With friends like these? A Hundred reasons why the ECB has failed the game

In their quest for Eldorado, English cricket may have saddled itself with fool's gold

George Dobell
George Dobell
Spectators at Bob Willis' old ground, Edgbaston, watch Warwickshire take on Nottinghamshire  •  PA Images via Getty Images

Spectators at Bob Willis' old ground, Edgbaston, watch Warwickshire take on Nottinghamshire  •  PA Images via Getty Images

"You've got a lot of nerve, to say you are my friend," sang Bob Dylan in the opening line of Positively 4th Street. It was the song Bob Willis had playing in the background when he died after a long battle with cancer in December 2019.
To celebrate Bob's life - Bob Willis' life, that is - Edgbaston (his old ground) was tangled up in blue during the third ODI against Pakistan on Tuesday night. Spectators had been encouraged to wear blue to both celebrate his life and raise awareness and funds for the fight against prostate cancer.
It's a surprising choice of final song, in a way. It's not a peaceful song. Nor gentle or even kind. It's furious, really. Hateful, even. It sneers at hypocrisy. It angrily demands honesty. And it remains as relevant now as it was when he wrote it almost 60 years ago.
Maybe that opening line is a phrase that could be directed towards the ECB executive right now. They are meant to be the guardians of our game, after all. But Tuesday's was the final ODI before the domestic 50-over competition in England (and Wales) is downgraded into what has been termed a "development" competition. Its final, once a showpiece event in the season, will now be played on a Thursday.
It will take place at the same time as the Hundred, you see. And that means it will be without many of the best white-ball players in the land. Surrey, for example, lose 12 players to the Hundred; Sussex lose eight; Somerset lose seven as well as their head coach. And that's even before we consider the impact of Covid.
In a format in which we are told attention to detail and role definition are so important, you wonder what impact this will have when England next play a 50-over World Cup, in India in 2023. It means the best new, white-ball players could be picked for the ODI side without ever having played a professional 50-over game. This week's success, achieved by a third-choice side against a strong Pakistan team, might prove a high-water mark in the history of England's ODI cricket.
It's not just the 50-over competition which has been forced to compromise, either. The T20 Blast, a competition which has kept the counties afloat in recent years, has been squeezed into a window 40% shorter this year. Even before Covid intervened, clubs had almost no chance to retain the spectator numbers that had been so impressive in previous years based on the premise of regular Friday night fixtures, with room for variance for local factors. This year, Surrey, for example, played six home games in the space of 12 days. Two of them were on Mondays and two more were on Wednesdays. Really, it's almost as if some people wanted it to fail.
Some will scoff at that suggestion. But given the potential direction of travel - the decreasing relevance of the county game and the growing dominance of those based at Test-hosting grounds - many of us fear that the Hundred is an attempt to reduce the number of counties by stealth. And even if it isn't, might it not be easier to justify the new format if you can demonstrate the existing competitions have failed? It would explain the ECB's reluctance to sing the success of the Vitality Blast from every rooftop. It has, let us remember, sold out almost every game at several venues - including the London ones - for years. It's attracted some great overseas players, too. Had it been embraced by a free-to-air broadcaster, it really could have been the vehicle to growth.
And remember: these new team identities, some of them based many hours from the regions which they supposedly represent, have never produced a player. They have no pathways, no academies and no existing support base. They are parasites feeding on the players and supporters the county game has produced. It's a bizarre act of cannibalism to stage a new competition at the same time as an existing one. Even if the new tournament works, it could push existing teams into obsolescence.
We haven't even talked about the first-class game yet. But it's hard to dispute it has been compromised in the desire to create a white-ball window. At the start of this century, when the Championship was split into two divisions playing four day-cricket, it produced a Test team that went to No. 1 in the world. So well did it prepare people for Test cricket, that four of the top seven (Alastair Cook, Andrew Strauss, Jonathan Trott and Matt Prior) made centuries on Test debut and two more (Ian Bell and Kevin Pietersen) made half-centuries. One of the bowlers (James Anderson) took a five-for on debut and another (Graeme Swann) claimed two wickets in his first over. The County Championship worked.
Now? Well, aspects of it are still outstanding. But instead of nurturing it, the ECB have devalued it. It starts before Easter and ends to a backdrop of the boys from the NYPD choir singing Galway Bay. It's played on surfaces which are sometimes more crazy golf than Masters. It provides little opportunity for spinners or fast bowlers and has proven unable to develop batters with the technique and temperament for Test cricket. The evidence of recent times would suggest it isn't really working.
