What England need is a new contest to rival IPL excitement

100-Ball Challenge would bring back the thrills, the skills – and the crowds – that have gone missing from our game

England play Sri Lanka in the World Cup on Saturday night. Sri Lanka are favourites to win: they have dynamic, cleverer, more experienced one-day cricketers. This is not just because, man for man, they have played at least twice as many one-day internationals as their English counterparts. Eight of Sri Lanka’s probable starting XI have played regularly in the Indian Premier League and the Big Bash in Australia. Only one of England’s has: the captain, Eoin Morgan.

This is mainly why England are so far behind in the one-day stakes. These leagues – especially the IPL – attract the best players, and the best coaches, from around the world. Strategies and techniques are discussed and tested intensively and the game evolves. Fast.

The IPL is like a cricketing brainstorm. Players are constantly challenged and put under pressure. Only the toughest, or most ingenious, survive. It is a finishing school in the same way county cricket was to the world game in the 1980s, when it was the source of West Indies’ invincibility.  

England desperately need an IPL-type competition of their own, rather than the watered-down versions of recent years.  This is not just to sharpen our players’ skills  – and it will be imperative that the England regulars appear in it often – but also to rejuvenate an ailing game.

Participation and attendance figures are down, and the traditional winter sports, football and rugby, are increasingly encroaching into public consciousness and cricket’s precious summer space.

This year the FA Cup final is on 30 May and the Championship resumes on 8 August, the same weekend the first warm-up matches for the rugby World Cup are played. Cricket has barely two months unimpeded.

More than that we have had a decade of live English cricket exclusively on pay-TV. A Test match or one-day final has ceased to be a national event. With the gradual decline of cricket in schools and the folding of many local clubs, there is now a large percentage of teenagers who know little of cricket.

 

So this new English Cricket League not only has to be exciting, but accessible too. You cannot assume understanding of cricket any more. The game has to be made simple to understand, without losing all its compelling nuances. The T20 format has made strides in that direction – it is cricket without the boring bits, the shouldering of arms, the negative bowling, the interminable delays. But cricket’s longevity is linked to its versatility: it can be played in almost any format. The time is right for a revamp.

Having watched many IPL matches, I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t. In cricket-mad India you are preaching to the converted. In England audiences are harder to attract. They need to be wooed with something interesting but straightforward.

So for a start I would abolish the idea of overs. Short-form cricket is all about balls. Balls faced, run-rate per 100 balls, balls remaining. The concept of balls is easier to understand than overs. So I would create the 100-Ball Challenge. That’s how long an innings lasts. It’s a tad shorter than a T20 innings (120 balls) but that doesn’t matter massively. It won’t affect anything much.

To further simplify the game, an innings would be divided into four quarters of 25 balls each. Those 25 balls would all be bowled from the same end, to avoid the time-consuming, confusing changing of ends. They would be bowled in batches (overs) of five balls. As now, no bowler could bowl consecutive overs. After those 25 balls there is a time-out – a great feature of the IPL for players, coaches, advertisers and spectators. It’s a good opportunity for a drink, a de-brief and a few commercials.

Then for the next quarter the play changes ends, until the 50th ball and another time-out. And so on. You’d get the same number of balls delivered at each end, but in longer chunks with less messing about. This is, by the way, how a lot of under-13 cricket is currently played.

I’d introduce one other game-changer. In the third quarter, between the 50th and 75th balls, the batting team can nominate one sequence of five balls when sixes into the crowd or over the fence count double. The incentive might not only revitalize an ailing innings but also cost a greedy batting team wickets. Some of the monstrous hits you see nowadays deserve at least 10 runs anyway.

The key to the success of this or any other short-form tournament is to get the stars involved. When I ask my kids what would make them want to go to a T20 match they say AB de Villiers, Dale Steyn, Chris Gayle. English cricket has to find a window in its schedule to enable these men, and the top locally-grown talent, to appear. The international calendar at home must be reduced. There are too many superfluous matches.

The new regime at the ECB, chief executive Tom Harrison and chairman Colin Graves, know this. Harrison, a former county player, is a modern thinker but cares passionately about the game at all levels. His mission is “evolution not revolution”. Recalibrating the shortest format of the game to give England the best and most entertaining competition in the world is top of the agenda.

 A couple of years of the 100- Ball Challenge, played over a month in mid-summer, well funded and imaginatively covered and luring the best players, and the crowds will be back and the matches will be played with proper intensity. The English players will improve. And by 2019 England will be favourites to beat Sri Lanka in the World Cup and maybe even win it.

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