Worcestershire triumphed at Edgbaston on Saturday, defeating the mighty Lancashire in the semis and then much fancied Sussex (Jofra Archer and all) in the final. It was a fairytale in many ways because Worcs have never been to finals days before, had the youngstest team in the competition, and were missing their overseas batsman Callum Ferguson.
Worcs’ stars were mostly young players who’ve come through the ranks: ice-cool keeper Ben Cox, and 20 year old medium mystery bowler Pat Brown. And of course there was Moeen Ali, who had a brilliant day as both captain, batsman and bowler. Love ya Mo! As a Worcs fan I was pretty emotional at the end. There have been more lows than highs over recent years, so this was a day to savour.
However, tempting at it is to crow about the county I support, today I’d like to discuss The Blast in general. The competition seems to be going from strength to strength, and I have no idea why the ECB can’t be content with what they’ve got. Finals Day is always a superb occasion, and attendances in general across the group stages seem to be going up and up.
The bottom line is that the fans identify with The Blast. They love it. They look forward to it. So try to overshadow something so good with something so unproven and so, well, a bit crap?
Today Frazer Loveman looks at The Hundred and the problems it faces from a slightly different angle. Although he reaches a familiar conclusion – after all, he’s a proper cricket fan – I love the route he takes to reach this conclusion. Over to you, Frazer …
I’m not sure if anyone reading this has watched any of India’s Pro Kabaddi League, or even knows what Kabaddi is, but for those of you who have not experienced the jewel in the crown of Sky Sport’s late-night schedule allow me to enlighten you.
The Pro Kabaddi League was inspired by the success of the IPL, taking one of India’s more traditional and sports and supercharging it with franchises, a player auction and new scoring quirks designed to up the excitement. Rather than having a home and away season, the PKL became a touring circus, with two matches a night in venues across the country drawing packed out crowds. The success of the PKL both ‘in venue’ and commercially has led to an expansion in the number of franchises in just four years.
The PKL is instructive for cricket fans because it shows that there is a way to bring in new crowds to a sport that may be seen as outdated or unpopular. This follows in the steps of the successful inceptions of the IPL and it’s Australian sibling, the Big Bash. However, the ECB have decided that, in order to boost public interest in cricket, they do not need to follow this path of changing an already existing product, instead choosing to introduce a new competition ‘The Hundred’ to run alongside the County Championship, 40-over competition and the T20 Blast.
‘The Hundred’ has myriad problems, not first that the format itself is just an inane overhaul of 20/20 cricket, especially now it appears that the ECB are debating the idea of 5-ball overs; making it a 20/20 game anyway, but with less cricket for your buck.
Another problem arises from the 8 proposed venues for the competition, which exclude the entire Westcountry and anywhere north of Leeds, locking out two regions of fans from the competition while giving London two teams for some unfathomable reason (full disclosure: this author is a Westcountry boy).
These proposals have been defended by the ECB, and by Hampshire CCC Chairman Rod Bransgrove on BBC’s Test Match Special during the recent test between England and India at the Rose Bowl. It should be noted that Bransgrove is hardly an impartial voice given that Hampshire/Southampton have been lucky enough to be designated as one of the ‘Hundred’ franchises. And Bransgrove staying in the ECB’s good books may increase the Rose Bowl’s chances of securing more Test Matches.
However, Bransgrove raised some interesting points during his interview. The first was that the new format would be more popular with families and kids than any other existing competition, which was precisely what we were told about T20 when it was introduced.
Why is it the case that this new format would be more popular? Well, per Bransgrove, it is because the franchises will be more marketable, a point he emphasised by citing the Southern Vipers Women’s Blast franchise, which he claimed had been a particular success in terms of merchandise sales to younger fans. The ECB have also announced that ‘The Hundred’ season will run concurrent to the school summer holidays, which will promote attendance by children and families.
These points are valid, but there is a simple argument to be made that solving these problems doesn’t require the introduction of a new competition, but a serious overhaul of the existing T20 Blast competition. Both the IPL and the Big Bash have seasons that last around two months, the same as the T20 Blast’s current schedule (which even includes a break for County Championship fixtures in the middle and for a fortnight before Finals Day), and their audiences have grown over the years, including a significant younger demographic.
The one thing the ECB’s plans for ‘The Hundred’ have got right is the reduction in the number of teams, even though the geographic dispersal is a mess. A solution to this would be to have some city based franchises (London, Manchester, Birmingham, Southampton) but also some regional franchises, similar to the Western Storm in the Women’s Blast, which could play games across multiple regional venues (for example: Taunton, Bristol and Cheltenham) with a revenue sharing agreement between franchises, as exists in US Sports where profits from big market franchises are dispersed through the league to encourage ‘competitive balance’.
Shifting to a model of around 10 franchises would also allow for the kind of marketisation Bransgrove has cited as an advantage of ‘The Hundred’ with teams being able to introduce new kits and merchandise that play to a younger market, as both Kent and Somerset have done with their T20 Blast kits this year.
The final change, and the one that would be hardest to implement, would be requiring a quota of T20 Blast matches to be shown on Free to Air television. In Australia most Big Bash games are broadcast on Free to Air Channel 7, with only a few being subscription only. If you want kids to pick up cricket, and see either ‘The Hundred’ or the Blast as the solution, then it is imperative that their access is not shut off by geography or the finances of their parents; Free to Air TV allows watching cricket to become a regular event and not a one-off privilege.
The model exists for an exciting, popular, short-form cricket competition, and in Australia and India the introduction of such a competition appears not to have been to a significant detriment to those nation’s test sides. This model is T20, not some new half-baked idea that has no precedent anywhere else in the world. As the Kabaddi fans of India will tell you, sometimes the wheels of tradition just need a bit of grease to get going, not a reinvention.