Today we have a guest spot from new contributor Stephen Connor. He challenges the oft-mooted argument that The Blast could easily be reformed to replace the Hundred. I give him full marks for trying to be open-minded and balanced. Sometimes I have to remind myself that there are other perspectives other than my own…
As the second edition of the Hundred draws to a close, debate still rages as to its merits. Or what passes for debate; TV commentators try to convince viewers that everything that happens is spectacular. Meanwhile online, practically any Tweet from the BBC or Sky mentioning the competition will have some cheerful soul underneath urging them to scrap the whole thing.
There are many people with strong feelings about the competition. To summarize arguments about existence of the Hundred I think there are broadly three positions.
The first is that things were more or less fine with the Blast as was and it should have been left alone. Perhaps with room for a bit of tweaking – for example better scheduling or increased TV coverage.
At the other end of the scale is the notion that the Hundred was a necessary addition to the calendar to generate new interest, draw in new fans and create an elite competition to sit alongside the legion of high profile T20 leagues around the world.
Both positions I think have merit and can be argued in good faith. There’s a third position in between that I’ve seen mentioned a lot – that restructured and revamped version of the Blast could do what the Hundred set out to achieve. That’s what I wanted to explore in a bit more detail. Because once you try and push that idea into shape it presents new issues.
Let me start by saying that I don’t hate the Hundred itself. There are some good things about it that are different to the current version of the Blast. But equally I see that the knock-on effects are potentially far reaching for English cricket.
These are what I see as the strengths of the Hundred:
Quality – I know this is debatable and that there are high quality Blast teams, but it seems it’s undeniable that the talent is going to be more concentrated amongst 8 teams compared to 18. Plus, there are more high-profile overseas players in each team. So it’s a stronger competition in terms of batters vs bowlers.
Structure and Profile – Put simply it’s on TV. A lot. Every game is on Sky, many are free-to-air on BBC and Sky’s Youtube channel. The structure of the competition means it’s short and easy to follow (not always the case with the Blast). I really like the game-a-day format as it means focus is not diluted. And it creates a tournament feel a bit like the football World Cup.
The Women’s game – This has been an incredible step forward. Crowds are at record-breaking highs across the competition. The players seem to love it and it’s undoubtedly exposing players to a higher level of competition. Although it came about by chance, the double-headers seem to work very well. It’s difficult to quantify but from a personal point of view it just feels like the profile of women’s cricket has increased.
Engagement – This is probably the most controversial point and I know the Blast is already engaging so I’ll limit my comments to saying that there seems to be lots more women and children in attendance. The crowds are reasonably big and I’ve been surprised by how quickly they have backed the new teams. There are lots of replica jerseys in the stands.
When listening or watching there feels like strong home support e.g. silence for opposition wickets and boundaries, raucous noise for when the home team do the same. Purely anecdotally, I was at the Rockets v Superchargers game in 2021 and the noise when Hales finished off the game was incredible.
So the question then is – could those same benefits have been delivered by rejigging the Blast?
This is how I imagine a revamped Blast might have looked.
- A T20 cricket competition with two divisions. A top division of 8, second division of 10. Maintain the game a day format with every Division 1 game on TV with full Sky treatment. Spread over 4 (maybe 6?) weeks.
- The ECB to pump money into the top division. This would need some thought – maybe an overseas player draft or trading system to secure overseas players. Salary increases for domestic players.
- Double-headers with women’s games. This is the trickiest part given the different team identities and fewer number of women’s regional teams. I guess it would make most sense to pair regional teams with individual counties or groups of counties e.g. Thunder with Lancashire, Sparks with Warks etc. But it would lose the men and women playing the same opponents in each fixture.
Some of the finer points are up for debate. But at the basic level this would be about restructuring the Blast as it is to become more like the Hundred (or IPL, PSL etc).
These are what I would see as the benefits.
Team and Player Continuity. There would be continuity across the formats. Hants would continue to play 3 formats. Hants players would continue to play for Hants all season. The competition would be a test of players brought through counties’ own systems of scouting and player development. For me the sad sight of Welsh Fire limping along in the Hundred this season has been made worse by the fact that none of players seem to be Welsh. On top of the domestic teams there could then be an injection of star overseas players for duration of the tournament.
Maintaining ‘legacy’ fans. Obviously there is a ready-made fan base for the counties – one that has been disenfranchised (so to speak) by the arrival of the new tournament plonked on top of their teams and structure. The counties have long histories, and many have strong identities and existing rivalries. The likes of Yorks, Lancs, Somerset and Surrey are already very well supported. A revamped Blast would therefore be a chance to lift the profile of cricket without alienating existing fans.
Promotion and Relegation. Two divisions would be unique amongst franchise-style leagues and would add jeopardy to the end of the season beyond who made the playoffs. Chances are in an 8-team league most teams would be facing some sort of jeopardy going into the final group stage. Two divisions might also appeal a bit more to English sensibilities as we’re not used to franchise style closed shops.
