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ECB sticking with the Hundred risks twisting cricket further into chaos | Sport


A little window of opportunity for the England and Wales Cricket Board has been rapidly slammed shut. Everything is up for grabs; the sheets of paper in front of those in charge of our summer game have never been blanker. On Friday the ECB said there would be no cricket before 1 July and that delivering the T20 Blast was one of their highest priorities; then we were alerted to another meeting about the future of the Hundred, to be held on Wednesday.

For an hour or two, before the ECB briefing from the chief executive, Tom Harrison, there seemed to be the faint possibility not just of postponing the Hundred, which was supposed to start on 17 July, until next year but abandoning it completely. This turned out to be a pipe dream probably brought about by too much self-isolation.

In fact Harrison was at his most optimistic, clutching at straws with the sort of enthusiasm we now associate with Donald Trump. The Hundred was his wonder drug, his bleach, his ultra-violet light at the end of the tunnel that was somehow going to transform the game, despite the expectation of so many experts. “If anything this crisis and the implications, long term or medium term, make the case for the Hundred to be even more important,” Harrison said. “The Hundred is a profit centre for the game of cricket in this country; it will generate really important commercial value for the game, and help us to keep the lights on through the network, making sure county cricket is really healthy and strong long, long into the future. And it will help broaden the audience for the game.

“There will be a huge clamour for audience coming out of this crisis, for all sport. The competition goes up. So I don’t think this in any way dilutes the case for the Hundred, it absolutely accelerates it and makes it something cricket needs to get behind.”

I hesitate to quibble over whether a spend of more than £10m just to cover marketing and match-day entertainment for the Hundred is worthwhile and whether salaries of £125,000 for five weeks’ work for players and the “top” coaches from overseas represent good value for money during the coronavirus crisis. Those spreadsheets are increasingly incomprehensible, though no profits are expected from the Hundred in the first five years. What is understood is that the advent of the Hundred is a risk at a time when everything is risky.

I have always been fearful that the Hundred will produce a dreadfully unbalanced diet of domestic cricket, and will encourage the next generation of English players to concentrate on the short forms of the game to the exclusion of everything else. In time it will probably undermine the Blast, which works well, keeps the counties afloat, and is the competition the ECB has identified as its first priority if there is to be a truncated domestic season in 2020.

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But beyond that I worry about the gut reaction of the architects of the Hundred at this critical moment. They have staked their reputations on this venture and received a lot of flak from within the game. To make a U-turn now might be seen as a humiliation. Having invested heavily in this, they are going to plough on regardless; it would be lily-livered to ditch the project now.

Yet with cricket in turmoil, they were allowed a rare opportunity to change course without losing face. The pandemic had given them the chance to adopt a more pragmatic, less ambitious plan. The urgency now is to retain cricket’s fanbase, which is missing the game so much, rather than wandering out into the wilderness to seek fresh followers, something which the 2019 season did much better and more cheaply than the introduction of a fourth competition could ever manage.

Instead Harrison has argued that the Hundred is even more vital to the good of the game. However, his claim that the intrusion of Covid‑19 “accelerates” the need for the Hundred takes some believing.

This is a remarkably gung-ho approach for the most important guardian of the game to adopt and in a curious way it reminds me of playing cricket with a young Ian Botham. The indomitable “Both” with ball in hand might be hit for two consecutive boundaries, which would prompt most captains to station a more defensive field. Botham’s reaction? “I’ll have another slip in.” Now I like my cricketers to be bold, aggressive and willing to risk everything. I’m not so keen on administrators eager to display the same qualities.

Changing one’s mind is too readily perceived as a sign of weakness; those in charge at the ECB are faced with huge obstacles at the moment but they are not going to change their minds about the Hundred by taking their blank sheets of paper to the broadcasters in an attempt to come up with something better for the 2021 season. Yet that would be a very brave thing to do.

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