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The Hundred is tearing English cricket apart - but counties must take their share of the blame

Having become far too reliant on the ECB, the professional game now finds itself recast as second rate

David Hopps
David Hopps
Somerset take on Derbyshire in the Royal London Cup  •  Getty Images

Somerset take on Derbyshire in the Royal London Cup  •  Getty Images

How do the county clubs feel at the moment as the Hundred hovers somewhere between success and failure? Are they willing it on, still content at voting it into existence in exchange for a quiet life and large sums of cash, or are they secretly recognising that they made a terrible mistake and hoping that it collapses before it sends them into irrevocable decline?
Whether you want to admit it or not, the Hundred is tearing English professional cricket apart, although it is largely the public who are at odds while the counties themselves keep their heads down. They are well advised to do just that because it is the long-term inadequacies of the counties that has caused this schism in the first place.
I like my sports teams to possess history and tradition, to have an early existence that my parents can recall but which I can only read about, to endure ups and downs that really matter to me, to bring through players of great distinction alongside others whose flame burns but briefly, and sometimes not at all, to develop local rivalries, to inspire tribal loyalties (albeit a more mellow version than football), to be embedded deep in their communities, valued, resented, admired, often at the same time: to be followed, in person or in spirit, by people who care.
In county cricket, there are no longer enough people who care. Its ingrained conservatism made it unable to adjust quickly enough to social change. It lost its public, often through its own blinkered thinking. And so we must endure artificial teams, stocked with auctioned hirelings expressing sham loyalties that go no deeper than a decent professional desire to be part of a winning dressing room.
Determined to resist the Hundred I found myself watching Baptiste on catch-up instead. Well, he seemed to possess an appropriately grieving, melancholy tone towards a world turning against him. Even that brought no escape. "When we get older, our opinions harden like our joints," brooded Baptiste. That's me told, I thought. It appears that the ECB is even slipping subliminal messages into TV programmes about the need to keep an open mind. Maybe I'm wrong after all.
So conceding that the return of cricket to free-to-air was a very good thing, I watched a bit and saw nothing to dissuade me from the view that the Hundred is essentially an inferior and superfluous version of T20, except with graceless, migraine-inducing fonts, supported by some commentators who are more intent upon marketing a product than reporting on professional sport with journalistic integrity. The dividing line between light entertainment and sports analysis had been well and truly crossed.
The first step towards extinction is irrelevance and counties that have long been derided for being overly reliant on ECB handouts are now more reliant upon them than ever. Not enough people, especially young people, care about the damage that the Hundred will do - is already doing - to the rest of the professional game.
The very phrase "county cricket" can barely be uttered by some these days without a condescending curl of the lip. It smacks of near obsolescence, the sort of thing old people do, to be lumped in with CDs, landlines and knowing who lives next door: ageism is never very far away. Talk of a culture war means that it is lazily lumped in with Brexit, climate-change denial and anything else seen as non-progressive. Its mere mention is a conversation stopper at dinner parties.
On Twitter, meanwhile, English cricket has become the latest subject for a phoney culture war. Culture war is what Twitter does. "Maybe there should be a separate TV commentary for the Gammons so they can just moan about how awful this all is", was the gist of one suggestion. Which was quite funny until I realized that for the first time I appear to be on the side of the Gammons and have had to make a note to self to exercise more and, under no circumstances, be seen in public looking red-faced and apoplectic.
So let's get this straight: I love T20, have loved it from the outset and, for what it's worth, happily committed most evenings in the past month to covering the counties' own version - the Blast. To construe the Hundred as a straight fight between progressive young people who care about diversity and racism and short-form cricket, and old stick-in-the-muds who just want to protect county cricket as it once was, has just enough truth to be dangerous. It is unfair to countless cricket lovers who care deeply about both. But if that narrative takes hold, and it might well, the ECB will doubtless be quietly delighted.
In asserting the rights of minorities, in challenging prejudice, identity politics has had an important role to play, but when identity politics is played out between two large, rival groups, as is now happening in English cricket, each appearing to lack empathy for the needs and yearnings of the other, there can be no happy outcome. Did it really need to come to this - English cricket at war with itself, rife with division, and with so many thinking only of their individual preferences and not the communal needs of the professional game as a whole?
It has taken the advent of the Hundred for murals of Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid to appear in Birmingham and Bradford, the sort of thing that should have happened years ago
"Just leave us to enjoy ourselves" sounds the refrain from devotees of the Hundred, which rather misses the central point that you can't take 100-odd players out of county cricket, plus another 17 for the Test squad (17!?), without standards which anyway are routinely criticised suffering drastically as a result. Anybody claiming that the Royal London Cup - the 50-over competition running in parallel to the Hundred - remains a high-class professional endeavour is a munificent soul. Nice sunsets on picturesque county outgrounds can bathe declining standards in a warm glow. Fifty-overs cricket is now a mix of hopeful 2nd teamers, Championship specialists and vaguely disgruntled pros who failed to get a gig in the Hundred.
