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The inside story of The Hundred: What we know, what we don't and how it will change cricket forever

Sixteen months out, The Hundred still has no teams, no players, no fixtures, no sponsors, no playing hours and only the barest of operable frameworks. What we do know is it will change the game as we know it forever

Jonathan Liew
Chief Sports Writer
Saturday 23 March 2019 11:37 GMT
The Hundred is set to change cricket forever
The Hundred is set to change cricket forever (Getty)

The domestic cricket season begins this Sunday in sweltering heat and under cloudless skies, as Dubai plays host to the now traditional curtain-raiser between the county champions, Surrey, and the MCC. Back home, most of the 18 counties are making their final tweaks ahead of another packed campaign. Behind the scenes, though, a deep and unprecedented sense of uncertainty reigns. For the 2019 season is the last before English cricket embarks on a journey that will, for better or for worse, change it forever.

It’s now two years to the week since Tom Harrison, the chief executive of the England and Wales Cricket Board, stood up at the Royal Institute of British Architects and officially unveiled what was repeatedly described as “a new T20 competition”, to start in 2020. As we’ve learned in the intervening period, the format wasn’t the only thing with an asterisk against it. With barely a year to go until the big launch of its new competition, players, administrators and fans are still operating largely in the dark.

The gestation of The Hundred, as it’s now known, will go down as one of the most corrosive episodes in the history of the domestic game. It’s inspired derision and division, rancour and remorse, apprehension and - it’s fair to say - a good deal of excitement too. Much of this stems from the vast and exhilarating unknown into which English cricket is willingly throwing itself. The implications and effects of the new competition will be both long-term and short-term, local and national, subtle and cataclysmic. But as of now, here’s what we know - and more importantly, what we don’t.


Storm clouds gathering

“Oh god, don’t get me started,” groans one county director of cricket when contacted by The Independent about the logistics of the new tournament. Two years it was launched, a year after the 100-ball format was established, there seems to be a genuine frustration in many parts of the domestic game at the lack of tangible progress being made.

The pace of change has been glacial: to take one example, despite first sitting down in November to begin the largely uncontentious process of ratifying playing conditions for the new tournament, it wasn’t until February that they were finally agreed. Even now, it provides only skeleton details. What, for example, will the policy in the case of rain delays? How will the pace of play be enforced? Sixteen months out, The Hundred still has no teams, no players, no fixtures, no sponsors, no playing hours and only the barest of operable frameworks.

“At the minute I’m a bit apprehensive,” Somerset coach Jason Kerr told the County Gazette earlier this month. “It could be brilliant, it could be really exciting, but it could really pose a challenge to the first-class game. We would like to be a lot clearer on the shape of cricket moving forward. There’s a lot of rumour and hearsay.”

As ridiculous as it now seems, the original plan was to reveal the names of the eight new teams in the spring of last year. The ECB now privately admits that the unveiling of the eight teams is still months rather than weeks away, perhaps not even until later in the summer. And certainly the process of creating eight brand new franchises - each with a new name, new colours and branding, and in many cases a brand new staff - has been extremely complex.

Over the last few months, the ECB’s Hundred team have - with the help of an external contractor - been carrying out extensive and expensive market research in the seven host cities (London, Manchester, Birmingham, Cardiff, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton). The research has been focused less on distinct cricketing themes and more on values and branding: the aim being to create something organic and entirely untarnished by anything that may already exist. Critics, meanwhile, fear vast sums of money are being wasted on a nebulous PR exercise that tells us very little we didn’t already know. Among the London research, for example, was the earth-shattering revelation that Londoners see their city as “vibrant” and “diverse”.

Despite the ECB’s initial insistence that the eight team names would be untied to geography or existing entities, it is looking increasingly probable that many will. The Edgbaston franchise have been given permission to call their team Birmingham, mirroring the Birmingham Bears, which is already Warwickshire’s Twenty20 moniker. The Old Trafford franchise is also likely to be called Manchester. The Trent Bridge franchise is believed to be keen on incorporating ‘Trent’ into its name.

Occasionally, the search for new identities has led organisers down some bleakly surreal paths. The Independent has learned that at an early planning meeting to discuss potential names for the Manchester franchise, the name ‘Manchester Storm’ was seriously considered at one stage, before somebody pointed out that it was perhaps not the most appropriate imagery for a city most people associate with rain and inclement weather. “Honestly, it’s like something out of W1A at times,” one county executive observes, a reference to the popular BBC spoof documentary defined by organisational stasis, vacuous PR babble and comic mishaps.

A common complaint is the fact that the inaugural player auction will not take place until October, long after most counties have begun their recruitment processes for the following season. Counties could sign a player for the 2020 season, only for them to get bought by another franchise in the draft, putting them out of action for weeks, and under the aegis of an entirely different coaching staff, training schedule and medical team. As we’re about to discover, that’s not the only potential conflict of interest in store, as English cricket begins the process of carving up roughly 400 professional cricketers into eight completely new teams.


