The range of reactions to the ECB’s announcement of a new format competition for English domestic cricket gives an interesting insight into the current state of the game. Some love the idea – and yet many more seem to see it as yet another desperate attempt by an ageing and out of touch governing body to keep the game relevant for a younger audience. It certainly feels to me, as a fan, as if the game has been going through an identity crisis in recent years, as it seeks new audiences through a range of different formats. It’s not – as yet – an existential crisis for the sport – but this latest episode is one that has important implications for how we think about this game that we all love so much.
Do we really need another form of cricket?
First, that new format. Tentatively titled ‘The Hundred’, it’s a new 100-ball cricket format for England and Wales. The competition will be held between eight city teams – playing at Old Trafford, Headingley, Edgbaston, Trent Bridge, Sophia Gardens, Lord’s, The Oval and the Rose Bowl in Southampton. Crucially, the authorities already have the buy in of the major broadcasters, with games being shown live on Sky Sports and the BBC.
My initial reaction to the news was a shake of the head – it felt like yet another format in a sport already overburdened with them, alongside Twenty20, t20 Blast, Test Matches, One Day Internationals, day and night games and so on. It felt like yet another gimmick dreamt up by marketing teams at the ECB, with an eye on advertising revenue and sponsorship rather than any genuine innovation around the game itself. But the more I think about it, the more I have come to like the idea – and I think that in many ways it may well be a good move for the game. How deeply it influences the future direction of cricket – and most importantly draws new fans in – remains to be seen, but I think that the signs are good. Why? Well, for a number of reasons.
A winning formula?
The first are those TV deals. For me, it’s great to see that free-to-air TV is getting back in on the act – I really do believe that whole generations of kids have missed out on falling in love with cricket the way that many older fans did when they were younger, when cricket was available on the television without an expensive subscription.
Secondly, I think the city format could well work, and might be a great way to get new fans involved. Of course we already have fierce county rivalries, but there is an appeal to recreating this on a city level that might really connect with new people.
And finally, the game format itself – there is something appealing about the simplicity of it – one hundred balls, whoever gets the most runs wins – that cuts right through the complexity of many cricket formats and takes you right to the heart of the game – the thrill of the run chase and the growing pressure as the overs tick down.
My final thought on this however is also a challenge to the preconceptions that bodies like the ECB have about the current market – and to the underlying assumption that younger consumers are unable to focus their attention on anything for more than a few hours.
In many ways I think that the younger generation is perhaps even better suited to long-form entertainment – be it test matches or box sets of Game of Thrones – than any generation that has gone before. The younger generation are used to the idea of consuming things over a long period – binge watching – and are also drawn to the kind of in-depth post-match/episode analysis that these longer formats encourage.
I’d argue that the popularity of shorter forms such as Twitter has created a false sense among the older generation that the youth of today won’t hang around to consume something if it takes too long. I think this is a misconception – and that actually the reality is simply that people now have many more sources of entertainment to choose from.
What people really want – and have always wanted – is a high quality product to consume. It remains to be seen whether The Hundred will bring that.