Some speak of the future
My love speaks softly
She knows there’s no success like failure
And that failure’s no success at all
The above lyrics come from one of my favourite songs, Love Minus Zero by Bob Dylan. A few cricket writers have quoted Dylan in recent times, including George Dobell in his excellent article With Friends Like These: A Hundred Reasons Why The ECB Have Failed The Game. The late Bob Willis was a massive Dylan fan, and I would’ve loved to hear Grumpy Bob’s thoughts on the ECB’s new crackpot competition. He’d no doubt be coming in off his long run, eyes wide and furious.
Like many Dylan lyrics it’s not entirely clear what Mr Zimmerman was on about. Maybe it was the LSD? But somehow the final two lines above have always struck a chord with me. And the dichotomy between success and failure seems apt when discussing The Hundred. After all, what the ECB will see as success – if the Hundred has any success at all – will represent failure to many traditional cricket supporters.
Although we don’t yet know if The Hundred will transform cricket, we do know certain things for sure: it means the perpetual marginalisation of the county championship and the erosion of our traditional domestic structure – a county system which, when given room to breathe and prosper, recently produced the world’s number 1 test side, the first England team to win an Ashes series down under since 1986-87, not to mention T20 and 50 over World Cups. Indeed, the considerable potential of our existing domestic structure was demonstrated just last week when what amounted to an England third XI beat Pakistan in an ODI series. Good luck replicating the latter in the future. We’re no longer playing first team 50 over cricket in this country because of The Hundred. Just let that sink in for a second.
Basically, today is a very sad day. It’s the day the music died, both metaphorically and literally. Will we hear 10cc’s Dreadlock Holiday – a song both my young kids love by the way – at The Hundred? And what about Soul Limbo, the song we all loved at school when we were nippers? I fear these classics won’t be cool enough for the middle-aged men in suits. It’s supposed to be all rap and DJs from now on.
And then we come to the actual cricket (the bit that ostensibly matters). 5 ball overs? Two overs to be delivered consecutively at the same end? Mandatory one-minute breaks every two overs? Umpires holding up a white card to signify a over, which will actually be called ‘fives’? Captains having the option to give the same bowler two ‘fives’ in a row? Don’t pretend that The Hundred is simpler. It’s palpably more complicated. It’s innovation for innovation’s sake – probably so dull as dishwater administrators can pretend they’re all imaginative and revolutionary. In the words of former Surrey chief executive Richard Gould, “we always knew the new audience thing was b******t anyway”.
What’s my take on the new regulations? I reckon Harrison and Graves simply fell in love with The Hundred concept – a great opportunity to licence a new form of the game after the ECB incompetently forgot to trademark T20 back in 2003 – and then post-rationalised the actual practicalities later. They probably didn’t realise initially that one hundred isn’t actually divisible by six. Sorry guys, but The Arab’s Ninety-90 Bash actually makes a lot more sense. At least they didn’t have to reinvent cricket to make everything fit.
But the problem, of course, is that English cricket can’t afford for The Hundred to fail either. If it fails then English cricket still loses. So it’s heads, Tom Harrison wins and everyone else loses. Tails, everyone loses. Full stop.
Of course, the ECB will pretend that it’s been a roaring success whatever happens. Even if, as reported yesterday, they’ve had to give away most of the tickets for free. The Oval will apparently be just one third full for the opening game. And most of those won’t be paying customers. Well, you can’t say that just about every impartial cricket journalist out there didn’t warn you, Tom.
But even if The Hundred does somehow miraculously succeed, it won’t be because of the tournament’s concept. It will be because it’s had far more money thrown at it than any other competition in English cricket’s history. Just imagine if they’d invested all those millions in the T20 Blast, the one day cup, a Test series or, heaven forbid, the county championship?
Did you know that there was only one county fixture played on Sunday – one of the warmest days of the year at a weekend in mid-summer? The ECB claim that county cricket is dying but it’s not really a fair contest. They’ve let other forms of the game shrivel up and die whilst supplying the weed front of centre with copious quantities of Miracle Grow.