A two-tier game

The more mathematically-minded among you will have noted, first and foremost, that most of them won’t make it. With each franchise assembling a squad of 15 for a competition lasting barely a month, and with three overseas players per team, at a rough estimate the new competition will only have room for around 100 English players. Perhaps that’s another reason for the name.

What of the rest? Well, the 50-over competition will be run concurrently with The Hundred, although given the best white-ball players will be corralled into the new competition, it’s likely the standard will be depressed and interest minimal. It would surely have made far more sense to play the County Championship during July and August: with the existing T20 Blast to be played earlier in the summer, during May and June, a red-ball specialist could end up spending more than three months kicking their heels, with only second XI cricket and the odd Championship game to keep their eye in.

Even those who find a franchise are by no means guaranteed a game. As many women’s teams discovered during the Kia Super League, the short time-frame and turnaround between fixtures creates an established first XI that can prove increasingly hard to break into. A minor injury niggle could effectively put a player out for the tournament. Meanwhile, an innings of 100 balls rather than 120 offers even fewer opportunities for the whole team to contribute. A No 6 batsman, for example, may end up facing only a few balls a game. Counties are keen for fringe players to be allowed to play in other competitions while on the sidelines. The ECB are resisting fiercely. On a personnel level, The Hundred could be characterised as fewer players, doing less.

The Super League offers lessons The Hundred can learn (Getty Images)

October’s auction, which will be covered live by both Sky and the BBC, promises to be an event the likes of which English cricket has never seen. Players will be divided into five salary bands - £120,000, £100,000, £80,000, £50,000, £25,000 - with each franchise picking three players from each. Counties have already begun staging mock auctions to study potential outcomes and strategies. The ECB staged their own dummy draft in December, and were delighted with the results. Yet at this stage the success of the auction, like much else to do with the tournament, remains largely conjecture.

A number of franchises have already indicated that they will seek to pick as many players from their affiliated county as possible. But there are no guarantees. What if - by way of hypothetical example - the Southampton franchise, composed largely of Hampshire staff and executives, fails to buy Hampshire captain James Vince? What if two players on roughly similar annual salaries are sold for wildly differing amounts at auction? The potential for ill-feeling, misunderstanding, dressing-room splits and cronyism is clear.

There is also the potential for splits within franchises. Those counties not assigned a franchise of their own will have to work in tandem with larger counties, an arrangement that is already beginning. Worcestershire, for example, will work with Warwickshire on the Birmingham franchise. Northamptonshire and Essex, meanwhile, have decided to align themselves with Middlesex and the Lord’s franchise.

But with a clear “leader” at each franchise, smaller counties are justifiably nervous about larger counties taking the opportunity to launch a power grab for players, staff, even fans, and are actively clamouring for a meaningful role in the new franchises. “We need to make sure the opportunity outweighs the threat,” said Kent chief executive Simon Storey, who are aligning with Surrey for The Oval franchise. “I think being at the heart of the debate and not just allowing it to happen is actually how we'll do that.”

In the long run, however, the blurring of lines between existing counties and new franchises has created a concern that the ECB is essentially trying to ease out the smaller teams by stealth. If, say, Leicestershire’s best young players invariably end up playing for a Nottingham franchise - a situation which you could argue has been building for years - then what possible future can there be for Leicestershire except as a sort of East Midlands feeder side? “There must be two sides, two budgets, two sets of selectors,” insists Daryl Mitchell, chairman of the Professional Cricketers’ Association, “or this could be suicide for the smaller counties.”


The medium is the message

There seems to be a recognition at the ECB in recent weeks that the way in which the new tournament was unveiled needlessly alienated large swathes of the game. “It was a disaster,” one insider admits. Existing fans felt their views were no longer of interest to the game’s power-brokers. Important details were shrouded under the cloak of non-disclosure agreements. At this vital crossroads in the history of English cricket, chief executive Harrison did not give a single interview in the whole of 2018.

The avalanche of negative publicity that overwhelmed the launch of The Hundred may not ultimately have forced a change of course, but it has impelled a softening of tone. The ECB’s head of communications, Chris Haynes, will leave his position next month. An external PR company has been sought to deal specifically with the torrid media fallout. The message has subtly shifted from a single-minded focus on “new audiences” to “new and existing audiences”, an admission that existing fans are not simply the bread and butter of the game, but a vital marketing resource, spreading the gospel to their own social circles.

Behind the scenes, however, the mood remains febrile and retributive. The effectiveness with which the ECB was able to change the articles of association and push the new competition through in 2017 has given it an almost unchecked power within the game to silence dissenting voices. Earlier this year, ECB chairman Colin Graves was furious that Surrey were the only county to vote against the new playing conditions, and responded by threatening to strip The Oval - one of the country’s biggest and most lucrative cricket grounds, in its only major metropolis - of hosting rights.

