to our chances of sustaining our position as the best in the world? And, just as importantly, what impact will this decision have on the county game?

Instead of bolstering their 50-over skills in the Royal London One-Day Cup, in 2020 our best players are set to play in The Hundred – a format no one else currently plays. Their only opportunity to play longer format white-ball cricket will be in an England shirt, and it is not clear that 100-ball cricket is going to be the best preparation for that. In the longer term, we will surely see a decline in England’s 50-over fortunes as players have less experience of the format.

But it’s not just about the current crop of England players, who are often not regulars in the cup in any case, but will at least have had a good grounding on the county circuit before making their international debuts. It’s more about those hoping to succeed them. Good Friday’s round of Royal London fixtures featured, among others, Jason Holder, Cameron Bancroft, James Pattinson, Glenn Maxwell, Chris Woakes, Adil Rashid, David Willey, Eoin Morgan, Alastair Cook, Peter Siddle, Marnus Labuschagne, Aiden Markram, Kyle Abbott, Azhar Ali, Matt Renshaw, Jason Roy, Morne Morkel and Chris Jordan. Their presence ensured that team-mates and opponents alike had to raise their game to compete with these talents. For example, Joe Clarke, in making his fine 139, had to test himself against Graham Onions and Maxwell. Next year, will there be any such challenge for a young up-and-coming player?

In an article for The Times stressing the benefits of the move, Steve James pointed out that there will be more opportunities to take the game to the outgrounds of the counties, more chances for bright young talents to break through, and that the competition will be played at the height of the summer, rather than being shunted to the first few weeks of the summer. And it is hard to disagree with any of that, but do those benefits outweigh the downsides?

With some 120 players taken out of contention due to The Hundred, we may be left with those who are past their best and those who are yet to get there, along with those who fit into the journeyman category. It’s not the most appealing offer, with few stars on show, and it is no surprise to learn that Royal London aren’t planning to continue their sponsorship. Will their successors offer anything like the same amount of money? Can we expect the crowds to be sustained at current levels? The £1.3 million each county is due to receive from the ECB for agreeing to The Hundred will be eaten into by lower revenues from the 50-over game. And we wait to see what will happen with Vitality’s sponsorship of the Blast and the crowds that turn out. Where once it was the only short-form game, now the Blast is in competition with the 100-ball format, and the ECB has been pretty clear where its focus is.

Steve James pointed out that few of the current England 50-over side play many Royal London games. With much of the competition overlapping with the IPL, several of our top white-ball talents are playing in India now. Before this season, Ben Stokes had not played for Durham since the beginning of 2015, while Jonny Bairstow, Jos Buttler, Joe Root and Chris Woakes had all played fewer than ten games in those four seasons. In that sense, the decision changes little.

But, as I suggested above, it’s not just about the current England players, it’s also about the next generation. For example, Woakes played 33 times for Warwickshire before making his international one-day debut. He has since played a further 130 List-A games, of which 84 have been for England. In short, he had plenty of experience before earning his call-up, and he has still found the opportunity to play some games for his county.

In future, however, Woakes’s successors will be ‘upgraded’ to The Hundred when they show promise, so won’t gain anything like as much 50-over experience. Think of someone like Pat Brown, who impressed so much during Worcestershire’s Blast success in 2018. He would appear a natural for The Hundred, but thus far he has played only six List-A games. So how is he ever to expand his repertoire and prove himself over ten overs rather than four? Might he be a potential England player in 50-over cricket as well as a T20 star? We will perhaps never know. Brown, who has played just five first-class games, could quickly find himself pigeon-holed as a short-format specialist.

For the crucial point is this. The skill-sets involved in The Hundred and T20 cricket will be almost identical; the differences between 120 balls a side and 100 are small. But there are bigger differences between 50-over and 20-over matches, just as there are between red-ball cricket and 50-over matches. The ECB has decided to create a new format that almost no one had been suggesting was needed, and will focus on that and its almost identical twin, T20. There will then be a huge, perhaps unbridgeable, gap for many players between those games and first-class cricket.

The impact of the decision, which may not be seen instantly, is to hasten a split in the game that many have predicted, so that cricketers may end up having to choose between whether they are red-ball and 50-over specialists or T20 and 100-ball experts. A few may be able to straddle both groups, but for the rest it will be more likely they have to choose one or the other, thus diminishing the talent pool. The end result of that will surely be that the longer form will wither away, as the higher paid, crowd-pleasing, TV-attracting, less draining formats become the logical choice to take.

That the ECB should be the one that slowly drains the life out of Test and first-class cricket is a tragedy; that it should do so while telling its patient that what it is providing is medicine is unforgivable. Domestic 50-over cricket may be viewed by some as the least important format, but it is a vital organ of cricket, and we are doing it serious damage by neglecting it and the impact will eventually be felt across the whole body.