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News Analysis

Last summer, it was all fun and frolics - now comes the real test for the Hundred

The ECB's marquee competition needs to achieve cut-through with the public while maintaining a veneer of progress

There were pyrotechnics of all types at the Hundred finals, Oval Invincibles vs Southern Brave, Women's Hundred, final, Lord's, August 21, 2021

Finals Day capped off a largely well-received first edition of the Hundred  •  PA Photos/Getty Images

"You know about 'the Hundred variant' right?"
There was a theory doing the rounds at the end of last summer that each of the four men's and women's teams contesting the Hundred Finals Day fielded players suffering from Covid-19. It is a tough nugget to prove. Some only reported symptoms after that Saturday in August while others kept quiet. No one wanted to miss out on the Lord's showpiece event, fearing they would not only be taking themselves out of action, but a number of team-mates as close contacts too. By that stage, the virus had been around the team environments more often than influencers. It had become part of the norm.
Players were required to take regular lateral flow tests before training and match days - a regulation brought in by the ECB after fears the first edition of the eight-team competition (delayed by a year) would be cut off at the knees by coronavirus. A worry that was exacerbated by England having to pick an entirely new squad for their one-day series with Pakistan, reflective of the world outside the changing room walls in which more than half-a-million people were pinged by the NHS track and trace app in the first week of July 2021.
The 2020 season was a drag, leading many to contemplate why they do what they do. That crisis of confidence spilled into the start of 2021, with restricted crowds in the T20 Blast up until the knockout stages. And so, as the Hundred wore on, testing lapsed, as it did pretty much everywhere else. Among the logic of the majority of fit, young 20-somethings was that they were able to cope with this iteration of the virus, and a more relatable fatigue when it came to imposed restrictions, which were more severe on the players given what was at stake (money, lots of it) if the Hundred or any part of the international schedule stumbled.
The freedom the Hundred offered extended beyond parking inhibitions on the field to make every ball count. To many who ply their trade on the domestic circuit, it offered a sense of relief. A chance to emerge from the grey.
One of the overlooked aspects of men's county cricket is its social scene. As much as it can be a grind, one of the upsides for a player is travelling to various parts of the country and sampling the nightlife. After one-and-a-half summers of losing that perk, the timing of a glitzy tour of seven major cities encouraged making up for lost time. Coming off the back of the England football team's run to the final of the European Championships, which opened the floodgates when it came to public disregard of what rules were still in place, there was little encouragement needed. As players indulged at night, at times ignoring team guidelines to stick to outside spaces, mixing with the general public and occasionally friends on other teams, "the Hundred strain" was born.
Shane Warne was the most high-profile member of staff to contract the virus, ruled out of fulfilling in-person duties for the start of the London Spirit campaign after testing positive in the first week of August, almost immediately after Andy Flower had done the same. The biggest fright for the competition came when Adam Lyth and Harry Brook returned positives ahead of Northern Superchargers' match with Manchester Originals. It eventually went ahead when the rest of the Superchargers squad reported a clean bill of health.
You can probably gauge the more sociable by the final standings, particularly in the men's competition. That's not to say such behaviour was allowed to slide. During Welsh Fire's tournament debrief - they finished seventh - head coach Gary Kirsten lamented a lack of professionalism among his group, particularly from those who should have regarded this as an opportunity to showcase their wares on a bigger platform.
"There was a sense from some female cricketers that their male counterparts regarded them as an inconvenience when it came to sharing training spaces or other resources"
His sentiment was shared by other coaches and senior players, who felt English players in particular were coasting when they should have realised a clearer path to stardom given the lack of stellar names, even if only for a month. Likewise a handful of overseas pros who benefitted from the absence of their more-decorated peers. That's not the case this time around.
The approach to Covid encapsulated why the first edition of the Hundred should be regarded in isolation. An anomaly of societal and cultural overcorrection to a pandemic still simmering beneath the surface. And it is also why so much of what was regarded as success will come under greater scrutiny this time around.