While the cities explore a new product - or at least the same product in inferior guise - cricket fans outside the main centres suffer. "Just leave us to enjoy ourselves" does not play well in the likes of Somerset where cricket is more likely to be chatted about in the street or in the pub than in any other county, including Yorkshire, and yet where they could now face a second-rate future for the sake of attracting city-dwellers who love the game less.
It is in London where support for the Hundred - and lack of concern for the future of county cricket - will prove to be most evident. Rootlessness is a fact of life in any modern big city, loyalties are temporarily adopted and traditional ideas of community are supplanted by self-identification based on a culture of values. An artificially-invented club, entirely lacking history and tradition, is just another hedonistic opportunity. Alongside that the Hundred's welcome emphasis on gender equality, with parallel competitions for men and women, is a particularly winning proposition. It was no fluke that the tournament began with a women's match in the capital.
How did county cricket allow this to happen? It is a long-standing professional set-up that should be the envy of the cricketing world. It should be perfectly possible for England and Wales, with nearly 70 million people, to continue to support 18 high-performance clubs if they would just go about it in the right way. And if the ECB had not further debilitated the clubs with just about every England-centric decision taken in the past 20 years.
There have been forward-thinking counties, at least at times, there have been fine chief executives, there have even been one or two enlightened chairmen, although it will take a while to draw up that list and it is probably best not to mark them after a long lunch. But as a whole the game has an appalling record on diversity, whether you consider it by gender, class or ethnicity. The latest study - a PhD by Tom Brown, a performance analyst at Warwickshire - draws a familiar conclusion: if you are black British, South Asian British, or do not go to private school, your chances of forging a professional career with a county club are drastically lower. Of the few black or Asian players there are, most have been "fashioned" in public school. It is a shameful record.
There are complex reasons for this, and the lack of facilities in poorer areas are hardly the fault of county cricket, but too many county clubs give the impression that they don't care all that much as long as the traditional development pathways drip out enough players to keep up appearances, there is still the occasional South African-schooled cricketer to entice, and the ECB stumps up the cash to keep everyone in reasonable comfort. It has taken the advent of the Hundred for murals of Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid to appear in Birmingham and Bradford respectively, the sort of thing that should have happened years ago.
For that reason alone, the professional game in England will be short of sympathy beyond county loyalists. But even the loyalists are ill-served. Track back a generation and clubs were part of the fabric of their counties, festival weeks took county cricket into the heart of their region, and players would stroll in relaxed fashion around the boundary during play to converse with members - and the media - when they had time on their hands. County cricket remains a nice place to be, largely full of nice people. But outgrounds have all but disappeared, members' rights have weakened, written coverage of the game is on its last legs and players remain in the dressing room apart from the occasional compulsory post-match chat with a sponsor. With a more intense professionalism has come a less life-affirming county circuit. The need to serve international cricket is a real one, but Lie Back and Think of England is no recipe for success.
Even now, some lobby for the Championship to revert to one division so the whole shebang can just become a development competition, entirely shorn of the pressure of success or failure that is an essential element of professional sport - a sort of extended net session without the nets. With jobs for the boys.
There are some things the counties could not control. The collapse in newspaper coverage is largely down to collapsing circulations and falling budgets. But the advent of live streaming and endless video clips does bring hope of a fightback.
The decline in numbers playing club cricket is also partly down to changing lifestyles, quickened by the ECB's decision after the 2005 Ashes to put cricket behind a paywall. The loss of cricket grounds to development, especially in the cities, is a political failure that the Hundred can't address. But the counties are answerable here, too, because they should have taken stronger charge of their club feeder systems decades ago and won the argument for the leagues, especially the lower leagues, to put a much greater emphasis on the 20-over game. Every club cricketer in the land should have felt an affinity with their county club, but even this basic marketing opportunity has not been fully taken.
County chief executives who voted for a revamped T20 tournament with promotion and relegation might have negotiated a compromise only to be overruled by their own chairmen who were pressurised and incentivised (the polite term) to take £1.3m a year for becoming second rate, fondly imagining they could restock the gin cabinet if the Hundred succeeds and just blame others and begin again if it fails.
The odds are that eventually England's professional game will pay the price: very much second tier, in a form yet to be determined, fourth in line behind England, the Hundred (or, please God, a T20 version of it) and the IPL.
Is this how my love affair with county cricket, which has existed for better or worse over half a century, is about to end - the chronicling of gradual and inevitable decline? People have been saying this for at least a century, and somehow the game muddles through, but it has never appeared more likely. As Baptiste said, about suffering of a wholly different kind, perhaps that's the price of progress. It is just a price I will always refuse to pay.

David Hopps writes on county cricket for ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps