<
>

Hopps: 100-ball tournament betrays both fans and players

play
A gimmick or a worthwhile experiment? (1:08)

County cricket fans share their thoughts on the ECB's decision to introduce a new '100-ball' format (1:08)

It's not meant for you. Such is the default response from the ECB when discussions turn to the new city-based competition that has drawn in the biggest TV deal in English cricket history.

It is the city-based T20 competition no longer. To widespread surprise, the future is now 100 balls. You can imagine the marketing vision: a big countdown from 100 with in-your-face graphics and power chords every ball. Part sport, part game show. At least it will help young children to count backwards.

Let's put dyed-in-the-wool County Championship loyalists to one side for a moment because they will never be appeased and consider another interest group who have been equally taken aback. Many lovers of short-form cricket have also been shocked by the announcement, as have many of England's professional players. And because the current fans supposedly don't matter the response of the players over the coming weeks and months could be critical.

For England players - indeed, for ambitious county professionals - under the age of 30, T20 has been far more than just a convenient financial lifeline for the game. It is a valid sporting contest, a form of the game in which they have long believed, a game for which they have worked to improve their skills, one in which they can measure themselves against their peers.

For the ECB now to turn to 100-ball cricket has left many aghast.

The frustration of top players with the county-based T20 Blast has largely been that they have felt the competition lacked the necessary stature to attract consistently big crowds, to demand media attention, to sharpen their professional ambition, to stand proudly alongside IPL and the Big Bash.

Whether that conclusion is the right one at a time when Blast attendances are rising steadily, is another debate. But in the last survey conducted by the Professional Cricketers Association (PCA) - a couple of years ago now - they favoured a new short-form competition that would bring them more stature, while also fearing the sidelining of the Championship. The findings were complex and never made public.

The new tournament they clearly imagined would be the future was T20 - an established and thriving form of the game with a global following. A game, against the odds, that is steadily building its own tradition. A form of the game that the players still recognised as new, but which they have now been informed is old hat.

That ECB alternative does not feel radical, merely defeatist, irrelevant and unnecessary.

Those who dismiss T20, and feel that it is disposable, under-estimate how embedded it has become in cricketing culture. It might lack the subtlety of longer formats, it might not suit everybody, but it is here where many reputations are now made and broken. Those who play and coach in T20 approach it, by and large, as cricketing professionals, not contestants in Game Show cricket.

"England's top short-form cricketers will be isolated in their own competition, unable to compare themselves with their peers"

IPL might be too full of bluff for its own good, its expansion to nearly four hours in some IPL matches, might reveal a damaging excess of self-regard, it might find independent analysis too often drowned out by highly-paid media cheerleaders, but you can't deny it is the Here and Now.

The importance of T20 is also signified by a burgeoning statistical industry. Analysis of data has become the way professionals and fans alike seek to bring sense to T20. Batting and bowling averages, and strike rates, are no longer deemed enough to evaluate it. Smart Stats are the order of the day: at what phases of the game do you perform well or badly, against what sort of opponent, and what is your team-mate doing while you are batting at the other end?

Cricketing data is not for everybody, but it has given T20 purpose. And England's 100-ball tournament will be excluded from such global context. England's top short-form cricketers will be isolated in their own competition, unable to compare themselves with their peers.

In the ECB's envisaged future, roughly half of England's county professionals will play 100-ball cricket when they are perfectly content with T20, and the other half will be kept occupied doing something as yet undecided.

We are entering a period of flux when professional players around the globe are wondering whether their future will be as freelance cricketers, mixing international cricket with high-profile domestic T20 tournaments and the English professional circuit. They have come to terms with a cricketing revolution and now, from the blue-sky thinkers in the ECB, they have been presented with another one.

For those who love the County Championship, the domination of T20 has felt like a bereavement, although the financial justification for the shift of emphasis has been hard to deny. Now the T20 generation have a sense of that bereavement, and the financial justification for this switch is much harder to find.

Who will speak for these professionals? David Leatherdale, the PCA chief executive, is on long-term sick leave, the chairman, Daryl Mitchell, initially as surprised as his members, is now maintaining a middle course and keeping an open mind. The PCA has rarely seemed more malleable.

That there will be rebellion from the players seems unlikely. Money talks for a young professional and there will be a lot of money about. Overseas players will no doubt take the money, too, some seriously, some with tongue implanted firmly in cheek. But if commercial attraction is not matched by sporting integrity and desire, it is questionable whether the outcome will be a palatable one.

It will doubtless be remarked that it is the job of players to play and administrators to lead. That leading will be done by a specialist board, selected under the guidance of the nomination chairman Colin Graves, which, shall we say, is somewhat stronger on business and marketing acumen than cricketing expertise.

For the moment, the demands of TV schedules are winning the day, the match done and dusted in two-and-a-half hours. English cricket has gone in an instant from not caring about free-to-air to the point where the game departed from the national consciousness to letting free-to-air influence the product to an excessive degree. But TV could have ruined their ratings before they have even begun. This is all too funky by half.