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Feature

It's not only about the cricket as Lord's lays on a Tuesday-night party

Our South Africa correspondent welcomes English cricket's attempts to diversify its fanbase

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
01-Sep-2022
The DJ at Lord's builds the atmosphere during the men's Hundred match between London Spirit and Birmingham Phoenix  •  Getty Images

The DJ at Lord's builds the atmosphere during the men's Hundred match between London Spirit and Birmingham Phoenix  •  Getty Images

"Do you remember we went to the first ever one?" A cricket fan asked his friend on the walk down Wellington Road, which leads to Lord's, on Tuesday afternoon. "We had just been released from our f****** Covid."
We all remember what we first did when we were released from our f****** lockdowns. How fortuitous for the ECB that some people will remember attending the Hundred. How fantastic that some of those people have decided to go back, a year later, when the world has changed again; when they could be in the West End or at the football, at a music festival or a pub - 13,152 turned up on a Tuesday evening laced with a chilly breeze to attend the women's match and 24,116 the men's. If anyone wants to know if this 'thing' works, tens of thousands of people think it does.
And they're not your regular cricket people. They're what we'd call the minority in a stadium in England - not pale, stale and male - and they're not having your regular cricket conversations.
"How do you know if it's going to be a fast bowler or a spin bowler?," a boy asked his father, in the last quarter of the women's match between London Spirit and Birmingham Phoenix, who were attempting to defend 82, and had just brought on offspinner Ria Fackrell.
"The fast bowlers come in quickly and from a long way away," the dad answered.
On cue, Georgie Elwiss got the ball next. "Like this, see?"
There was a pause as the child considered the mechanics of speed, distance and time, before moving on to specifics. "How fast do they bowl?"
Pace is pace, yaar, and everyone wants to know about it, no matter how old they are. "Do you remember in the England-South Africa Tests, the South African bowlers were all really quick?" the father asked.
I was quietly chuffed with the way the conversation was going. "The South Africans bowl about 90mph," the father said. "And England's best bowler Jimmy Anderson is about 83mph."
Another pause, and I wondered if this young fan was going to be swayed by speed alone. "Jimmy Anderson is the best," he concluded. Can't argue with that.
Male cricketers were the examples the father used but it was a women's match which enthralled his son, as Naomi Dattani and Grace Scrivens chipped away. They needed 35 from the last 35 balls, and more than a run-a-ball after that. Cries of "two, two," from both father and son came every time the ball was hit into some space. At one stage, London Spirit's ask had grown to 16 runs off 11 balls and they were preparing for defeat but Dattani hit a glorious straight drive to bring the equation down and a song every 12-year old knows the words to was blasted around the ground.
It's cricket but "not only about the cricket," the DJ reminded us. Maybe that jars with you (after all, you're reading a cricket specialist website and are probably a pretty serious cricket fan) but in a world with entertainment options everywhere, cricket has to keep up. So the Hundred has partnered with BBC Music Introducing to showcase a selection of artists in the intervals. Tuesday night's was SOFY, a self-titled indie-pop artist from Leicester. She described Lord's as "much more civilised" than the King Power Stadium.
While SOFY brought the moody chilled vibes, the two on-field presenters regularly reminded the crowd that they need to "give this place some energy" and adopted the IPL-style puppet-master approach to audience participation.
"Make some noise," they command and noise is made. "We say London, you say Spirit," and chants of "London Spirit" began. "We say Lord's, you say cricket," and cue the "Lord's Cricket" chorus. Their crowning moment was getting the Mexican wave to go around the ground, including the Pavilion (yes, MCC Members stood up and raised their arms) at the first time of calling. Later, they asked everyone to turn their smartphone spotlights on to create a band of light (lighters are so 1990, aren't they?). The mood dimmed a touch when the big screen then displayed a message asking for lights to be turned off so play could resume.
By then, the men's match was well underway and the atmosphere had changed a bit. Some of the parents with younger kids had left - and remember that those are kids who will grow up around a regular diet of women's cricket - and the 20 and 30-year-olds were in. Many of them had not taken an interest in cricket before the Hundred (one prominent cricket photographer's 23-year-old daughter and her partner were among them) and were treated to all the thrills and spills of a nail-biter.
Ravi Bopara's 20-ball 45 ensured London Spirit set Birmingham Phoenix a competitive target of 140. Liam Dawson's two wickets in five balls threatened to put Spirit straight into Saturday's final but Matthew Wade's 81 ensured Phoenix were in it all the way.
The scores were tied when the ball that should have been the final delivery was called wide, and my thoughts immediately turned to whether the playing conditions make provision for a Super Over, or even if they would call it that, given that the o-word is not the said thing in this format. "Set of five," is the preferred terminology. So how about a Super Set? Too complicated, maybe?
In the end, Phoenix won, but not well enough to qualify for Friday's eliminator. Whether those in attendance knew that is hard to say. And that wasn't the only thing that could have been better explained. The team score is not prominently displayed, for example, with the big screens preferring to show runs scored or needed and balls faced or remaining. It's not always obvious how many wickets have fallen or which set is being bowled, and the timer between the change of ends can be distracting. But at its core, the Hundred is still cricket. One team bats until either they are dismissed or out of overs, then the other team does. The team that has the most runs wins.
It's been deliberately marketed to attract a non-traditional cricket audience and cricket being the game it is, the traditional audience don't always like that. And the new audience will face a challenge when they move on to other formats and discover overs are made up of six balls, and you don't get two bowled from the same side.
Think of the re-explaining the father will have to do when his son wants to know why Anderson or Kagiso Rabada are not strategically used to deliver sets in succession. But it's an interesting tactical innovation and will likely deliver some intriguing strategies as the Hundred continues to be played. For those of us who have watched cricket all our lives, it's not that difficult a concept to adjust to, even if we want to dismiss it as unnecessary.
It's the opposite argument we should be making. It's necessary that cricket evolves. In South Africa, we have dispensed with three-Test series to accommodate for a T20 league because that's the only way the game will be financially viable. It's up for debate why the ECB chose to create a whole new format, not to mention its impact on other formats, but at least it's an attempt to get cricket to keep up.
It's also necessary that cricket becomes more welcoming to more people. We've just been through a Social Justice and Nation-Building process which has exposed exclusion in South Africa and the ECB's own review is about to get underway. We know the game has a history of racism, misogyny and intolerance that should be driven out. If an environment can be created where groups of friends, families and people from a variety of backgrounds can get together, that should be encouraged, especially as we collectively recover from the f****** pandemic, and all its after-effects.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent