The £250,000 gamble that defined Welsh Fire's winless season

Tom Banton and Joe Clarke embodied a disastrous Hundred campaign

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
Tom Banton and Joe Clarke have epitomised Welsh Fire's struggles  •  ECB/Getty Images

Tom Banton and Joe Clarke have epitomised Welsh Fire's struggles  •  ECB/Getty Images

It was the £250,000 gamble that defined a season. Welsh Fire finished second-bottom in the inaugural men's Hundred and with limited availability for leading overseas players, they calculated that rebuilding around two of England's best young white-ball batters would be the way to go - not just for 2022, but for the seasons beyond.
As a result, they used their top two picks in the draft to sign Joe Clarke and Tom Banton for £125,000 each. Neither player seemed an outlandish top-bracket signing at the time: Clarke had been in belligerent form for Nottinghamshire in the Blast for several years and was Melbourne Stars' player of the season at the BBL, while Banton had just returned to England's T20I side and shown glimpses of his old form after a lean couple of years.
Five months on, Fire's outlay on Clarke and Banton looks like a monumental waste of money: they managed 185 runs off 190 balls between them, spread across 14 painstaking innings. They were picked to be match-winners for a team that ended up finishing the season with eight defeats from eight.
In Fire's final defeat, against Trent Rockets on Monday night, their dismissals summed up their lack of form: Banton was pinned on the pad for 9 off 7 balls by a shin-high full toss from Sam Cook after slashing two boundaries through point, while Clarke walked past Samit Patel's slow left-arm after hitting a huge six over midwicket but precious little else in his 15 off 14.
"We are playing professional sport and it hasn't been good enough," Gary Kirsten, Fire's head coach, said after their defeat to Northern Superchargers in their final home game. "You have to be competitive and look to win, but we've struggled. We just haven't got enough runs on the board because too many batsmen are out of form."
Kirsten's analysis was sound, but if the Hundred has any sporting integrity as a tournament then he should not be the man in charge of leading their rebuild next year. His side won their first two games last season thanks to Jonny Bairstow half-centuries, and have one win in fourteen since then; it is time for a new coach with fresh ideas.
They will need to replace their captain, too. Josh Cobb was retained from their 2021 squad on a £30,000 salary, the lowest price point in the tournament, then handed a poisoned chalice when he was asked to be the figurehead of a team featuring young players earning four times more than him. His tactics in the field have been sound, but 45 runs at 6.42 summed up his struggles.
Clearly, they were short on luck at times: Bairstow was only ever due to play three games for them but his eleventh-hour withdrawal was clearly a blow; Naseem Shah's first involvement in Pakistan's limited-overs teams rendered him unavailable at short notice; David Miller started the year in career-best form and averaged 12.16.
But the collective failure of so many talented players hints at a problem that goes beyond on-field personnel and the overall pattern was grim: they failed to reach 150 and while they ran Phoenix close and gave London Spirit a brief scare, six of their defeats were thrashings. The first ball of their final defeat against Rockets, a bottom-edge which squirmed under George Scrimshaw at short third and away for four, seemed to confirm that it is time to rip everything up and start again.
Debriefing Fire's season on Sky Sports, Simon Doull and Dominic Cork suggested that they had suffered a lack of identity after assembling a squad without a single Glamorgan player in it. "That's my biggest issue with it," Doull said. "You cannot tell me that Glamorgan don't have any players that are good enough to play in the Hundred."
But it is hard to make the case that drafting Dan Douthwaite and Prem Sisodiya would have turned their season around. No team has won fewer Blast games than Glamorgan over the last five years and only two of their squad - Timm van der Gugten and the retiring Michael Hogan - are involved in the Hundred at all. Their problems run much deeper than that.
Instead, the starting point to the rebuild might be to recruit an overseas batter with full availability for 2023 as captain: Shan Masood, who has led Derbyshire and Multan Sultans with success, would be a strong candidate to deal with the slow pitches at Sophia Gardens, while New Zealand's clear schedule in the FTP could, in theory, open up Kane Williamson's involvement.
Whatever they decide to do, the only way is up. The ECB's decision to allocate one of the eight teams to Cardiff rather than Bristol or Taunton was intended to revitalise cricket in Wales but it is hard to see supporters heading back to Sophia Gardens next season if they are expecting more of the same.
The beauty about short-form cricket is meant to be that anyone can beat anyone, particularly in tournaments where a strict salary cap and draft mechanism are in place to ensure competitive balance. The men's Hundred's biggest issue in 2022 has been a dearth of tight finishes: the tournament cannot afford Welsh Fire to be whipping boys.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98