How do you solve a problem like the Hundred? It is the question that has dominated meetings between the ECB - and in particular, chief executive Richard Gould and chairman Richard Thompson - and the first-class counties this winter, which have centred on the ownership model, the number of teams and the prospect of private investment.
If those discussions have been productive, then there remains an oversight: they have hardly - if at all - featured the people actually involved in running the competition. "I haven't had a single conversation with the ECB's hierarchy since this lot took over," says Mark Chapman, best known as a respected broadcaster across English sport but also the chair of Manchester Originals' board since the team's inception nearly five years ago.
"The eighteen first-class counties put Richard Gould and Richard Thompson in their jobs, so they're going to talk to them: I get that. But I would have thought, at some point… I mean, you're sat here now, talking to me now about how it's gone and what the future is, so why would they not talk to those that are involved in the Hundred?"
Chapman, who has worked extensively for the BBC and, more recently, Sky Sports, cut his teeth as a young broadcaster covering Durham in 1997. Working for BBC Radio Newcastle, he travelled home and away with a team captained by David Boon, and recalls fondly the celebrations as they broke a long winless streak at Darlington Cricket Club.
But his principal association is with Lancashire and in 2019, when studying for a Masters degree in sporting directorship at Manchester Metropolitan University, he was put in touch with the county's chief executive, Daniel Gidney. "He said they were helping the ECB put a board together for Manchester Originals and asked if I'd be interested," Chapman recalls.
The Originals were - and remain - the only Hundred team with a single county affiliated to them, a situation which led them to appoint an independent board to mitigate fears that conflicts of interest could arise; Gidney is unusual among chief executives in that he has no official involvement in the Hundred team affiliated to his county.
Old Trafford under the floodlights during the 2023 Hundred•Getty Images
Chapman chairs a board which comprises James Sheridan (Knights plc, and a non-executive board member at Lancashire), Fiona Morgan (SailGP) and Amy Townsend (Freddie's Flowers), while Sanjeev Katwa, Tottenham Hotspur's head of technology, is an advisor. "The diversity of thought around that table is massive," he says.
In 2021, the Hundred's inaugural season, "we didn't really know what we were doing," Chapman admits. "We were still operating in the Covid landscape and it was a case of thinking, 'Right, let's just try and get this thing on the road. We only really got a grasp on the whole thing once that first year was done."
Since then, he believes that the Originals have developed "much more of a Manchester feel" and gives much of the credit to their mid-20s marketing manager, Josh Dooler. "The work he has done within Manchester's communities on behalf of the Originals over the last two years has been absolutely phenomenal," Chapman says. "I think this is relevant when people slam the competition and say this, that and the other.
"Last year, we sold 60,000 tickets [for four home matchdays] which is 10,000 more than the year before. 30% of our ticket-buyers are female, 22% went to Under-16s, and 48% of people who bought tickets for our games in 2023 had never been to a cricket match before. And we reached 5,000 people via community engagements in non-traditional cricket areas."
They are impressive numbers, but do they vindicate the Hundred's start-up costs and its effect on the rest of the English summer? "The honest answer is I don't think we'll know for 10, even 15 years," Chapman says. "If Lancashire's average crowd for the Blast drops by 500, but we sell 60,000 Hundred tickets and 300 more girls take up in South Manchester as a result, does that balance it out?
"I genuinely have no idea - and it's very difficult to measure. But I didn't come up with the Hundred. Obviously, I didn't have to work in it either, but I genuinely love cricket and I genuinely want cricket to be a successful sport, enjoyed by as many people as people, because it's given me and my family such enjoyment over the years.
"I can see why people are in different camps with the Hundred. I'm 50 years old: I'm a traditionalist when it comes to cricket, but I work in a lot of different sports. I cover the NFL; I go and watch netball with one of my daughters. I adore Lancashire and the County Championship, but I can also see why some things have moved on or developed."
Chapman believes that the Originals have found a balance between an inclusive atmosphere - "last year, 30% of our ground was alcohol-free zones" - and Emirates Old Trafford's raucous party stand. "In British sport in general, you have to try to find a balance between family-friendly fun and pissed blokes dressed as bananas on a stag do," he says.
He also believes that the Originals have been front-runners among Hundred teams in pioneering a 'two teams, one club' approach: "We've been big on integrating the men's and women's side of it." He cites as an example their decision to convert the away dressing-room at Old Trafford into the women's home one, leaving away teams to change in the indoor school.
But Chapman fears that the progress that has been made towards cricket becoming an equal-gender sport is being overlooked during discussions about the Hundred's future - hence his frustration at the fact that he has not been consulted by the ECB's leadership. "All of these discussions that I'm reading about only seem to be looking at men's cricket," he says.
One early proposal - which was never likely to succeed - involved the Hundred becoming a 39-team pyramid including the national (formerly minor) counties. "I mean, my God!" Chapman says. "You arguably can't have a 39-team pyramid in the men's game, but you definitely can't have it in the women's game at the moment because the depth just isn't there.
"There have to be safeguards to guarantee the continued progression of the women's game. Everybody involved in the Hundred has worked really hard to get to a certain point, but we're miles off where we need to be, and that's because of the historical treatment of women's team sport in this country. It's going to take a long time, but there is work being done - which shouldn't be undone."
He believes that handing equity stakes to host counties could work - "Daniel Gidney has been absolutely phenomenal, not in supporting us, but accommodating what we want to do with the Originals" - and is open to the principle of private investment, which might better enable the women's Hundred to attract "the top Aussies" with higher salaries, though he has some broader concerns.
"I'll give you an example: in 2022, we lost a bowler in our men's team to injury and looked at a couple of bowlers - John Turner at Hampshire, and Danny Lamb at Lancashire - as replacements. We had a final group game and then the eliminator, and we were looking to bring someone in, but they'd have missed the semi-finals of the One-Day Cup.
"We had a long think about it and said, 'do you know what? Go and play your 50-over semi-finals'. That was why we had a squad of 15 in the first place, and Tom Lammonby came into the side and did well. Sometimes when the Hundred gets hammered I think, 'we are trying to be fair'. And the worry is that if private investment comes in, that could easily blow county cricket apart."
Chapman comfortably fills an hour discussing the Hundred and its future, and it is immediately clear to see that he is desperate for it to be a success. But the irony is that when it comes to dealing with the ECB, a ubiquitous broadcaster is struggling to get his voice heard.