The women's competition held most of the aces, showcasing the depth of domestic talent and appetite for women's cricket, even if the latter was abundantly clear following the 2017 50-over World Cup on these shores. Beyond performances ranging from a breakthrough for Alice Capsey, reaffirmation for Tash Farrant and confirmation of Jemimah Rodrigues' talents were ceiling-busting asides, typified by the sight of London Spirit players sipping cans of cider on the Lord's home balcony to celebrate the academic achievements of Alice Monaghan, who skipped her graduation from Loughborough University to play against Superchargers. Crowds for women's matches averaged 7000-8000, with a peak television audience of 1.4million for the final between Oval Invincibles and Southern Brave across BBC and Sky.
It will be fascinating to see how that success continues on this year, given how much of 2021 women's edition was based on alignment with the men. Last year's double-headers were another Covid-enforced circumstance rather than boardroom design, which will be harder to replicate this time given the women's competition starts three rounds in because of the clash with the Commonwealth Games.
There is also the notion of "respect" between the sexes, publicly insisted on but which at times felt overblown. Despite the odd men's cricketer championing the output of their women's team or the standard as a whole, there was a sense from some female players that their male counterparts regarded them as an inconvenience when it came to sharing training spaces or other resources.
Of course, it was always going to need more than a souped-up competition and accompanying marketing campaign to change the sexist views prevailing within cricket. Perhaps most instructive is how the Hundred is being used as the vehicle to drive this, even if the shifts are tectonically slow at this stage. The highest-paid women (£31,250) will now earn more than the lowest-paid men (£30,000) and the opening match of the women's competition (Invincibles vs Superchargers on August 11) will be staged after the men's fixture. "I'm excited to see how it goes," Beth Barrett-Wild, head of the women's Hundred, said on Monday. "It is going to be interesting to see how it plays out and I am very optimistic that it is going to look brilliant, and feel brilliant."
On the playing side, the expectation is for a better spectacle, in part because of a strong pool of international talent in both codes now that travel to the UK has eased. The playing conditions should feel a little more natural after players admitted being thrown by the adjustment to five-ball sets. Some even found the scoreboards confusing for the second innings (where balls remaining and runs required count down together) having been used to calculating required rates in six-ball overs.
"Things like the five balls, the tactics behind it were totally different, especially at the death when you're the fielding side," Moeen Ali, captain of 2021 runners-up Birmingham Phoenix, said. "For people who didn't know anything about cricket before, having spoken to those kinds of people - for us who knew a little bit about cricket, it was a little confusing, but for people who don't know anything about cricket, they seemed to understand it really well and got the concept of it really well and quickly."
That, really, is the point of all this. A game that plenty admire given a makeover to make it more appealing to the rest, in a bid to future-proof English cricket. Beyond some unruly scenes in the crowd, which the ECB has vowed to clamp down on with more effective stewarding, the first season was far less garish than many had expected.
So, what are our guarantees this time? A strong on-field product, over-the-top cheerleading from official broadcasters, prime real estate across the media the powers-that-be really care about, and a sense of belonging to something bigger for male and female cricketers who had become too accustomed to the shadows.
As for the uncertainties, cut-through will be the biggest hurdle. The start of the 2022-23 Premier League on Friday is as big a distraction as they come, and a reminder of how lucky the 2021 season was to follow the Euros and not have to compete for eyes with the Olympic Games given the time difference meant Tokyo's days were done by late afternoon, British Summer Time. The absence of centrally contracted England players such as Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow, who ESPNcricinfo revealed has pulled out on the eve of the competition, won't help. Nor will overseas stars flying out early for international duty.
By and large, though, there is a liberty the Hundred will be looking to exploit. And with a soon-to-be confirmed window set aside for it in the upcoming Future Tours Programme, liberation is only going to grow.
In a post-pandemic Britain, amid a sporting ecosystem shifting underfoot, 2022 will dictate where the Hundred intends to position itself in the future. And by proxy, where the ECB is looking to pitch up - that little bit closer to the peak of the global game. Now, ultimately, is the time for a tournament that will never be allowed to fall to take its first meaningful steps.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor for ESPNcricinfo