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‘Hundred’s best year shows it may have something’

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When it comes to English cricket, nothing divides opinion like The Hundred. It is either killing the sport or saving it. There are some who proudly say they will never watch a single ball and believe that to love cricket is to oppose The Hundred. Others pedal hyperbole in the hope of creating the illusion this is the best thing to happen to the great game since WG Grace decided to stop shaving.Clearly, the reality is somewhere in the middle. Most moderate fans can see the benefits while at the same time being aware of the problems. The yet-to-be answered question is whether the value outweighs the losses, set against the backdrop of the fact no one seems to be suggesting a better alternative.In its wisdom, the England and Wales Cricket Board put The Hundred on the back foot before it even started. Existing fans were alienated, the team names sound as if they were cooked up in an episode of W1A (what is a supercharger?) and the kits looked suspiciously similar to whichever brand of crisps happened to be the sponsor. A report from Worcestershire chairman Fanos Hira estimated the tournament lost £9mexternal-link in its first two years.But three seasons in it does feel, on the field at least, The Hundred is finding its feet – the men’s competition, that is. The women’s tournament hit the ground running in 2021 and has been sprinting ever since.It was always likely to be a big year, the first since Richard Thompson and Richard Gould, previous Hundred sceptics, took over as chairman and chief executive respectively of the ECB.A season that started with murmurings about the future of the competition has been enjoyable and engaging. There have been more close finishes in the men’s games. There remains a lack of international superstars, but when England’s men are world champions in both white-ball formats, this country has enough depth to put on a franchise tournament of decent quality.Ticket sales, TV audiences, radio listeners and views of video clips online are up. England players like Jos Buttler, Sam Curran, Kate Cross and Sam Billings have been strong in their public backing of the tournament.Still, the debate is over what the future may hold. Thompson has gone on record to say The Hundred is here until the current TV deal with Sky expires in 2028 and beyond.He acknowledged that having no Test cricket in August is far from ideal, but there is no denying that a clear window for the biggest names to take part in The Hundred has benefited the competition and both Ashes series thrived when not competing against Premier League football for eyeballs and oxygen.Besides, it is incredibly difficult for the schedule to look the same year after year. In 2024 there is a men’s T20 World Cup in the Caribbean in June, meaning England’s home Tests are shifted later. The following summer will be fitted around five Tests against India, who will not arrive until after the conclusion of the IPL at the end of May.An extension of this is the higgledy-piggledy nature of the men’s domestic calendar and the impact that is suffered by the existence of The Hundred.Most can agree that four competitions is too many, but beyond that a consensus on a way forward seems hard to reach. Pushing the County Championship to the beginning and end of the summer is often cited as a problem, yet the standard of the top division is high and, as this summer has shown, predicting when the best weather will be is a fool’s errand.One major gripe from the county diehards is how little their teams play at home during August – sometimes as few as four games in the One-Day Cup – with another argument being everything the ECB wanted to achieve with The Hundred could have been done by giving some love and investment to the T20 Blast.But, realistically, that would mean giving August over to the Blast and, very probably, cutting from the current 14 group games to ensure every match can be televised, just as they are in every other major short-form competition across the world. It would still mean a reduction in how much counties play at home, pleasing neither fans nor accountants.More importantly, making the premier men’s short-form competition focused on the counties would leave the women in limbo. Almost all discussion on the pros, cons and future of The Hundred – including this article – focusses primarily on the men, when there is an argument to suggest the women’s competition is the best in the world, even after the advent of the Women’s Premier League in India.Perhaps, overall, the most persuasive argument for the continued existence of The Hundred is two-fold.Firstly, if there is genuine fear that global franchise leagues will become too tempting for the very best players to resist, it is naive to think English cricket can thrive without one.Secondly, if the ECB is clear on the need to have domestic cricket on free-to-air television, the Blast – fine competition though it is – is a tougher sell.Rightly or wrongly, TV execs are wooed by The Hundred being ‘different’. The deal with the BBC is up at the end of next summer and negotiations over an extension are under way.There is currently no suggestion that the BBC, or whichever broadcaster takes on the ECB rights, will be getting anything other than a 100-ball tournament, but rumours abound over the future of the format, if not the competition itself.Put simply, the ECB is in need of a cash injection. Centrally-contracted men’s players are in talks for an improved dealexternal-link, with any increase in match fees having to be matched for women’s players, as per a recommendation from the reportexternal-link by the Independent Commission for Equity in Cricket. A top-end estimate for the cost of implementing all of the ICEC recommendations is £150m and that is ignoring the need to increase wages in The Hundred in order to compete with other leagues across the globe.With TV revenue not going up until 2028 at least, one way that cash could come in is through private investment in The Hundred, but would those willing to throw untold riches towards the ECB prefer to be owning a stake in a T20 competition?For all of the areas where The Hundred may have failed or succeeded, it does seem to be fulfilling its aim in attracting a new audience to the game. The ECB says that 30% of tickets this year were sold to women and 23% to children, while 41% went to families.On a more basic level, it passes the ‘eye test’. A Hundred match provides a very different atmosphere to an England men’s international or a boozy Friday night at the Blast. Even my sister, who does not share my love of cricket, took her family to a game at Old Trafford, albeit not realising until some way into the match that she wasn’t actually watching Lancashire.Highlights: Southern Brave beat Northern Superchargers to win women’s HundredAt the end of what has, overall, been the best of the three seasons of The Hundred, finals weekend showed some of the good and bad of the tournament. Buttler put on a magnificent show to lead the Originals to victory in the men’s eliminator, while the fightback of Tom Curran and Jimmy Neesham to win the final for the Oval Invincibles showed that a format as short as 100 balls still has time for ebb and flow.Southern Brave finally got their hands on the women’s trophy after two final defeats, sending an emotional Anya Shrubsole into retirement with a victory on the same Lord’s ground where she won the World Cup for England seven years earlier.But the washout of the women’s eliminator 24 hours earlier when the men were able to play a full game was criticised in some quarters, leaving questions over whether there can be more flexibility on the scheduling.There are other improvements that can be made. Tired pitches in the second half of the tournament made batting difficult. Low-scoring cricket can be compelling and there is nothing wrong with encouragement for spinners, but The Hundred is supposed to be about boundary boshing, not scraping to a winning score by nurdling the ball into gaps.Live music at every match is a great idea in principle, but has not quite worked, perhaps because the stage at each ground points out to the playing area meaning the acts are essentially performing to a largely empty field.Some stardust from the men’s overseas players would be welcome, but difficult to achieve for reasons of money and scheduling. The likes of David Weise, Tanveer Sangha and Josh Little are very good cricketers, but unlikely to boost ticket sales. More cross-promotion from the mass marketing of The Hundred towards county cricket wouldn’t go amiss, either.None of this is likely to change opposing opinions on The Hundred. Views are too entrenched and, for some, bridges were burned before they were even built.Still, this latest season shows that it might just be on to something.It is, after all, just another game of cricket.

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