Graves threatened to strip The Oval of its hosting rights (Getty Images)

That row appears to have blown over for now, but the threat remains only barely implicit. Ordinary members perplexed at their counties’ unwillingness to stand up to the ECB have been told in no uncertain terms that it simply isn’t worth the trouble. “We don’t see the benefit of standing out on a matter of principle,” Somerset chief executive Andrew Cornish told the county’s annual general meeting in January. Cornish also admitted that staying in the ECB’s favour was vital for counties seeking to be awarded hosting rights for internationals and major matches. One executive believes that with contracts with host venues still yet to be signed - several months behind schedule - it still isn’t beyond the realms of possibility for Graves to penalise Surrey or any other county he deems to have stepped impertinently out of line. “He’s exactly that petty, and he’s exactly that nuts,” the executive says, under - naturally enough - condition of anonymity.


The showdown

The ECB’s sincere hope is that once 2020 rolls around, once the gaps are filled in, once the details are established, the sheer potency of the spectacle will sway any lingering doubters. Its position remains that any problem with The Hundred to date has been one of poor communication rather than anything more fundamental. Its case, it believes, is utterly compelling. Its commitment to the project remains total.

To that end, it is preparing to put on one hell of a show. The budget for “event production” alone - fireworks, pyrotechnics, dancers and the like - runs to around £6 million for just the first year. Roughly a similar figure has been set aside for “on-the-ground” marketing: the job of actually getting people to buy tickets and come to the games, excluding broadcast advertising or social media campaigns.

The ECB’s on-the-ground marketing budget is around £800,000, per franchise, per year. With each franchise only playing four home games, that’s a budget of £200,000 per fixture. To put that into perspective, a large county like Surrey would maybe spend £80,000 on marketing an entire season of T20. With tickets set to be competitively priced - £20 has been mentioned as a potential price point - the ECB are about to embark on the sort of love-bombing campaign that domestic cricket has never seen in its lifetime. And the scariest thing of all is that it can’t afford to fail.

When the ECB carried out its initial market research, it was both shocked and encouraged by what it found. With around 10 million followers in England and Wales, surveys found that cricket was on a par with rugby union as the second-largest team sport in the UK. But whereas two million rugby union fans actually attended matches in person, only one million cricket fans did so. The ECB realised that one of the largest audiences in British sport was waiting to be tapped, if only they could find a way of reaching them.

Australia's Big Bash is wildly popular with fans (Getty Images)

Its research further indicated that young families were increasingly drawn to short, sharp “events” rather than long-running spectacles. T20 was initially conceived in this vein, but before long bloated to more than three hours as more counties began installing floodlights and appealing to the post-work crowd. One of the salient themes in the research was how many families were superficially attracted to T20 as a game but put off by its late starts and boozy culture.

Harrison himself was convinced of the power of cricket to reach new audiences when strolling around Lord’s during the women’s World Cup final in 2017. For the first time he could remember, the queues at the ladies’ toilets and the coffee stall were longer than the queues for the gents’ and the bar. For others at the ECB, the sight of 80,000 fans turning up at the Melbourne Cricket Ground for a Big Bash game in 2016 was the clincher. The irony that both games featured conventional, existing forms of cricket appeared not to have occurred.

Those who have played a 100-ball game - at one of the test events at Trent Bridge last year, or at a recreational level - report that it “still feels like cricket”. The terminology may subtly change from “overs” to “balls” and “ends”; the balance of risk and reward will shift ever further in favour of risk. But any changes are largely cosmetic. The “fourth format” of 100-ball cricket is more a rebranding than a genuine sporting revolution.

Often its relationship to what we consider “traditional cricket” is characterised as the difference between pool and snooker. A more accurate analogy would be between snooker and the 1990s BBC quiz show Big Break: lots of frilly accoutrements bespoke rules and general silliness, but still recognisably snooker, played on an actual snooker table, by actual snooker players. Jim Davidson is believed to be available for hosting duties.

No, the real repercussions will be felt not on the field, but off it. What if nobody comes? What if a prime-time BBC Two audience is treated to the sight of half-empty stadiums? What if it rains for the whole month? What if - stung by the failure of the rest of the world to take the format seriously, 100-ball cricket fails to take off and, as many believe, the ECB are forced to revert to a T20 format from 2024?

Nobody knows. That’s the rub. Sometimes it feels as though The Hundred is simply enduring the usual cycle of conservatism and cynicism that greets all new innovations, up to and including T20. At other times, it feels like something different is happening here, that something irrevocable is being broken, that the changes that emanate from the new competition will be seismic and permanent. Two years into English cricket’s biggest gamble in a generation, we’re no wiser as to how the cards will fall.

The venues - and how the counties will divide up

Headingley - Yorkshire/Durham

Manchester - Lancashire

Nottingham - Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Leicestershire

Birmingham - Warwickshire/Worcestershire

Cardiff - Glamorgan, Gloucestershire, Somerset

Lord’s - Middlesex, Essex, Northamptonshire

The Oval - Surrey, Kent

Southampton - Hampshire, Sussex

Timetable (for now)

April 2019 - ECB to sign contracts with host venues

Summer 2019 - New team names to be unveiled

October 2019 - Inaugural player draft

May-June 2020 - New-look Blast featuring all 18 counties

June 2020 - Franchises to select two additional ‘wildcard’ players based on Blast performances

July 2020 - The Hundred begins

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