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English cricket's atomic option highlights failure to capitalise on T20 revolution

The ECB has tried to reinvent the wheel - and left many worrying about the fallout

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller
From Atomic Kitten to atomic bomb? The Hundred is about to land on English cricket  •  Getty Images

From Atomic Kitten to atomic bomb? The Hundred is about to land on English cricket  •  Getty Images

They were playing our song in the Croydon Boxpark during Euro 2020. Or, at least, the song that we as a sport so cruelly snubbed back in 2003.
"Looking back on when we first met," trilled Liz McClarnon, Natasha Hamilton and Jenny Frost, live on stage in front of an ecstatic, reverent and revelrous crowd. "I cannot escape and I cannot forget …"
And sure enough, those who were there will never forget the day that Atomic Kitten burst out of their decade-long catnap to declare that Gareth Southgate was indeed the one and that football was coming home again.
By contrast, it was this very week, 18 long years ago, that the selfsame pop trio endured a very different reception when they rocked up at Trent Bridge for the final of the inaugural Twenty20 Cup.
While Surrey and Warwickshire were preparing for their showpiece, Atomic Kitten took to the stage at the Radcliffe Road End of the ground, for possibly the most least acclaimed set of their five-year reign as Liverpool's favourite all-girl pop band.
Cricket's established fans simply didn't know what to make of the spectacle - some bopped, most gawped, the rest just twiddled their thumbs waiting for the main action to resume again. "This is our last song," was McClarnon's acidly delivered sign-off at the end of their set. "Then you can all get back to your cricket."
And that, with apologies to the Kittens and their attempts to make cricket whole again, was the enduring theme of that first remarkable summer of 20-over action. The sun shone and the gimmicks flowed - pitch-side Jacuzzis and speed-dating sessions among them - but all that ultimately mattered was the quality of the on-field spectacle.
Surrey, lest the details elude you after all these years, surged to that inaugural Twenty20 Cup - now known as Vitality Blast - title in 2003 under the guidance of Adam Hollioake - due reward both for the best county team of its era, and also for a format which had proven, even in that first fortnight of tactical trial-and-error, that the cream was still destined to rise to the top.
And hurrah for that, we all said in unison. Cricket is cricket, whether it's played over five days, four days or one afternoon … or maybe, even over 100 balls, bowled in blocks of five, with two in a row from the same end to speed things along. If you squint and blur out the unestablished team names, the earth-shattering overheads and the sense of a sport cleaved asunder by the most rancorous three-year family argument since Brexit, this coming month's entertainment will surely - hopefully - contain enough familiar facets to begin an urgently needed healing process.
But if you were to freeze the narrative right there in 2003, at the crest of the wave that would come crashing across the sport - for better and for worse - over the next two decades, it's possible also to wonder if that's where it all went wrong. Because it's clear that cricket - even then, at a moment of apparent radicalisation - was merely preaching to its converted. In a litany of missteps, each one of which has brought us traipsing to this month's tipping point, few were more significant than English cricket's failure to work out where to go next with the phenomenon that it had created.
That exploratory first season, after all, lasted merely a fortnight - a sun-baked flash in the pan that was designed to limit exposure, in every sense. Expenses were spared, besides a few glitter cannons and face-painting tents, while many counties banished the competition to their outgrounds for fear of embarrassment at the turnstiles. There wasn't even an official sponsor to wrap around the under-stated but adequately conceived tournament logo.
Despite all that, the uptake was remarkable by cricket's standards - 257,759 spectators all told, an average of approximately 5,500 per contest (and when Lord's belatedly joined the party the following summer, it sold out for a county fixture for the first time since the 1950s).
But there could be no escaping the sport's apologetic beginnings, nor the sense that the wrong conclusions were all too swiftly drawn from the format's relative success. An enlightened ECB, already deep into its discussions about a seminal round of TV rights, would have instantly packaged that Twenty20 fortnight as a free-to-air taster - a short, sharp shot of adrenalised cricket, perfectly tailored to hook in a new generation. After all, it had been the ECB's survey - compiled by Stuart Robertson, the marketing executive who is credited with the invention of T20 - that had found cricket to be a turn-off among younger respondents, "boring" and "lasts too long" being the more ubiquitous responses.
