A couple of years ago, I spent far too much of my time immersed in the backwaters of cricket administration while working on the documentary Death of a Gentleman - an investigation that ultimately concluded that administrative mismanagement at the International Cricket Council and short-sightedness in pursuit of money across the sport in general poses a very real threat to the future of the game we all love.
The cricketing world we examined in Death of a Gentleman was a place shaped almost entirely by the stratospheric acceleration of the sporting TV rights market over the previous decade. Because of the consistency that live sports provided pay TV operators in a fragmented television market, rights values had gone through the roof. Whereas before sporting bodies had been in thrall to TV executives, desperate for them to finance their sports, suddenly these governing bodies held the power, with TV channels and tech disruptors tripping over themselves to get a piece of their action.
Cricket, with its virtually exclusive access to the coveted Indian market, was no exception, and it wasn't long before the game's administrators began hooking multimillion- and even billion-dollar TV deals like trout in a fish farm.
But it's all very well having this sort of money sloshing round in the coffers. The real challenge for the modern sporting administrator has become a balancing act between securing the money their game needs to survive and ensuring it achieves the exposure to the public it needs to thrive. Some cricketing boards have fared better than others in this challenge, but the ECB find themselves at a particularly existential tipping point, as evidenced by the public furore surrounding their new 100-ball competition.
When Graves' predecessor, Giles Clarke, became chairman of the ECB in 2007, the English game had arguably rarely been healthier in terms of wider public interest. The Test team had memorably won the Ashes in 2005 (the game's answer to Paul Gascoigne's tears in Italia '90), it was stocked with front-page personalities such as Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen, and featured its first breakout Anglo-Asian personality in Monty Panesar.
"Giles Clarke said the biggest threat to cricket's future was fans watching via illegal streams. The biggest threat was fans not watching at all"
In addition, the ECB also had possession of cricket's hot property, T20, which it had invented in 2003. There was only one problem - the wider public that was finally interested in the sport couldn't watch any of it without paying for it, a legacy of Clarke's 2004 decision (when he was the ECB's chairman of marketing) to remove cricket from free-to-air and sign an exclusive deal with BSkyB, which at that stage was watched in under eight million UK homes (less than a third of the population).This deal brought £220 million to the ECB, and gave Clarke huge clout with the English counties - a crucial asset in the heavily politicised English game. Yet there were major consequences, and by 2007, viewing figures had dropped from an average of 2.5 million on Channel 4 in 2005 (with a peak of an extraordinary 8.4 million for the final day of the fourth Test) to 286,000 with Sky.
When Clarke opted to renew the Sky deal a year early, at a fee just £40 million higher than the original deal, in the middle of a TV-rights boom, the die was cast. Later in 2008, Lalit Modi took advantage of the ECB's lack of T20 proactivity to make India the home of T20 with the IPL, and after Clarke and David Collier had talked themselves out of the CLT20 partnership with India (Cricket Australia used the proceeds from this to part-fund their own Big Bash league) we know what happened next - Clarke was mowing a helipad at Lord's to welcome the soon-to-be-disgraced Ponzi schemer Allen Stanford into the game.Clarke - who is due to step down from his current role as ECB president next month - has since styled himself as an administrative visionary, claiming that without the Sky money cricket in this country would be "dead, flat on its back", and it is true that the Sky deal helped furnish a decade of English Test success, and to provide much needed funding for the women's game and disabled cricket in this country.And yet hindsight now demonstrates that, once that money had been banked, Clarke's regime was in fact guilty of the ultimate sin for a modern sporting administrator - a lack of vision. Little thought was given to the diminishing viewer base, and even less done by way of innovation - live-streaming the 2013 Ashes on YouTube in mainland Europe and Latin America was about the closest they came to a digital strategy, which was itself completely useless in terms of enthusing the market that mattered the most.
Clarke's outdated approach was based on exclusivity; the man who made his fortune flogging pet food and wine, and famously said the biggest threat to cricket's future was fans watching via illegal streams, just didn't get modern sport. The biggest threat was fans not watching at all. Without a flow of new converts, a sport is dying, and on his watch, that became reality. Clarke's pursuit of short-term financial gain has resulted in a legacy of catastrophic decay in English cricket. Last year it was revealed that more people in this country knew the identity of WWE wrestler John Cena than that of the Test team's record run scorer and then captain Alastair Cook.
On the face of it, change is in the air. In 2020, there will be a sexy short-form tournament in the height of summer, with a funky new format and newly created teams, targeted squarely at "non-cricket fans". A shorter duration will make it more convenient for families, and better fit the schedules of free-to-air television. At first glance, what's not to like?
Well, clearly the proposed 100-ball format is not to the taste of everyone in the English game, but the angry reaction in some quarters - to my mind at least - misses the point. If your aim is to take the game to a wider audience then a minor format change to fit the TV schedules is a logical choice. However poorly the ECB have sold it, cricket has been changing since it began, and being the great game that it is, it has a happy knack of appealing to people in whatever form they watch it.The major problem here lies not in the format but in the fact that, despite being devised to suit the TV schedules, in reality little more than a quarter of the tournament will actually be visible on free-to-air. In its current structure and execution, this tournament has little to no chance of being the panacea it has been sold as. Instead, it is another example of the ECB prioritising money in the short term, at the cost of failing to provide the public exposure that the board itself recognises the English game so badly needs."The Hundred" is scheduled to feature eight teams, playing 36 matches across a 38-day window of exclusivity that runs from mid-July to early September. Thanks to a broadcast deal signed last summer, every match will be shown live on Sky, with just ten games simulcast by the BBC (and a further eight matches from the women's tournament).
