Tom Harrison has emerged bright-eyed from the ECB ‘Ideas Hub’ and is proclaiming the 100 ‘an overwhelming success’, a year before its actual launch. He is ‘giddy with excitement’, he announces with a fixed grin, amid massive opposition from existing fans. Behind him is a trail of current and past cricketers and pundits, cajoling us to get behind the great initiative. It doesn’t take a genius to recognise that they have a financial interest greater than that of us mere fans of cricket. This article is a plea, not just a fault-finding exercise. Call me a traditionalist, a dinosaur and a Luddite, but I love the game of cricket and, although it is far from the ‘timed’ long-format game I love best, I am not against shorter formats. But I’m not sure how many fans of County Cricket realise that what the ECB are introducing could change first-class cricket for ever.
I’m told that, when Middlesex had their Members Meeting, loud boos rang out as soon as the 100 was mentioned, and I was sent the pre-meeting notes from Yorkshire CC, in which members were clearly told to get behind the 100, because ‘I make no apology for stating that the club’s financial interests will be served by the competition’s success..’
Both these teams play at one of the eight Test Match Grounds that will host the money-making tournament and run as franchises. Their bread is buttered and their cup filled, but still some of their members despair. What of the ten other first-class counties? Probably the most compelling and believable of many speculations is that of Somerset’s ex-chairman, Andy Nash, who predicts the inevitable emergence of eight premier-league counties, with the others relegated to semi-professional status. The pessimist in me can see Taunton becoming an occasional guest ground for other teams when it isn’t hosting tribute bands to make money.
The County Championship has been pushed further and further to the edges of the season, with mostly weekday fixtures. No great surprise, then, that attendance is faltering. I know of many previously loyal fans who have given up their membership because fixtures don’t meet with their availability. It’s an incredibly frustrating situation, because counties are tied to the ECB scheduling. The grim possibility is that the ECB is not too concerned with the decline in membership, because it serves as fuel for the 100’s fire. If, as many people suggest, the ECB has been wanting to reduce the number of first-class counties, then the 100 gives them the ideal tool. The eight with franchised grounds will gain in money, stature and players, and the County Championship could be competed for by them alone almost before we know it.
The difficulty of accommodating the current three formats in the packed cricket season is already clear. But what will happen to the T20 Blast and the Royal London One Day Cup with the introduction of a tournament that out-glitzes them? The hugely successful Blast, every county’s goldmine, with nearly a million people attending matches throughout the season, will inevitably be undermined and replaced. How can it not be? As for the Royal London, just a year after England host the ODI World Cup, the plan is to schedule it alongside the 100, but to relegate it to comparatively minor grounds, to strip it of the top players (those involved in the 100) and to ban overseas players. Some have argued that this is great, not only for the minor grounds, but also for local, home-grown talent. Fair enough, but is it the most sensible way of capitalising on the ODI World Cup? If you make a tournament a second-class event, it will soon lose its hold on press and public. And it would be remiss of me not to mention the success of the Women’s Kia Super League that in the last few years has grown massively in strength & popularity. This is to be scrapped and replaced without a second thought for the following they now have.
A lot has been said on Twitter about the free-to-air televising of the 100. The general view is that this is good for cricket, though the arguments can be hazy. Will kids and mums be sitting around the television, able to understand this new brand of cricket because its overs as ten balls and the bright colours will catch their eye? It’s good, certainly, to have cricket available to more people, but why not give the T20 Blast a fair airing? Why do we have to make cricket fit into the ‘football’ two-hour slot? Do mums and kids suddenly turn into pumpkins once those 120 minutes pass? The ECB has been quick to say that the decline in cricket isn’t down to the ‘money-making’ deal with Sky that took the game off free-to-air TV, but now, suddenly, the fact that the 100 is to be televised on the BBC is celebrated as the second coming of cricket. So many people have said to me, why can’t we televise the ‘tried and tested’ formats we have? Well, the ECB won this deal on a promise. It is a massive gamble, and one they are willing to take. I would argue that, if you want to launch the 100 then try it out first and gauge the interest it generates before blindly shedding cash. Not only are the members of the ECB not giving fans a choice in the matter, they don’t even give them a hearing.
A predictable point made by certain current and past cricketers is ‘it’s happening, get behind it’. I’m a ‘remoaner’ if I don’t like it, I’m getting in the way of progress. Well, yes I am, if the ‘progress’ contaminates the existing formats. You’re damn right I am. But the apologists go on to claim that ‘it’s an experiment; if it doesn’t work the ECB can bin it in a couple of years’. But I’m afraid that the destruction it will herald won’t just fill the bins, it will make landfill. Too much money has been poured into it to allow a u-turn. As the fantastic journalist Jonathan Liew said: “It will be a disaster if it’s successful and a catastrophe if it isn’t.”
I have had ‘Twitter arguments’ with fans and some players/ex-players, and to be fair, most have had the grace to reply, but my one-sided arguments with ‘Michelle’ Vaughan have been more than frustrating. He has made many blanket statements about the 100, belittling county fans and dismissing their concerns. He hasn’t answered any of my queries, but at least he hasn’t blocked me which he does to most people who disagree with him. A couple of weeks ago he tweeted his own poll to his followers, which means, of course, that none of the blocked fans could vote. Vaughan’s poll was addressed to ‘Interested UK cricket fans’, and asked, ‘if you support a County now will you be watching & supporting a 100 Ball franchise team?’ There were three choices: Yes, no and will just watch. 23% voted yes, 51% voted no & 26% voted that they will just watch without supporting any particular team. It’s interesting to see how people interpret statistics. Vaughan was pleased with the results, stating ‘so 49% have decided they will watch the 100…that’s not a bad starting point for the ECB..’ Personally I chose to read it as a warning that you were losing half of your current fan base. Vaughan didn’t respond to that. Apart from Vaughan’s dodgy poll is there any other evidence that English fans will follow fake sports brands?
I’ll return to my plea. I didn’t want to make this a ‘them and us’ article, but we are the fans. We are the ones who support and care enough to turn up day in, day out to watch the cricket we love. If we care about what we have, we should have a say, and people like Vaughan and those at the ECB should be listening to us, engaging with us and respecting our opinion. With so many well-known journalists and cricket media coming out against it, how is that The ECB can conclude that only their staff can see the benefits which outweigh the risks and intractable problems it will bring. You may be happy to get behind the 100 and let’s hope it isn’t as negative as I fear, but however you feel, we should be thinking about the future of cricket, not belittling its past.