What grinds my gears most, however, is the ECB’s dishonesty throughout the implementation process. None of the ostensible justifications for The Hundred add up. Every single one of the so called innovations – the bright colours, the time outs, the rappers, the DJs, the overseas players (who aren’t coming now), a dedicated window for one competition, naming the teams after cities – could and should have been done with the already hugely popular T20 Blast. The latter two have even been tried before. Birmingham Bears, anyone?! No wonder the ECB have consistently failed to publish the research that supposedly justified the new competition.
The biggest lie of all, however, is the ECB’s insistence that The Hundred was needed to get cricket back on terrestrial television. This is the default line they always use when pressured to justify their vanity project. But it is, of course, an almighty whopper. It’s such a whopper, in fact, that I’m amazed that Burger King aren’t sponsoring the event. They would’ve fitted right in alongside KP snacks as primary sponsors of a competition aimed at kids in the middle of an obesity epidemic.
Everyone knows – or at least should know by now – that the BBC signed up to broadcast the new franchise competition when it was scheduled to be a T20. But that didn’t stop Harrison and Graves disingenuously presenting an alternative spin in front of the Department Of Media, Culture, and Sport last year. I still don’t know how they got away with it.
I don’t want to pretend that everything in the garden is rosy, though. No country’s domestic structure is perfect. When England win The Ashes, for example, the Australians sometimes complain that there are too few teams in the Sheffield Shield. The strength of the English system, they say, is that the numerous counties give more opportunities for talented players to break through and become professionals. Yet when Australia win, critics complain that the number of counties waters down the standard of our domestic cricket. “We’ve got to get rid of a few counties”, they say.
Whatever the merits of our 18-team system, however, it’s clear that cricket in the UK needs extra visibility. What I don’t agree with, obviously, is that The Hundred is the answer. Personally, I believe it’s as obvious as the sandpaper down Cameron Bancroft’s pants that English cricket’s participation and profile problems stem from the disappearance of live cricket from free-to-air television back in 2006.
It’s amazing how the likes of Flintoff, Pietersen, Botham and Gower are still known far more widely than Alastair Cook and Jimmy Anderson, despite the huge amount of caps the latter have won. But who took cricket off Channel 4 (and the BBC before that): the ECB. The Hundred is therefore a nonsensical, not to mention unnecessarily high-risk and hugely polarising solution to a problem that the ECB themselves caused. And yet the likes of Harrison are posing as innovative white knights riding to the rescue of a vulnerable princess that they themselves enslaved.
Whilst I could go on – would it be cathartic or simply raise my blood pressure? – there’s one more thing I’ll add to my critique of the new tournament’s implementation. We should never forget that the ECB shamelessly failed to consult the supporters (as well as the players, initially) when they devised their new scheme. In doing so, they failed to ask the very people who pay their wages through ticket purchases and Sky subscriptions. Instead we were treated as an irrelevance and an inconvenience. Never before has an organisation, even one as incompetent as the ECB, angered its core supporters so much.
I’ll leave the gnashing of teeth there, for a second. Instead, I’ll continue by simply telling you a heart-warming anecdote about my boy. Who I aptly named Dylan.
My lad is ten. He’s only just started playing cricket and he absolutely loves it. He still has improvements to make but he’s got a good eye and I think he could be a useful club player one day. Shall I let you into a secret? He’s never watched a game of cricket in his life. He refuses to watch it on TV with me – sadly he’d rather play on his PlayStation – but he was instantly hooked once he got a bat in his hand. He loves batting, bowling, and fielding. He just loves playing.
What this reminds me – and I wish I could shove this down the ECB’s throat – is that cricket is quite simply a brilliant game. Kids love it. Cricket doesn’t need rap music or bright colours. It’s brilliant on its own. And it doesn’t need gimmicks. In my opinion, therefore, The Hundred is barking up completely the wrong tree. It’s the ECB that has no faith in cricket as a product – not the public. They think kids don’t love cricket (and can’t love it) unless it’s dressed up as something else or comes with something appetising on the side. A bag of KP crisps, perhaps?
