Today we welcome new writer Thomas Rose to TFT. Like many of us, he feels that The Blast is being marginalised despite being a proven winner that helps to keep the counties (all of them) afloat. I think we all know why…
At the Oval earlier this week, we witnessed the best advert for the county game. The drama of Jordan Thompson’s last over, expertly embellished by the perfect commentary of Simon Doull, displayed how T20 cricket is such a thrilling format. Yorkshire were defending a total which looked below par after a sluggish batting performance saved by the quick fire innings of Will Fraine. They looked behind the 8 ball from the wicket of Adam Lyth and came from behind to win. And that is why we need to protect the T20 Blast.
The Blast is special. It offers fans the best opportunity to engage with County Cricket as the shortest form of the game played with evening start times placing it in the prime viewing slot for weekday television. It’s also a spectacle: this year’s overseas signings include Kieron Pollard and Sunil Narine and the flash of Finals Day is a highlight of the domestic cricket calendar. We have seen a record breaking scoring of 261 from Warwickshire closely followed by a 254 from Essex, and 36 scores above 200. It’s also crucial for developing younger players. The standard of cricket is still incredibly impressive and the tournament also allows young stars to show themselves and impress. Jacob Bethell is opening for the Birmingham Bears at aged 18 and 17 year old Rehan Ahmed took a wicket with his first ever ball in T20 cricket.
But unfortunately fans have only usually been able to interact with these celebrations of white ball cricket either in person or on county live streams on YouTube. Instead, at the start of the tournament, Sky showed every game of the Indian Premier league and replayed its highlights. Towards the back of the competition they’ve picked up their coverage and it’s shown how great the Blast is which begs the question: ‘Why not show as much as you can?’. A subscription is expensive and surely fans must be beginning to question whether it’s worth the price.
It’s very clear that only the counties and their fans care about the Blast. Only the participating teams are promoting the competition; the ECB are pushing adverts for the rival Hundred since April on social media instead. The board seems to have forgotten about it or chosen to ignore its existence despite its pull for fans. Finals Day isn’t even in the summer holidays this year.
Cricket broadcasts are a commodity to be competed for, as shown by the auction for the IPL rights. Last February, Channel 4 aired coverage of England’s test match versus India in Ahmedabad, as Test cricket returned to free-to-air television for the first time since 2005. A smattering of Hundred games and England T20s have been shown on the BBC in recent seasons as well as the Women’s and Men’s World Cup finals in 2017 and 2019 respectively. Finally, randomly, the Freeview channel Dave held the rights to the Caribbean Premier League in 2016. If Sky don’t feel like they want to broadcast the entirety of The Blast, there is nothing stopping these channels from profiting from Sky’s abandonment of the county game by buying its rights.
The Blast’s absence from our screens puts this engagement in jeopardy. This year Surrey announced that their membership passed 15,000 for the first time in modern history. That’s a large audience that can be capitalised on to grow the game. If we start to ignore the counties and only prioritise Test playing grounds and big cities, fans of smaller counties will be disillusioned. No one wants to travel too far to watch cricket, they want a team that is in touch with the local area that they can support both live and on TV. Prioritising only certain countains means that these allegiances will wane, membership numbers will decrease and the competitions will fall out of the public eye.
This places the pathway of England cricketers at risk as England’s professional cricketers come through county cricket; each side has junior and academy systems in place to fuel this. With Blast games giving way to the Hundred, will kids want to play for Lancashire Lightning or Manchester Originals? Because they will have to play for Lancashire before Manchester: all of the English players in the Hundred also have a county contract. The talent pool for English cricket would be decimated without the counties; with so fewer opportunities for elite level coaching and development. Therefore we’ve got to keep this tournament going. We’ve seen that it’s a true spectacle of sport and the fans love it. Let’s make it the most accessible and exciting product it can be.