Instead, barely 18 months later, the sport was sold - lock, stock and barrel - to Sky for £220 million, the terror at what the counties had unleashed with their vulgar new format being mitigated by the relief that their latent audience had been tapped by the same product. Never mind the future, was the message. The present is sufficiently viable, and that'll do for now.
English cricket is back on its starting line, seeking to reinvent the wheel for the sake of an elusive new audience who don't know if they are going to like cricket but won't know unless it is packaged in a manner that will invite them in to try
The same would be true four years later in 2008, when MCC's chief executive Keith Bradshaw and Surrey's chairman David Stewart compiled a discussion document, in urgent response to India's almost overnight repositioning from T20 sceptics to market leaders - inspired by their victory in the inaugural World T20 in September 2007, and sent stratospheric by Lalit Modi's astonishingly rapid establishment of the IPL barely six months later.
The Bradshaw-Stewart Plan, lest we forget, envisaged a nine-team "English Premier League", staged primarily at the nine Test-match grounds to maximise revenues, and contested at the height of the summer to avoid any clash with overseas schedules. What a radical notion!
Alas, the plan was leaked to the BBC and trashed on-air during that summer's Lord's Test before any serious consideration could be taken, even as Giles Clarke, the then-ECB chairman, decided that cosying up to the soon-to-be-exposed Ponzi-scheme mega-crook, Allen Stanford, would be a more palatable source of quick-hit revenue.
It's easily forgotten, given how deeply the ECB has repressed any memories of that sorry saga, including England's miserable failure to snaffle Stanford's $20 million spoils in Antigua that winter, but until his arrest and subsequent jailing for 110 years, the board's serious vision for the future of T20 cricket in this country was a 20-team "Premier League", comprising all 18 counties plus two teams of Stanford all-stars from his own agenda-setting tournament in the Caribbean.
And when set against that level of administrative arrogance and myopia, well, at least the Hundred veers towards hubris and overthinking, rather than terrified barrier-manning from small-minded officials with no interests beyond their own sufficiently feathered nests.
But either way, here we are. A full circle completed, and English cricket back on its starting line, seeking to reinvent the wheel for the sake of an elusive new audience who don't know if they are going to like cricket but won't know unless it is packaged in a manner that will invite them in to try.
It's not as though English cricket has been entirely invisible since the free-to-air schism. The women's and men's World Cup wins in 2017 and 2019 cut through as best they could in the circumstances, but with the exception of Ben Stokes, the sport has created no genuine household names since that sign-off summer of 2005. Foremost among these is Andrew Flintoff, whose subsequent quest to become a "TV personality" may have jarred with those who remember him as salt-of-the-earth "Fred" in his playing days, but whose cross-over appeal - he returns to front Sky's Hundred coverage - could prove to be invaluable.
For it was Flintoff, in an interview in the Guardian last week, who nailed the conundrum facing cricket this month. In an appearance on the BBC's Graham Norton Show in 2013 - at essentially the midpoint of cricket's exile from public relevance - he found himself trying to describe the game to Jennifer Lopez. "It's a hard sell, isn't it?" he admitted. "I'm boring myself here." Therein lies the rod that the ECB has made for its own back. Too much ground to make back up without a massive, and almost certainly reckless, leap of faith.
And therefore, at the Kia Oval on Wednesday, the sport shall be catapulted into its brave new world - and as the ECB, with brutal and offensive accuracy, put it at the very outset of this journey, this really isn't about us. And by extension, it's actually no longer even about cricket. The tamasha, as the IPL's ever-expanding fanbase would put it, is where it's really at this month.
I was 25 back in 2003, and already too immersed in cricket to need Atomic Kitten to chivvy along with my day's entertainment, even if I was significantly closer to their tweenie fanbase than I am now, aged 43. So there's no way on earth I am in any position to pass judgement on Jax Jones, or Becky Hill, or any of the other artists lined up to perform at "cricket's Glastonbury" this month. Genuinely, good luck to them, and let's fervently hope that they find audiences more receptive to their offerings than was the case in that now-distant summer of innovation, an adult-life ago.
For as hard as it may be to forgive the insults and ineptitude that has led the game to embrace this atomic option, as it were, it's beholden on everyone who cares for the sport's future to embrace the whole again.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket