Few sporting events have split opinion in the way the Hundred has since its soft-launch in April 2018 but its loudest critics and most brazen proponents agree on one thing, at least: its dominance of the English cricketing calendar over the next month is a seminal moment for the game in this country. Between the fifth Ashes Test in 2005 and the 2019 World Cup final, live cricket was hidden behind a paywall and unavailable on free-to-air TV in England; a handful of games have been broadcast live by the BBC or Channel 4 in the last two years, but the Hundred will be freely available on television in a way not seen in this country for the past 16 years.
Wednesday night's opening match between Oval Invincibles and Manchester Originals sees domestic cricket broadcast live on a main BBC channel for the first time in the 21st century; the most recent is believed to be Lancashire's nine-wicket win against Derbyshire in the NatWest Trophy final in 1998, when one-day cricket was played over 60 overs with teams wearing whites and using a red ball. The level of coverage across platforms is vast: every match in the competition - men's and women's - will be broadcast live by Sky, every women's match and a "significant number" of men's matches will be streamed on Sky's YouTube channel, and the BBC is broadcasting 10 men's and eight women's fixtures.
"It's a real privilege to be involved and part of an amazing broadcast team," Isa Guha
, who will front the BBC's coverage, tells ESPNcricinfo. "What the BBC brings is that fact that it can play out to the masses, and that is what is really exciting about our TV and radio coverage. People might be tuning in for the Olympics but then stumble across the Hundred, and I think cricket fans will tune in anyway because there will be intrigue around the new format and how it works. I think it will cut through."
There are challenges to navigate. The BBC's coverage of recent England men's T20Is against Sri Lanka and Pakistan was pitched mainly at existing cricket fans but with some interludes designed to make the game more simple, and there is an obvious tension between getting stuck into the game's intricacies or the tactical nuances of the new format and trying to appeal to the new audience that the ECB is so desperate to attract. That was made particularly evident in April when the Telegraph
revealed a plan to replace the word "wickets" with "outs"
, which sparked a backlash strong enough for the term to be dropped a week later.
"It's about getting the balance right," Guha says. "You don't want to offend cricket traditionalists but at the same time, you're trying to bring a new audience in. We'll still have the same vibe in terms of the fun we want to bring to it - the energy and banter between commentators - but we want to bring out the personalities of the domestic players who might not necessarily get much exposure on television, too.
"We'll be navigating through the new tactics with everyone else. What I found with the Big Bash in Australia last winter with the new rules that were applied
was that we were working it out on commentary at the same time as the players and coaches on the ground, which is exciting and interesting for existing fans. But for the new audience, it's a great entry-level format; it's about educating people on things like fielding positions and cricketing lingo but not being too hard to understand."
There is a tension too between the ECB's public commitment to present the men's and women's competitions as equal and the fact that only three of the eight games the BBC is broadcasting live will be available on a linear TV channel, with the other five online-only. "There are a lot of online users anyway," Guha responds. "I think we will still get a good audience as long as people know where to find it. The biggest thing is being able to direct people towards it, but then again, there are a lot of online users that would be watching BBC Two on digital platforms anyway."
A BBC publicist jumps in at this stage, saying: "Those games will be on iPlayer, the BBC Sport website and online - and the same people who can access BBC Two can also access any of those with the touch of a button." But realistically, the women's competition will rely on viewers knowing where to find it; if a child with no interest in cricket stumbles across the Hundred while channel-surfing, it is highly likely that they will come across a men's game.
On the flip side, the BBC is hoping to promote the tournament through as many platforms as they can: James Anderson's Tailenders podcast with Greg James and Felix White, which has grown and nurtured a cult following in recent years, will be a key component of the broadcast coverage, and players are expected to pop up for radio and TV interviews during chat shows. A number of players involved in the tournament including Heather Knight, Tymal Mills, Alex Hartley and Carlos Brathwaite have also signed as commentators, and the live music that will be played at grounds in an attempt to create a family-friendly matchday experience has been sorted through a partnership with BBC Music Introducing.
"When you're at the ground, that partnership will help create that buzz and atmosphere that people have been starved of in the past couple of years," Guha says. "We saw in the Euros how much excitement and energy people get from being at a stadium and to have that music around it is going to make it feel like a full day out, a full entertainment package. It should boost the coverage."
As with the tournament as a whole, it is difficult to know what will count as a success for BBC's coverage of the Hundred: audience figures and demographics will be monitored closely but the real test will be the ability to retain new viewers in years to come, using the Hundred as a gateway to other formats. Perhaps the enthusiasm of a free-to-air broadcaster to show a significant chunk of games in primetime slots constitutes success in itself, but the English game as a whole can hardly afford the next month to go wrong.
The Hundred will be on BBC Two, radio and online from Wednesday, July 21
Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98