One-day international cricket changed the game, or at least Kerry Packer’s commercialized version of it did. We loved the 60/55/50-over stuff because it felt like cricket as we knew it: bowlers trying to get batters out with slips in place and some of the batters guarding their wicket as if a life depended upon it, before a late charge in the death overs against yorkers and long half-volleys delivered to deep and straight-set fields.
That was really the last of the traditional version. In the early 1980s the Benson and Hedges Cups in Australia and South Africa were the precursor to a more glamorous, entertainment-driven spectacle that drew the crowds back to cricket in unimaginable numbers. Put simply, Packer sharpened everyone up and for the first time in its long history, cricket was seen as a product and the players its best advertisement.
The other is to switch tactics and drop all bilateral ODIs, and only play 50-over international cricket on special occasions, at World Cups and, if the ICC insists upon it, in the Champions Trophy. Make something scarce and demand often increases.
Which is why the Super League is on the way out after the 2023 World Cup: there is nothing “emerging market” about ODI cricket and so something dramatic has to happen to reverse the decline in interest and value. The best of the options is not to offer it at all at international level, outside of those two major tournaments. At least the World Cup would feel a bit different – unique, in fact – and, who knows, as each year passes and the fans overdose on T20, it might occur to them that the lowest common denominator does not necessarily lead to utopia for bat and ball.
If nothing else, 50-over cricket provides an important bridge between the extremities of Test and T20 cricket – never mind the Hundred and T10 – and from it comes a more substantial and sustainable cricketer, rather than one trained only in the short arts of 135 strike rates and four-over spells. Fifty-over cricket needs to be put on a pedestal and, therefore, to become eagerly awaited.
Perhaps the much maligned ECB saw all this coming and committed to the Hundred as their own baby and all the collateral that comes with it. Soon enough, it will create a window for the tournament and take it to market, where private investors will lap at their first move into the English cricket space. This will take the heat out of the counties’ ongoing reliance on broadcast income – they are the sole beneficiaries of the Hundred’s net profit – and may even, down the track, open up the idea of supporting four-day cricket, which is presently the main subject of Andrew Strauss’ high-performance review.
He’s not right that we don’t like it; plenty of us love it. Down the track, he will be surprised by how much we need it to safeguard our place at the head of the table in the three months between June and September, when England was once the only place to be if cricket was your thing. While the T20 franchise train runs faster and faster, so the players will be dragged away from the existing domestic (hate that word) competitions.
England needs its own pulling power, something different and attractive that pays well enough to keep them at home. The Hundred is it. The players dig the competition’s racy cut and thrust, its subtle and nuanced points of tactical difference, and its noise. The investors will, too, because a hard truth is that bums on seats and eyeballs to the screen are the key measure of their interest.
The problem, though, is the way in which both county cricket and the T20 Blast have been compromised by the Hundred’s dominant positioning in the English summer. The County Championship has shut up shop for August and the Blast is starved of marketing resources as the ECB throws all its best toys in with the new baby. Bicknell would undoubtedly say scaling up the Blast would have done the same job as the Hundred but that is not so. There is no way that 18 county teams could have attracted 18 private investors, nor would those counties want outside influence in their affairs. As a further aside, it is a moot point whether or not there are enough quality overseas players available to go round that many teams.
Franchise cricket is the zeitgeist. Whether by the law of unintended consequences or not, England has its place in the order of things ready to go.
But the messaging isn’t good. The ECB must use income from the Hundred for a more holistic approach to the handouts and tell us about them loud and clear. For all the money that pours into the English game, considerably more is needed for investment into pathways, development and talent.
To win hearts, the profits should be ring-fenced for, a) the recruitment and development of young cricketers and the organizations that save the ECB’s face by running hugely expensive initiatives and programs through their charitable status, b) the connection with and the funding of cricket in Asian communities, and c) the fastest growing sport of all, women’s cricket.
Does the ECB have a long-term plan? Does the ICC, for that matter? How random and potentially dangerous is the speed of all this change? Where will cricket be in five years, never mind ten? Who will accept responsibility for the game’s pastoral care and ensure that the accelerating train doesn’t career off the track? This all needs careful thought, common ground, sufficient windows, and a kind attitude towards one another. There is a lot of money out there and a lot of cricket, most of it very good. This is not a depressed time for the game, far from it, but regulation of a good thing is urgently required because overkill is inevitable.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, is a TV and radio presenter and commentator