Batting for its life

The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) will meet today to discuss plans for the inaugural Hundred competition in the wake of COVID-19.

This comes after all professional and domestic cricket was suspended until as least July, and a growing acceptance that should any cricket go ahead in 2020, it will be without spectators.

Due to start on July 17, the new flagship tournament is now widely expected to be postponed until 2021, striking a blow to the ECB’s plan to build on last summer’s home World Cup and Ashes spectacles and drive youth participation and interest.

Attracting a new generation to the game is not a problem unique to the English game, as Josh Coyne noted in his article about Compton Cricket Club from earlier this week.

“In 2020, Compton Cricket Club are looking for ways to reignite the enthusiasm of the local youth and bring in a whole new generation of players to the club. Naturally, much of the team have gotten older and perhaps don’t need the team in the same way they once did…”

Naturally, many English cricket fans have also gotten older. The generation inspired by the famous Ashes heroics of 2005 are now turning 30 and younger fans have had no such access to free-to-air cricket to galvanise their interest in the game.

The ECB’s long-awaited solution came in the form of a 100 ball tournament with eighteen games allocated to terrestrial television and tickets for under 16s just £5 for all eight new city based franchises.

The hope is this will pack stadiums with a new diverse generation of young fans who can watch the best players from the men’s and women’s game smash a white ball around the park and over the ropes with reckless abandon.

Depending on what demographic of cricket fan you fall into, the above paragraph will either sound like a joyful evening’s entertainment or yet another example of the values and skill of red ball Test cricket being watered down for a mass audience.

The segment has not let up in their criticism since the new tournament was announced last year. If you search ‘The Hundred’ on Twitter this evening, you will see almost gleeful derision mixed with calls for it to be axed all together following the likely decision to postpone.

Not all of this is unfair, but now that coronavirus presents more serious problems to cricket, is it time to swallow our pride and recognise the Hundred might now be a saviour to the red ball game rather than a threat?

Speaking on The Tuffers and Vaughan Cricket Show on BBC Radio 5 Live, former England captain, Michael Vaughan, estimated a combined loss of £85 million for the 18 County Championship clubs, factoring in gate receipts, concessions, sponsorship and the use of grounds as conference and event spaces.

Like other UK sporting bodies, administrators will have to consider all cost-cutting opportunities, and given the unique hand-to-mouth relationship which sees the ECB cover a percentage of domestic clubs’ revenue, this leaves the counties in a precarious position should the belt tightening affect these funds.

Counties are already benefitting from revenue generated by The Hundred despite a ball not being bowled. A £61 million stimulus package has now been allocated with £40 million of that going to first-class counties and the rest supporting the amateur game.

It also shouldn’t be forgotten that the prospect of a new tournament helped bump up the £1.1 billion Sky Sports paid for cricket broadcasting rights in 2017, a deal which kicks in this year.

You’d be quite right to point out that the ECB have invested heavily in this new tournament which was forecast to incur losses in its first few years without the impact of the coronavirus.

When the tournament eventually goes ahead as planned, further revenue will be redirected to counties to go along with the income from tickets sales and hospitality.

This will be vital cash for a sport trying to get back on its feet and sustain first-class cricket’s ability to develop the future England and Wales Test players.

In these unprecedented times, traditionalists might need to exercise unprecedented recognition that red ball cricket’s success could be tied tighter to the success of The Hundred than previously.

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