Testing the Hundred

Testing the Hundred

In the first of a series of pieces set to help fill the void in county cricket, Ben Henley-Washford gives us his thoughts on The Hundred and why we should all get on board with it.

Recently it was announced that the next two ticket windows for the Hundred are to be postponed indefinitely. What irony: the tournament that has polarised English cricket fans for almost two years may never even take place.

There are plenty of valid reasons to take issue with the format-that-may-not-be, but I find it hard to understand the argument that the Hundred will hurt Test Cricket; in fact, I really do believe it could open it up the game to a whole new audience.

I’ll be honest with you; I have been behind the Hundred from day one. So, I will be the first to admit that there may be a fair amount of bias in this article. However, the Hundred has had its faux pas. The misinformation on how many overs would be bowled or how many balls would be bowled in those overs seemed to confuse most, which is not a great start for a format that is marketing itself as a simplified version of the game.

It is also hard to ignore the Americanisation of the team names, which would, in all honesty, seem more at home in the NFL or NBA than on the scoreboard at Lords.

Then you have the twitter account – either a great example of satire or a tragic mess depending on how much credit you want to give their social media team. Put simply, it is easy to see why cricket’s traditionalists are not rushing to put their support behind the new format. It’s just a bit vulgar and brash; you could say it’s just not cricket.

There is also a strong argument that the Hundred will damage one day cricket in England, with the One Day Cup being relegated to a second class tournament in favour of the Hundred. However, I think this is more due to the fact that England will not play another ODI World Cup for three years and so a decision has been made to prioritise T20s. I would be extremely surprised if in the lead up to an ODI World Cup we did notsee more One Day cricket being played at the highest level in England and Wales. 

I also appreciate the frustration of cricket fans from the South West and the North East, who may have a right to feel somewhat abandoned by the new format. I cannot offer an explanation of why the ECB decided to only form eight franchises, but I do appreciate the move to basing franchises around cities rather than counties.

The modern world revolves around cities like London, Birmingham, and Manchester – people know where they are and what they are about, which is more than you can say about most British Counties. That’s not to say we should end county cricket; I would be strongly against that. However, if the ECB are trying to appeal to a wider audience I think the move makes sense, because I guarantee more people could point to Manchester on a map than Lancashire. 

Moreover, as a resident of Hertfordshire, I have always had an allegiance to Middlesex as my closest major County, but it is worth remembering that in a country with over 48 counties (depending on classification), there are only 18 major county cricket teams. If Somerset and Durham fans feel hard done by, spare a moment for the forgotten children of Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire, Norfolk, Devon, Suffolk, Cornwall… I think you see my point.

Hopefully, if this season goes ahead and is a success, more franchises can be formed in more cities across the country: The Newcastle Knights and the Bristol Bees perhaps?

My argument hinges on something that I heard Eoin Morgan say. Fresh off winning England their first ODI World Cup, everyone’s favourite Irish import made an excellent point about how the Hundred could be, as a concept, more enticing to people outside of the sport. He claimed that people new to cricket are “crying out for a tournament that he or she understands, because 18 teams going for a long period of time just doesn’t make sense to anybody.” I think he has a point. 

Now, before you smash your keyboard arguing that “it will never be as exciting as a GREAT TEST MATCH” just think about this: we had one of the, if not the, greatest cricketing summers in England last year. Between the World Cup win and that day at Headingly, cricket was in the zeitgeist again. Ben Stokes is a hero of a generation, kids will be buying fake gold chains at Camden market so that they can pretend to be Jofra as they run in to bowl, and you know that everyone is trying to bat like Smith, Burns, and Labuschagne in the nets this winter… actually, that might just be me. 

The draft, if anyone reading this bothered to watch it before writing it off as unnecessary and ridiculous, was bizarre but entertaining. Watching round by round, judging every decision, and then getting to pore over the teams at the end, slating those we deemed as having made huge mistakes and becoming more and more exhilarated at the idea of watching those teams we deemed as world beaters (I’m looking at you Welsh fire).

Since that weird but wonderful few hours of TV aired, I have had friends, most of whom had never watched a ball of cricket before the summer of 2019, texting me daily with updates on the Hundred. I sat on Skype with two friends the morning of the priority booking window and the thrill of my friends finally caring about my childhood obsession – that up until now had been something they had, at best, tried to tolerate – was exhilarating. 

It would have been easy for the summer of 2019 to fade in the memory; 2005 did. Cricket went onto Sky and the passion went behind a pay wall. We all remember those players as heroes because we are passionate about the sport. Most of you reading this now devour cricket in every form, and you have probably been able to afford Sky since 2006. But the average sports fan just does not have that passion or that money. 

So, all I am asking is that we don’t sit in a circle, congratulating each other on how great OUR sport is; I adore the sport as much as the next person, but it doesn’t belong to me, or you, or the ECB or the ICC. 

I know the County Championship is brilliant; I spent most of my last summer drinking wine at blast games, and thanks to the 2019 summer most of England have experienced the stomach churning agony and tension that a Test match can deliver. Can the Hundred do that? No. I am not going to lie to you, because I do not think it can.

The best thing I can equate the two formats to is the way a book can build and pay off more tension than a 20 minute sitcom – but I have wasted far more time watching Brooklyn 99 than reading Dickens. Why? Because sometimes in life we want easy more than we want quality, something that has felt especially prescient in recent weeks of isolation and lockdown.

The Hundred will be a few hours, it will be casual watching – the Brooklyn 99 of cricket. But, with casual watching comes casual understanding. 

Much has been written about where Test cricket fits into modern life. No matter what your thoughts are on this, the one thing I think we can all appreciate is that you need to understand what a ‘cover drive’ or a ‘silly mid-off’ is to even have half a chance of getting anything out of Test Match Special.

It would be incredibly difficult to learn about cricket just through watching Test matches. It is a sport for which an understanding is slowly developed through years of watching, listening, reading and playing. Let us be fair and admit that it is quite unreasonable to expect people to learn cricket by watching Tests eight hours a day, five days a week, for five weeks.

There are very few things I would watch for eight hours a day without any prior interest or understanding; in fact there is nothing. I would, though, sit down and watch for an hour or two, especially if it was on the BBC at prime time whilst I’m having a few beers on a summer’s evening. Before you know it, I’m watching every night and I know what a slip and a cover drive are.

James Anderson called T20 a “gateway drug” in his recent book, and I have to assume that the Hundred will fit into the same category. It is not going to be the height of everything the sport has to offer, but as a simple form of the sport, broadcast live on terrestrial television, it will hopefully catch the attention of a broad and diverse audience. 

The Hundred might not be your cup of tea, and given the current state of sport worldwide, it may never even come to fruition. But please, before you comment ‘OPPOSE THE HUNDRED’, just take a second to realise that maybe it is not for you.

Perhaps, it’s for the child who has re-watched Ben Stokes’ Headingly innings over and over again and is just waiting to see that kind of hitting power again. It’s for the group of blokes that watched the ODI final together and have been shouting ‘by the BAREST of margins’ at each other ever since.

They might not understand or appreciate the minutiae of Test cricket, but the ember that may one day ignite that passion is within them. The Hundred can fan those flames. Forget money, forget advertising, and forget the ECB and the ICC. This is simply another gateway into the game, and if I have learnt anything in my time as a sports fan it’s that every sport could do with a few more gateways and a lot fewer gatekeepers.

The sport does not belong to you, or me, or the ECB, or the ICC; to quote a strangely charismatic Australian cricket coach: “it’s about the WE not the ME”. 

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