Basically, therefore, I believe that The Hundred has been founded on the back of a false assumption. And that’s the biggest tragedy of this farce. The very people who are supposed to be custodians of our game have the run it into the ground. But instead of blaming their own mistakes, and their own ineptitude, they’ve questioned their amazing product instead. And now they’re tearing a brilliant game, with over a hundred years of history behind it and a loyal fan base, apart.
So will I be watching The Hundred over the next few weeks? Nope. This blog won’t be covering it. I can’t write about games that I haven’t seen. And none of our other writers – thanks to you all – have expressed any desire to cover it, either. Instead, we’ll be doing our best to support county cricket whenever we can. We’ll also be talking about what really matters most: Test cricket. But first I have to make a confession.
You may have noticed that I’ve largely disappeared from this blog in recent times. Again, this is because I can’t write about games I haven’t seen. Cricket has been a massive part of my life for three decades but I’ve only watched two overs (by Ollie Robinson, no less) this entire summer. And this includes games on TV. Sadly, my fire for the game has completely gone out. I’ve been spending my time watching other sports like rugby, golf, and football instead.
How can I possibly commit such heresy? It’s because the ECB have left me completely numb. I can’t explain why but I think it’s because I’ve subconsciously recognised that the game is up. The Hundred has been the final straw.
I’ve disagreed with practically every major decision the ECB have made over the last decade: the aloof bungling of Kevin Pietersen’s sacking, the random headhunting of Ed Smith which stunk of the old boys’ network, the predictable appointment of the uninspiring Ashley Giles, the appointment of the inexperienced Chris Silverwood over Gary Kirsten (reportedly due to the former’s exemplary PowerPoint presentation), and then the decision to give Silverwood, a man who has picked a 5-man all seam attack with no spinner on multiple occasions, full power over selection even though he doesn’t have time to watch much county cricket. Oh, and then there’s the continued emphasis on white ball cricket at the expense of the championship, which has left our cupboard of test-class batsmen almost complete bare. Basically the ECB have completely worn me out.
Supporting the England Test team has never been easy. But now it’s almost impossible. And when I see the likes of Jos Buttler grinning in his Manchester Originals shirt, sponsored by McCoys (which has more calories than a Mars bar), I see anything but the real McCoy. I see plastic. I see greed. I see hubris. And I see a whole squad of cricketers that I cannot relate to and find increasingly difficult to support. It’s much easier to have sympathy for England’s underfunded opponents, who have been repeatedly stitched up at the ICC. And let’s not forget that the ECB, alongside the BCCI and the ACB, have been culpable in that, too.
And then there’s the broadcasters. I’ve met / interviewed quite a few of them. I’ve always liked Freddie Flintoff, for example, but I squirm when I see him advertising The Hundred on Sky ad nauseam. How could you do this to us, Fred? It’s funny how all the prominent advocates of The Hundred all have financial skin in the game. Do they really believe the ECB’s propaganda? I doubt it. Or maybe they just convince themselves that it’s all a great idea so they don’t have to live with inner conflict? I don’t know.
What I do know, however, is that it really doesn’t have to be this way. Michael Holding, who is the closest thing to a people’s champion in cricket right now, has always refused to commentate on T20 because he thinks it damages Test cricket. That’s Michael Holding. A man of principle. Where have English cricket’s principles gone?
As the ECB seeks out new supporters, it’s losing supporters like me – people who have loved the game for decades. I didn’t want to turn my back on cricket. It just happened. And I’m not sure when or if the passion will ever return. I guess even cricket’s biggest supporters can only take so much.
I continue to edit this blog only because I’ve always had massive affection for the game. But I loved what cricket used to be, not where the ECB are taking it.
My love she’s like some raven.
At my window with a broken wing.