Mark Nicholas, who is on the board that came up with 3TC cricket, explains the new format
Eulogies for cricket are much in vogue, at least here in England, where the perception of something gone persists. By assuming a groundswell of opinion around the marginalising of county cricket and the appearance of the Hundred, they suggest something pessimistic or gloomy. Truth be told, English cricket is in pretty good shape, though more needs to be done to encourage the young. The England team interprets Test cricket with bright spirit and an eye for entertainment; the one-day team are the world champions and the T20 side not far from it, but still the idea is spun that county cricket is the embodiment of all that we English are and that the Hundred is all that we are not. It beats me, as it did when T20 got a cold reception all those years ago. Remarkably few people watch county cricket live and the sense remains that those who do have little else in the diary. This is not a criticism - actually, it is rather charming - but it is close to fact.
I loved playing the county game and greatly appreciated the loyalists who followed our cause with enthusiasm and warmth - so much so that many became friends. I was surprised at the travelling they did and the long hours spent on days where others might have been stoking the home fire. I remember a game that trimmed the back of April and the first days of May when it snowed. It was Malcolm Marshall's first for Hampshire (I think) and we took him shopping to buy woollen jumpers, thick socks and shoes. The sight of him wrapped around the lone dressing-room radiator lives in the memory as if it were yesterday. Incredibly, there were spectators there too, waiting for an announcement. About tobogganing?
I thought of the 1970s and '80s as a golden age but down the track, others will reflect on eras of their own as star-spangled. That the game suits the time in which it finds itself might be its most extraordinary gift, a point best illustrated by World Series Cricket in 1978 and the IPL in 2008. Of course, if we have known and loved what has gone before, we take time to adapt. Some of us never do. In the main, though, cricket simply reflects the zeitgeist.
There are so many crickets - single-wicket, double-wicket/pairs, T10, T20, 40 overs, 50 overs, 55 overs, 60 overs, 65 overs, three-day, four-day, five-day. There is declaration cricket, French cricket, galli cricket, indoor cricket, Kwik cricket, cage cricket, tape-ball cricket, continuous cricket, Last Man Stands, and more, much more. Don't worry about cricket, it is just fine: even Test cricket, which inhabits an untouchable space. Indeed, the game may prefer to avoid nostalgia. After all, the past is far from perfect. Cricket has long been embroiled in controversy - amateur and professional for a start; then racism, class and coercion. No, it is better to look forward than back. To see a future and set fair for its advantages.
What's the trick to getting it right? Off the field: kindness and opportunity for all. On the field: bat and ball. Get that balance right and you have a game. You can weight them one way or the other but you can't exclude one from the other.
Last Saturday, the first game of another incarnation was played in South Africa. 3 Team Cricket is the brainchild of Paul Harris - not the left-arm spinner but the former chairman of FNB and now head honcho at Rain, the South African mobile-data company. Harris loves and knows cricket, and while playing cards with his family during the early days of lockdown, began to wonder how the game could reboot itself for kids. Yes, T20 is doing okay but outside of the subcontinent, the game doesn't burn in the hearts of children as it once did. Harris called Graeme Smith and Mark Boucher and they loved his idea for three teams of eight players each competing in the same match. Initially, the eight players was a Covid-19 thing, as the six fielders could do their bit in zones - cut like slices of pizza around the outfield - and therefore maintain the biosecure environment that was required to emerge from lockdown. Harris wanted cricket to lead the way with something fresh and innovative, something that might catch the attention of the young.
He called me and for three hours made his case and I loved it. I just can't see the downside in the search for something new. Sure, I would prefer Test cricket to remain pre-eminent for ever and a day but it won't, maybe it already isn't. If young people are to fall head over heels for cricket, the game must keep evolving until that silver bullet is identified. My enthusiasm for the Hundred was tempered only by the suspicion that the ECB hadn't gone far enough. In truth, it is T20 shortened and then shoehorned with some different references and punctuation. But it's the same game. It will now take another year for us to find out if that is to its advantage or not.
