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Analysis

Birmingham embraces the Hundred as new tournament finds its poise

Phoenix victories and success of home-grown stars are helping to draw in new fans

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
16-Aug-2022
Moeen Ali signs autographs after Birmingham Phoenix's victory over Trent Rockets, Men's Hundred, Birmingham Phoenix vs Trent Rockets, Edgbaston, August 15, 2022

Moeen Ali signs autographs after Birmingham Phoenix's victory over Trent Rockets  •  PA Images via Getty Images

There is a huge cheer as Moeen Ali walks towards the South Stand at Edgbaston. A sprawling queue has formed at the end of Birmingham Phoenix's seven-wicket win against Trent Rockets, all desperate for an autograph or a selfie with the captain and talisman. "Super, super Mo, Super Moeen Ali," has been ringing out around the ground all evening.
Half an hour earlier, Moeen's devastating assault on Lewis Gregory - whose third set of five cost 23 runs - had removed any scoring pressure from Phoenix's chase as the men closed out their sixth win from six at Edgbaston. The result completed a Phoenix double after Amy Jones - like Moeen, born and raised in the West Midlands - closed out the women's chase alongside Ellyse Perry.
"It's something that we thrive off and buzz off," Moeen says, after being pulled away from his fans to speak to the media. "It gives you a lift as a team. When the crowd is chanting your name and you get that support, it is awesome.
"The reason we're playing the Hundred is to attract a new audience and to make it simple for them to understand and enjoy games like this. Our jobs are not just about trying to win games - it's about trying to inspire the next generation."
The West Midlands is home to a number of the UK's bellwether political constituencies, where local results over a number of general elections have been mirrored by the outcome at a national level. Nuneaton, 25 miles east of Birmingham, has voted in line with the country as a whole since 1997; Worcester, 40 miles south-west, has done so since 1979.
In a similar vein, the West Midlands might be seen as a bellwether for the Hundred. A short-form competition at the height of summer was always going to work in London, where there is always a huge demand for tickets, but Birmingham is a different kettle of fish. Edgbaston has hosted - and sold out - T20 Finals Day every year since 2013 but the Blast's group stages have proved a harder sell.
In 2019, the final pre-Hundred season with full crowds permitted, their average attendance across seven home games was around 9,500. "It's a very diverse, industrial city," Stuart Cain, Warwickshire's chief executive, says. "You have to work hard to get people to spend money. Not because they're tight, but it's well-earned money. You have to give them a good day out."
In its first season, the Hundred came to life at Edgbaston. Phoenix's women came from nowhere to qualify for the knockout stages, while the men were unbeaten at home on their way to top spot in the group stages. The second season has started brightly, too: Will Smeed hit the Hundred's first hundred last week and so far the home teams have won three out of three.
Crowds last year were significantly higher than in the Blast, with an average attendance of 15,500, and the Hundred managed to draw significantly more interest from Birmingham's South Asian communities than the Blast ever had. "The new concept and the freshness has appealed to everyone," Cain says, "so by default, if 40% of your city is South Asian, you're going to get more people coming in from those communities."
Whether by chance or design, Phoenix's squads have featured several British Asian players who have become an integral part of the new teams' attempts to create an identity: Moeen, Issy Wong and Abtaha Maqsood. "Moeen is a local lad and Issy has come up through the ranks from the age of 10 or 11," Cain says. "Abtaha was recommended to us and it has been awesome to send out the message that you can be a practising Muslim, wear the hijab, and be a professional cricketer."
Warwickshire have taken significant steps to make Edgbaston a more inclusive ground, particularly in its attempts to crack down on crowd abuse. "I think that's the best way to give any community faith that it's OK to come here," Cain says.
The Edgbaston app has been updated to allow quick, anonymous reports if fans experience any issues, while the installation of a high-definition camera facing the Eric Hollies Stand facilitated an arrest after allegations of racist abuse during the England-India Test earlier this summer. A man has since been charged with a racially-aggravated public order offence.
The attendances for Monday's double-header were impressive - 9,859 for the women's game (on a weekday afternoon) and 15,800 for the men's - not least given the numbers of events Edgbsaton has hosted this year: a Test, a T20I, seven Blast group games, Finals Day, and the Commonwealth Games. The swathe of bright-orange merchandise in the crowd suggested an affinity with Phoenix, even at an early stage of their existence.
Crucially, some of the Hundred's audience appear to have become hooked. Blast crowds this season were "slightly ahead" of 2019 figures despite the tournament being played earlier in the summer, and Edgbaston sold over 1,000 white-ball season tickets, granting access to every Blast and Hundred matchday.
"This debate about 'is the Hundred going to kill the Blast?' is the wrong one: the genie is out of the bottle," Cain says. ""I don't agree that the Blast is for one audience and the Hundred is for a different one. There are people that love cricket and are coming to both, but there are some that love the Blast and will never come to the Hundred, and some that will come to the Hundred and will never come to the Blast.
"Any new concept that brings in new crowds, new sponsors, free-to-air broadcast - I can't see what there is to dislike. If you look at other sports - golf, tennis, hockey - they must be sitting there now in absolute envy about what cricket has done, to find a format that the BBC, Sky, fans and sponsors are all engaged in.
"You've got to respect members' opinions. Our job is to make sure we don't lose the history and tradition of red-ball cricket but, at the same time, try and move the game on in a way that acknowledges the world is changing. We're not trying to downgrade Championship cricket. We're trying to find new ways of reaching audiences in a world where time, money and attention spans are tight."
The Hundred and its knock-on effects on the rest of the summer schedule remain hugely divisive, but it is clear that in its bellwether region, it is doing something right. As Cain summarises: "the second the sport stops criticising itself and doing itself down, the better off we'll be."

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98