"In its current structure and execution, the 100-ball tournament has little to no chance of being the panacea it has been sold as"
Harrison, the ECB's chief executive, who has a background in sports rights at IMG, was the man behind a £1.1 billion deal that, on the face of it, amply succeeded in balancing those mutually exclusive aims of reach and revenue. "It is a game-changer for cricket in this country," he said.
But is it, really? While the decision to partner with the BBC over more lucrative terrestrial partners due to the corporation's "multi-pronged approach" is commendable, it's asking a lot of David Willey to save English cricket via convivial family-friendly chats with Matt Baker on The One Show.We need the kids to see the actual cricket before they can begin to care about the people who play it. In an era of binge-watching, on those occasions when you actually get people to watch something specific, you need to give them their second fix as soon as possible, not four days or a week later. The BBC knows this - that is why they screened their acclaimed documentary Stephen over three consecutive nights in April. Would it really have hurt the English game to take a bit less cash for a bit more exposure?If you examine the two short-form tournaments most comparable with The Hundred -the Big Bash League and Indian Premier League - both employed notably different tactics to gain a foothold with their wider public, but were bonded by the same principle: exposure was paramount. The BBL is the most similar to The Hundred: a board-run tournament designed to run alongside Test cricket, and its inaugural season in 2011-12 featured eight teams playing 33 matches over 34 days.
Facing a similar challenge to the ECB, in that their best players were playing Test cricket, and the Indian board did not release their players to feature in the tournament, CA wisely opted to focus on accessibility. After expediting the tournament to give it two years of exposure via Fox Sports, it went to market in 2013 to ensure all matches were screened on free-to-air television, evening after evening, allowing a national narrative to build up, complementing the summer's Test matches, in the way football's European Championships and World Cup do in this country.
The IPL, which had come three years earlier, had taken a slightly different approach. Modi's challenge was different to the ECB's, as cricket was already the Indian zeitgeist, much like Premier League football in this country, and being behind a paywall would not hurt its exposure, provided Modi could guarantee controversy and drama to draw the fans in by other means.Like the Premier League did, Modi took the money from satellite TV, but in doing so, engineered an auction between interested parties (of the type that the ECB has seemingly failed to engineer between Sky and BT), with the inflated price allowing him to carve out digital rights. He then retained these rights, in a stroke of visionary genius not seen in the game since, in order to distribute the IPL to the masses for free via YouTube.
Modi was a marketer whose rationale was undeniably cynical - he was a far bigger fan of his own success than he was of cricket - but he understood that the key to the long-term success of his "product" was getting people addicted in the short term. And to get them addicted, they had to watch it. As well as YouTube, he persuaded ITV to take the rights in this country for free, and instructed his publicity department to distribute highlights packages to rival news channels for free - moves as different to those in the Clarke playbook as the men themselves were.These tournaments succeeded through very different approaches, but both were examples of joined-up thinking - whether the Australian board's strategy of sanitised, family-friendly, consistently accessible cricket, or Modi's free-market, mega-salary, celebrity-owner controversy-fest. Is the ECB's proposal similarly well thought through? On closer inspection it appears not.Just how much interest will the general public take in newly created teams, when they have to wait a fortnight to watch them play again? And how will The Hundred compete for media coverage and eyeballs with the global behemoth that is the Premier League football season, which begins in earnest in early August? Both the IPL and the Big Bash also had a free run at their respective summers, allowing them to establish themselves as the dominant television product in that space. Forget free-to-air, the Hundred will not even be the most important sports tournament on Sky.
"Hindsight now demonstrates that, once that money had been banked, Clarke's regime was guilty of the ultimate sin for a modern sporting administrator - a lack of vision"
Of course, free-to-air itself is no silver bullet in this technologically charged age. When the game was last on Channel 4 in 2006, the non-subscription customer had five channels to choose from and internet speeds that just about allowed you to send an email before lunch. Now Freeview allows access to over 70 channels in itself, and the internet and YouTube have provided a proper platform for sports that were previously regarded as niche. The era of the captive audience is over. The new challenge is first how to get your sport in front of people, then how to hook them in. Sports must compete with Netflix as much as with each other.There are other concerns too; the uncertainty of the weather, the fact that the Indian board may not release its players, the fact that the tournament is set to compete with a Caribbean Premier League potentially able to pay players larger salaries, and in the longer term, the impact on domestic cricket in this country. And if, as Modi predicted last month, the IPL chooses to relax its salary cap, or makes a decisive move in terms of a second season or a Test season, then the goalposts will move once again.
It's clear what The Hundred won't do (in its current form). It won't provide the necessary access to the free-to-air audience that the game needs to thrive. It won't please the cricketing purists. It won't help the English Test team (beyond allowing the board to pay its players more money). So what will it do? Make money for the ECB.
"It all comes back to one central question that administrators have yet to work out the answer for. Does cricket exist to make money, or make money to exist?" asked Gideon Haigh in Death of a Gentleman. When Harrison and the ECB have worked that out, perhaps they could let us all know. Hopefully we still have a game to watch by then.