A qualified success for the ECB's 'silent W' as Welsh Fire come through first home test

Atmosphere lacking in Cardiff due to rain and Covid restrictions, but some signs of promise

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
Gloucestershire's David Payne played a key role in Cardiff, but there's no role for the West Country within Welsh Fire's branding  •  Getty Images

Gloucestershire's David Payne played a key role in Cardiff, but there's no role for the West Country within Welsh Fire's branding  •  Getty Images

Of course it rained. Cardiff's first Hundred matchday was a bizarre occasion, the crowd capped at just over 3,000 by Welsh government regulations; when the umbrellas and anorak hoods went up in the stands midway through the second innings of the men's match, the vibe was more midweek Pro40 game than 'world-class sport and entertainment product'.
But the gods were merciful. Despite James Vince's protestations, the umpires kept the players on through the drizzle and Welsh Fire's men maintained their 100 percent start to the competition. With Jonny Bairstow, their captain and the Hundred's leading run-scorer, due to miss the rest of the season on England Test duty, there will be sterner challenges ahead, but in the circumstances, they could hardly have wished for a better start.
The women's fixture in mid-afternoon was a particularly subdued affair - perhaps unsurprisingly, since it was a 3pm start on a Tuesday - but dominated by Smriti Mandhana, who cracked 61 not out off 39 balls including three straight sixes, and Lauren Bell, whose wickets of Hayley Matthews and Sarah Taylor with consecutive balls in the middle phase of the first innings had shifted the game back into their favour.
But in the men's game, the Fire managed to light. Bairstow looked horribly out of sorts while scratching his way to 20 off 21 after the first 60 balls but clicked in the second half of the innings, thrashing 52 off his next 17 including consecutive sixes off both Colin de Grandhomme and Danny Briggs.
With the ball, they conceded 40 off the first 14 balls, but dragged it back impressively by hitting hard lengths and forcing the Brave's middle order to hit towards the longer square boundaries. Jimmy Neesham, who took 3 for 5 from 15 balls, was a standout, while Jake Ball - wearing a black armband in memory of the late Mike Hendrick, once his bowling coach at Notts - conceded 21 runs from his 20 balls.
The rain played its part, too. "Some zipped on a bit after those few minutes of heavy rain," Vince explained. "It's difficult knowing how long it's going to stay for and we were ahead of Duckworth-Lewis - you don't want to lose a wicket on the brink of being taken off and then go behind.
"It just made it a little bit tricky to manage the game situation, but it was more the way it altered conditions: the wicket was fairly easy-paced and then after the rain, a few back-of-a-length balls seemed to bounce a bit more and skid on fairly quickly. We probably didn't adjust well enough and they executed really well."
But in spite of the rain, this was about as well as Cardiff's first matchday could have gone, given the circumstances. "I love coming down here - Cardiff's an amazing place and the fans are very passionate," Bairstow said in the presentation. His departure will weaken them significantly, and the decision to take him out of the competition to serve as wicketkeeping cover for England's first two Tests against India, rather than dominating the Hundred ahead of the T20 World Cup looks increasingly bizarre.
It is worth reflecting on the existence of Welsh Fire, a side whose affiliated counties are Glamorgan, Gloucestershire and Somerset. In the summer of 2019, the ECB registered trademarks for both 'Western Fire' and 'Welsh Fire', deliberating on whether they should focus on their appeal to the South West as a whole or narrow it down to a Cardiff side. They opted for the latter, unveiling an all-red kit featuring the Welsh translation Tân Cymreig beneath the crest to double-down on their appeal on the west side of the Severn Bridge.
It may prove a wise move. Before the clouds rolled in and the winter coats got a midsummer outing, the crowd wore a number of Welsh replica shirts - rugby union and football, as well as the Fire - and given it's unlikely that many supporters will bother to make a three or four-hour round trip from Bristol or Taunton, the England (and Wales) Cricket Board saying the bracketed part out loud for the first time in a long time seems like a sound decision. With Shane Williams and James Hook among the crowd kitted out in their new merchandise, the branding appeared to have caught on.
If and when the Hundred is expanded to include a ninth team in years to come, there is every chance it will be staged in Bristol, with Will Brown, Gloucestershire's chief executive, particularly vocal in his desire for the County Ground to host fixtures in years to come. They may be Welsh Fire women's fixtures initially, but a 'Western' side sharing games between Bristol and Taunton would be an obvious way to grow the competition's limited geographical reach.
But as with so much in this competition, the real test will arrive in several years' time. In 2019, Glamorgan's average T20 Blast attendance at Sophia Gardens was just 4,467, and the centralised marketing push for Fire should help to determine whether that is due to an issue of promotion or simply a reflection of the reality that the Welsh public has limited interest in cricket. With restrictions expected to continue throughout the group stage, it will be difficult to ascertain this year; for the time being, anything more than a Welsh Fizzle will count as a qualified success.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98