LONDON: Next week, on July 21, with much fanfare and no less controversy, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) will launch a new competition, called The Hundred. It will be contested only in England and Wales, by both men’s and women’s teams. It is so named because each team is scheduled to bowl 100 balls, divided into 10 overs of 10 balls each. This is its first controversial feature.
During the era covered in last week’s column, 18th-century England, when the Laws of Cricket were first codified and written down, one of the specified duties of the umpire was to call over when four fair deliveries had been bowled by the same person. This call indicated that the field should change over and the ball be delivered from the other end of the pitch by a different person.
Four balls per over remained the case until 1889, when a revision of the 1884 Code increased it to five. A further revision in 1900 increased an over to six balls, which allowed bowlers longer to develop a tactical plan.
In the 1922-23 season, Australia chose to play eight-ball overs, to encourage more balls to be bowled in a day’s play and less time wasted in changing overs. Other countries — New Zealand, England, South Africa and Pakistan — flirted with this number for short spells. Australia reverted to six balls in 1978-79 when commercial television acquired the rights to televise cricket and a shorter over allowed the opportunity for more advertising to be shown.
Despite the successful introduction of 50 over and T20 cricket, six-ball overs, delivered by one person, have remained a constant for over 40 years around the world. The Hundred will challenge the status quo.
One bowler is not required to deliver all 10 balls in an over since there is the opportunity to split the over into two sets of five deliveries, bowled by two different bowlers. Each bowler can deliver a maximum of 20 balls per game. The duration of each match is scheduled to be two and a half hours.
A second controversial feature is how it may affect existing competitions. Starting on July 21 and ending with a final on Aug. 21, it will be dovetailed, with the schedules for an established domestic 50 overs competition that has its final on Aug. 22 and a five-match Test match series between England and India. This does risk spreading the body of domestic cricketers and spectators too thinly, a risk that has been heightened by continuing incidences of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) among both entities.
Specific concern has been expressed about the impact on T20 cricket, which was introduced in 2003 to attract younger audiences and a higher proportion of women. T20 has been a success throughout the cricket-playing world and has provided a vehicle for the growth of cricket in countries and communities not noted for having an interest in the game.
The third controversy has centered on the ECB’s rationale for The Hundred, which emerged out of research into attitudes toward cricket commissioned by the board. Based on a sample of over 100,000 people in the UK, the findings estimated that there are 10.5 million followers who are interested in the game, but only slightly more than 1 million who attend matches. The core audience was identified as mainly white, affluent, middle-aged male, with an average age of 50. At the same time, the number of people playing the game in England was shown to be falling.
As many organizers of teams at the club level in the UK will attest, attracting and keeping the interest of young people in cricket can be a thankless task, given the ever-growing, competing alternatives for their time and attention. The ECB believes that there is a new audience of women, children and families, who will be attracted by the simplicity, speed and accessibility of The Hundred.
Issues that gave rise to T20 have worsened according to the ECB’s research findings, to the point where it appears to be undergoing an existential crisis and is staking its future on the new competition. The British cricketing press commented unfavorably when the news broke in 2019, wondering why so much change should be imposed so quickly.
A fourth controversy relates to the decision to focus on eight teams of men and eight teams of women who will contest the competition based in seven cities — London (two teams), Nottingham, Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham, Cardiff and Southampton. The 15/16 person squads were purchased via a “draft,” with three overseas players permitted and one British centrally contracted player for the men’s teams. In the men’s competition, there will be no Indian cricketers as they are not allowed by their governing body to participate in any franchised competition outside of India.
The three existing formats of the professional game are based on 18 of the 92 counties — administrative units — that have long underpinned the culture, geography and heritage of the UK. Strong views have been expressed that The Hundred is an attempt by the ECB to loosen the grip of the county cricket boards. Unsurprisingly, there was much opposition among the counties to The Hundred when it was announced, especially by those who would not be hosting a franchise. The ECB addressed this by pledging to give each county £1.3 million ($1.8 million) from the proceeds of the new competition.
Another palliative is that the prize money on offer of £600,000 is to be divided equally between the men’s and women’s teams. This equality does not extend to salaries. These will be in a range of £3,600 to £15,000 for women compared with £30,000 to £125,000 for men.
The players, possibly other than those not drafted, appear to have bought into the concept. Battle lines have been drawn for a risky and controversial incursion into England’s traditional cricket heartland and, perhaps, even more widely on the international stage if The Hundred proves to confound critics who suggest that it is one product too many.