3 Team Cricket is a different game, albeit driven by the same aim: to make more runs than the opposition. Or in this case, oppositions. Having two opponents to consider makes the game more cerebral, inviting the exploration of how best to use your own resources against each of two opponents. If England were playing India and South Africa, for example, would you bowl the quicks against India and the spinners against South Africa? And if you do, in which half? And if the answer is the first half and it goes wrong, are you left exposed? Imagine the jeopardy. While two teams to slog it out against one another, the third team can creep up to spring a surprise.
Like all limited-overs cricket, 3TC is a one-innings-per-side contest - in this case, of 12 overs per team - but spread across two periods of six overs either side of half-time. The 36-over version, as played at Supersport Park in Centurion, takes a little less time than T20 and marginally more than a Hundred match. The 90-over version of 30 overs per side may be the more suitable format for the best players.
I loved the idea so much, I joined the board of 3TC - a board formed to protect IP but which worked pro bono on the development of the game - and had a hand in devising the rules and the format of the Solidarity Cup match that raised three million rand for the South African Hardship Fund.
Do we need another format? Why not, so long as bat and ball stay in harmony. In streets, playgrounds, parks and on beaches, I have played ten-minute games and ten-hour games that have been anything from one a side to 12 a side. They all worked wonderfully well. Our search is for the format that grabs and holds the attention of children in a way that relates to their fascination with the world in which they live.
We believe that 3TC can do great things for the development of the game; can help the Associate ICC members spread their gospel; can provide an alternative for clubs that struggle to raise teams; can work for pick-up matches; and can thrill children who may not be top dog in an 11-member team but who can play their part in a team of eight, where every little counts. We believe that shared facilities can allow two schools or clubs with limited facilities to benefit from a better-equipped third club. And we believe that 3TC can be cricket's vehicle into the Olympic Games, the surest sign that global recognition has come the game's way. Most immediately we plan to review the match and format and then to spread the 3 Team Cricket wings.
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As for Saturday in Centurion, well... Reeza Hendricks' Kingfishers dropped AB de Villiers at the start of his comeback innings. This was costly. AB's Eagles soared ahead, courtesy the maestro himself and a brilliant display of stroke-making from Aiden Markram. After their partnership, the Kingfishers and Temba Bavuma's Kites were left to play catch-up, which was beyond them, and to battle for second place
It is worth saying that this was a beta test. Beta minus, in fact, given the lack of any form of pilot, trial or even the necessary preparation time. It went well enough and the players say they enjoyed the originality of the format. The media, in the main, greeted the occasion with warmth, if finding a grumble in the length of the gap between the six-over batting periods. Fair enough. This was deliberately created to allow television to showcase the charities that were to benefit from the sponsorships. In general, 3TC is a fast game with the rotation of batting, bowling and dugout time being managed for its efficiency.
The biggest problem, especially for a new format, was the empty stadium. Even the Premier League in England has struggled with the lack of any atmosphere, to the point where matches televised from partisan venues such as Anfield and Old Trafford still feel like pre-season friendlies. Imagine a 3 Team Cricket match that goes to the wire in front of a full house of three sets of supporters. Imagine the commercial opportunities that come with three seats of fans watching on television in different locations at home or around the world.
Of course, six fielders made life too easy for the batsmen, and on the slow winter's pitch, wickets were hard to come by. The reason for six fielders, or eight-man teams, was the agreement made with the government to support the rules of a biosecure environment and ensure the fewest number of people on site as possible. At a high level of the game, both in the 36-over and 90-over version, 3TC will have nine fielders in support of bowler and wicketkeeper. At lower levels, those in charge of matches can agree upon any number of fielders between six and nine, and if necessary, "borrow" from the dugout team, whose interest in knocking over the batting team will be as strong as that of the fielding side.
This has the potential to be a game of tactics, patience, nuance and surprise, its unpredictability a trump card. At the end of each match, three captains stand on the podium - one with gold, one with silver and one with bronze. Each of their players will have had a say. Like the Hundred next year, T20 17 years ago, and one-day cricket back in the mists of time, 3 Team Cricket has the power to change perceptions and move the dial. County cricket as we know it, or four-day cricket around the world - though still admirable and essential as the breeding ground for our Test match heroes - will not do that. We must keep looking forward.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK