I made a pleasant discovery during lockdown. While flipping through YouTube channels one night, I came across a BBC quiz show, University Challenge. Now I’m hooked.
University teams from across the UK compete in teams of four. The teams often include international students, but the show’s character is quintessentially English. When its legendary presenter, Jeremy Paxman, recently introduced a team that included an American, a Canadian and a Japanese he jokingly said they were no doubt hoping there will not be any questions on cricket. Unfortunately for them, there were. They couldn’t answer any of them and it cost them the match.
As this University Challenge team proved, cricket is an English game. There is a saying in the industry that “everything in cricket goes through London”. Despite what the ICC and BCCI might think, England is still the cricket cradle. It is where what we now call first-class cricket was born, exported and expanded. England were also the pioneers of one-day cricket; first on the county circuit in the 1960’s and then internationally from 1971. In the noughties it was again England at the forefront of introducing the world to T20 cricket.
Now the English are once more on the threshold of introducing a new version of the game: 100 balls per side. For marketing purposes, the ECB have simply called it The Hundred. Due to launch in July, the ECB postponed the launch until 2021 because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. But it will happen.
2021 might well become a watershed year for cricket. The aftermath of COVID-19 will be clearer and, more so, the impact of The Hundred. Can four formats co-exist in cricket? More to the point, can The Hundred and T20 cricket co-exist? The two formats are practically similar.
Will The Hundred signal the death knell for Test cricket? Put differently, can traditionalists and the “new kids on the block” live side by side? Where will 50-over cricket fit into this scene? In the new structure, the ECB have already relegated it to an after-thought: it will be played alongside The Hundred and only contested by England-qualified players. The 50-over format could just fade away…
Then there is also the more cynical viewpoint that The Hundred is only the ECB’s way of putting the counties in their place. In the professional era, the ECB and counties have functioned as a sort of checks and balances between the interests of international and domestic cricket. The eight teams in The Hundred will be city-based with no connection to any county. Will they whittle away county cricket supporters? Will it eventually give the ECB more (financial) muscle than the counties?
And if The Hundred is a success, how long before other countries start copying it? How long before we start having international matches of 100 balls per side? And if that takes off, how long before we have a “Hundred World Cup”? And if that happens, can three short format World Cups co-exist? And could that mean that the ICC’s new World Test Championship could just become a still-born thing?
So many questions. The future for cricket post-2021 looks very uncertain. But like a certain University Challenge team discovered, one thing is sure: You ignore at your own peril what happens in cricket in England.