Doing a Leicester(shire) – Two divisions would open the door to smaller clubs to work their way up the top. People love an underdog story with smaller teams competing against the bigger ones. Not to mention the fact that many of the non-Hundred counties have been the best T20 teams in recent history – Somerset, Kent, Worcestershire etc.
Summer schedule. Possibly the biggest boon would be freeing up the cricket schedule. Let’s assume that the revamped Blast would continue to take up the current Hundred August window. That would free up other prime summer months for Championship and List A cricket.
However, I think there are negatives to consider too…
The Premier league effect. Putting money into the top division could exacerbate the divide between 1st and 2nd division counties. There is an argument to spread any ECB money more evenly but I think that could end up with something a bit too close to what the Blast is now. If a new competition aims to be elite then the best players should be in the top division, as is the case in football. This could seriously affect any teams consistently at the bottom of division 2.
That leads to the issue of player logistics. A short high-profile tournament might end up moving the best players to Division 1 counties. What might the effect be on their status for the rest of the 6 month season? Could there be separate Red and White ball contracts allowing the best players to move county for the Blast one month a year? The obvious risk would be a drift of players towards the big counties, even more so than happens currently with The Hundred.
Marketability. As already highlighted there are existing counties with strong identities. But being honest I wonder about the marketability of some counties. I’ve met many a proud Yorkshireman but (with apologies) don’t think I’ve met many people fiercely proud to be from Sussex or Worcestershire. You can see why those devising the Hundred felt a clean break was required. 18 counties are a lot to market. Even in the Blast Warwickshire has seen fit to rebrand itself as Birmingham.
On the flip side of this, it is possible that a team could become fashionable by dint of being in the top division. The Premier League in football is hyped and the glamour arguably rubs off on less fashionable teams like (again, with apologies) Bournemouth, Brighton or Leicester.
Also linked to the marketability are the facilities. The Test grounds look great on TV during the Hundred. What might Northampton or Chelmsford look like on prime-time TV? On the other hand, if it’s a full house, a small ground can be rocking. Witness some of the crowds at Taunton.
Impact on Women’s cricket. This one is impossible to judge. People have argued that if you promote something hard enough they will come. But it seems to me that the women have benefitted from sharing the same identity as the men during the Hundred. I believe Kia Super League matches were twinned with Blast games in the past without much success. And the recent experiment at Lancashire of putting Thunder with top billing ahead of the Men for a T20 felt a little chastening. It looked like the crowd emptied out after the men’s game. Having different team identities could risk women’s cricket feeling forever like an undercard.
Finally a couple of practical issues. Would T20 double headers be too long? It’s only 20 overs per innings but across 4 innings that’s 80 overs. Another hour on a family’s day out. And would the season be too short? Is a month enough T20 cricket for counties? Would the counties swap 7 days of old Blast dotted through the season for 4 days of a new competition in August? But any longer and it might feel like the Blast of old, or even the Big Bash.
In conclusion, I think it’s all rather complicated. I think the Blast could have done the same job with some smart thinking. As Reverend Lovejoy once said in the Simpsons – “short answer, “yes” with an “if.” Long answer, “no” with a “but.”
Whether people wanted the Blast turned into a Hundred/IPL style tournament is a different argument but it could have been done. I wonder if the ECB, Sky and even the counties themselves lacked the confidence to relaunch in this way. Would it have annoyed members even more? A misstep in redesigning the Blast could have proved even more controversial.
Personally, one of the issues is that I didn’t know what I wanted or what could be achieved until I saw it. I didn’t know I was going to get so interested in Women’s cricket. I didn’t know double headers would work so well. I didn’t know fans would identify with new teams so quickly.
A revamped Blast as outlined above would have brought a lot of the same issues people dislike about the Hunderd. I mentioned the Premier League effect. Has it been a positive for football or not? There are still plenty of people that resent what the Premier League has done to football in the last 30 years.
Now that it’s here I can see a future where the Hundred continues and integrates more seamlessly with the Blast. Maybe drawing more explicit links between the counties and Hundred teams to create stronger regional identities. Perhaps Hundred teams could be limited to drawing domestic players from certain counties (e.g. Superchargers from Durham and Yorkshire)?
Maybe even the Hundred could be subsumed back into the county game to create a new Blast competition? A few years of the Hundred could be seen as a trial run for this type of competition. Whisper it quietly, but counties could even retain some of the Hundred identities e.g. Middlesex become the Spirit, Lancashire the Originals etc. And create some new ones along the way… anyone for the Western Warriors? Or the Eastern Stars?
As a final note – as fun as it has been to reimagine the Blast during this exercise, it might all be pointless in the face of the IPL juggernaut. Some players might soon be contracted to IPL teams all year round rather than counties or Hundred franchises. We’ve already seen players leaving the Hundred to join the CPL, in which case it might not matter if it’s the Blast, the Hundred or any other thing we could dream of. Who knows, we might even end up watching the Welsh Kings versus Northern Super Kings in the future.