But let us not talk falsely: there are some good reasons behind the birth of the Hundred. Much as it may pain some of us to admit it, the game's relevance was diminishing in England and Wales. It had largely disappeared from state schools and free-to-air television. Unless you were privately educated or had a family member interested in sport, it was entirely possible you would never experience the game. It was well on the way to becoming a niche sport.
And much as some of us cherish the counties, we might also accept that some of them were failing in their duty to embrace working-class and non-white communities. While some counties have worked hard to remain relevant and solvent, others had been a little too willing to pocket the centrally distributed resources and do an absolute minimum to justify it. Even those of us who passionately care for the 18-county system will admit privately that one or two counties are tough to defend. The fact that one of those is hosting a Hundred side is ironic.
More than that, the reputation of the game was tainted. Perhaps unfairly - okay, undoubtedly unfairly - many broadcasters and potential spectators weren't interested in it. The length of games was stretching a bit long. There probably was room for a re-launch. There probably was logic in the need for change. There almost certainly are good intentions at the root of all this. But never forget: the BBC signed up to the new competition when they thought it was a T20 tournament.
There are quite a few such misconceptions about the Hundred. One of them is that it provides a high-profile women's competition. Which sounds reasonable. But then you remember that the ECB abandoned the Kia Super League (KSL), the women's domestic T20 competition, at the end of 2019.
Even those of us who passionately care for the 18-county system will admit privately that one or two counties are tough to defend. The fact that one of those is hosting a Hundred side is ironic.
Why? Well, maybe because in its absence it was easier to build a compelling argument for the development of the Hundred. It allowed them to claim that this wasn't all about money, but also about diversity and inclusion. As if those who oppose the Hundred in some way oppose opportunities for women.
There's the much-repeated argument that the first-class counties needed the money that the Hundred will bring in, too. But, again, it doesn't stand up to scrutiny. Before the Hundred was introduced, the ECB had reserves in excess of £70 million. They could easily have shared some of that with the counties. Instead, they kept them in need to ensure their compliance. The counties have managed to be bribed with their own money. And now those reserves have gone; squandered on a competition which is costing more than it will earn.
Equally, supporters of the Hundred - and it's noticeable that a sizeable proportion of those supporters have some financial incentive for wishing it well - like to portray the county game as reactionary and staid. But again, it doesn't stand up to scrutiny. Where was one-day cricket born? Where was T20 cricket born? Where were free-hits and DLS born? County cricket, that's where. The ECB should have been wooing and seducing broadcasters, not telling them their existing competitions were rubbish.
And that's an issue to which we keep coming back here: the Hundred is the ECB's answer to problems they created. If they hadn't allowed cricket to disappear behind a paywall and if they hadn't cancelled the KSL, there would be no need for it. We have a great sport. We just need to ensure more people have the opportunity to experience it.
It could yet work. Whether it's played over 100 overs, 100 balls or five days, cricket is a great game. Perhaps the increased broadcast exposure will counteract all these other factors. But make no mistake: the ECB has bet the farm on this competition. If it fails, it could set the sport back a generation. And if it succeeds, the collateral damage to the other formats and the counties could still lose more than we gain. It feels like a wild, unnecessary gamble.
Maybe, had the initial launch been handled differently, existing supporters would have been more accepting of the shortened format or amended regulations. We've lived with overs of almost every length over the years, after all. We've accepted many other innovations.
But the first impressions were awful. The ECB seemed to delight in offending existing cricket lovers. They seemed to revel in sneering 'we can do without you'. And by the time they realised their hubris had let them down, it was too late. In years to come, you wonder if the initial roll-out of the idea will be studied as a text-book example of how not to do it. If they had their time again - and the ECB has a much-improved communications team these days - you can be quite certain they would do it differently.
Partially because of this, The Hundred has become the Eldorado of its time. And that doesn't mean the fabled city. It means the BBC soap opera whose reputation was so poor before the first episode was broadcast in 1992 that it was doomed from the off. Many people (63 percent according to a recent survey conducted by the Cricket Supporters' Association) who love cricket resent and fear and hate the Hundred. The inability of the ECB to bring many cricket lovers with them on this journey may be the defining mistake in this whole saga.
The point of all this? Eden is burning, as Bob Dylan put it. The game we knew is being compromised to accommodate a competition we shouldn't need. A county game which helped England to No. 1 in the world in all three formats, which attracted record attendances, which could, with just a little adaption of the broadcast deal, have been the vehicle to a new audience, is being dismantled. It's not dark yet, but it's getting there. Really, the ECB have a lot of nerve to pretend they are county cricket's friend.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo