Blast prepares to relaunch amid summer of uncertainty

Covid restrictions and the impending arrival of the Hundred threaten to cast a shadow on county T20

David Hopps
David Hopps
Somerset's players take the field, Somerset v Middlesex, Vitality Blast, South Group, Taunton, August 30, 2019

Somerset hope to have Taunton at full capacity for three Blast fixtures this summer  •  Getty Images

"Data not dates" might have been the UK government's mantra as it seeks to plot a route out of lockdown, but June 21 remains a date imprinted on the nation's consciousness - as the government deliberately chose a midsummer's day celebration how could it be otherwise? - and county cricket has cause to cling to that promised reawakening with more desperation than most.
End restrictions on attendances after the first two weeks of the T20 Blast, with about 60% of the fixtures remaining, and the competition can just about deliver financially and in terms of entertainment.
But what if the date is put back? Travel, hospitality, and all sports and culture would suffer, in the name of avoiding a third spike in Covid transmissions, but few sporting events would so obviously be hit as the Blast as it seeks to survive the most uncertain summer in its history. Losses to the professional game, already mired in debt, would run into millions.
Track back three years and the county game appeared to be relatively settled. The Blast was heading towards a million spectators and corona was something visible during a solar eclipse. Then came the Hundred and Covid-19, tipping county cricket into yet another prolonged bout of uncertainty and soul-searching that will drag on for a good while yet.
Gordon Hollins has experienced both sides of the debate. Now CEO at Somerset, one of the counties that will play no active part in the Hundred, other than losing half its players for an entire month, he filled a variety of roles in 12 years at the ECB, latterly the managing director of county cricket.
Reflection about the relationship with The Hundred is not his most pressing thought. With the Blast 24 hours away from starting, the possibility that a feared third wave could disrupt the competition will have occupied most of his attention.
Interpretation of the data depends a lot upon an individual's risk aversion and philosophy of life. Positive Covid tests have risen disturbingly to 6,048 with the seven-day average up by 60%. But there is more promising data, too, that suggest the vaccines remain effective: hospital cases remaining steady, daily deaths barely into double figures, and vaccinations rising to 53% twice vaccinated, 77% once.
There is little point in Somerset second guessing. Hollins, like every other county administrator, can merely plan and wait.
"We have four matches up to 21 June and the next stage of Government unlocking," he said. "We have sold these four matches at the 1800-2000 restricted capacity and then for the three matches after that we have sold them out to full capacity, planning for success, knowing there is a risk we will have to row back and reduce the capacity if the government's road map isn't delivered.
"We'll just have to roll with whatever the decision is but it would be a significant financial cost. We have the unusual combination of a relatively high membership and a relatively small ground. We took the decision to prioritise the membership who have been loyal to us for a number of years, so if the road map is not unlocked, we would not sell any tickets at all this year."
Somerset, like many counties, have already had to impose redundancies.
Hollins hopes that will help see them through. "We think over the last 12 months or so we have made some tough decisions. We have had to make a dozen roles redundant. We are actually starting to build again as we look at the blue sky on the horizon, rather than the thunderstorms of the last 14 months, but we think we have managed the financials tightly enough to be able to manage that extra storm if it comes our way.
"The big question is how long that lasts. If it is this year only then that's one thing but if it goes into next year then like so many other businesses, and every other county cricket club, that's a different situation."
As to the Hundred, my hope is that when you have a strong England team for example, and you get euphoria around the country, the interest in county cricket goes up
Gordon Hollins, Somerset CEO
That leaves the Hundred - its monetary benefits even more essential, its advocates contend, now that Covid has wrecked the game's financials. But many county cricket followers are adamant that the Hundred, if successful, is actually a canker that will gradually destroy the 18-team county structure. The battle lines are partly generational, but not entirely so. County cricket is built upon history, community and a deep sense of belonging. The Hundred is a marketing gambit, intended to satisfy a new, made-for-TV global audience which has little interest in tradition, but simply wants the quick fix of big names on big grounds.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Hollins adopts a positive view about the potential synergies that many - this correspondent included - do not share.
"Do I agree with the premise that the Hundred will undermine the Blast?" he said. "I can only talk for myself but I feel we have a really passionate support here who will support Somerset before the Hundred. And having a Somerset team that is competitive to service, or accommodate, that interest is really important. I don't have any fear that the Blast here will cease to be relevant.
"My job as CEO of Somerset is to ensure that the Hundred delivers positive outcomes for Somerset CCC. That's not just about money, it's about making sure that if the audience widens as forecast - in terms of the increased number of people who are interested in cricket, and the interest it creates at club level - then Somerset need to pick up the benefits of that, whether it be players playing the game or people attending matches. I believe we can do that. I've got to look at it that way.
"As to the Hundred in a wider sense, my hope is that if you look at the history when you have a strong England team for example, and you get euphoria around the country about England, what happens really consistently is that the interest in county cricket goes up.
"The Ashes 2005 is the ultimate example of that. I was at Durham at that time and Durham's attendances during that summer went up significantly that summer. I'm hoping that the Hundred does that for county cricket and that it creates the noise and the awareness and pulls in people from lots of different places."
English football could never have got away with the imposition of such a new structure - the quick death of the European Super League is proof of that. But Premier League football is all powerful, and international football knows its limits, whereas, in professional cricket, the international programme has become more and more empowered over the past generation, arranging tours at the last minute, withdrawing players without warning and treating clubs with disregard - the Indian Premier League being the one exception.
But cricket has no long-term future if it is merely reliant on the same old players traversing the world for another T20 payday, changing countries, clubs and shirts with barely a thought, any sense of loyalty limited to the confines of the dressing room and their own sense of professionalism.
The Blast might have suffered its annual rush of eve-of-tournament withdrawals, but it is still a central part of a 18-team professional circuit unmatched in the world. Many of them might not be able to claim a relevance with the entire community (could they ever?), many are over-reliant on the efforts of the private school sector, but they still develop and employ around 450 English-qualified professionals, most of them possessing a deep sense of club commitment.
And those who cannot get into the grounds for the Blast can now watch on live county streaming services that are improving every year, with every boundary and every wicket available on video clips, and more online coverage than ever before. We fear county cricket is in a time of crisis, but it might just be entering a golden age.
To gaze upon Taunton as crowds returned for the Championship last week was to rediscover a sense of optimism. "I think there is massive expectation," said Hollins as he observed spectators clearly happy to feel the sun on their backs and hear the sound of bat on ball.
"When Championship cricket returned to Taunton after 614 days you could feel the buzz around the ground," he reflected. "Every time a boundary was scored the whole thing was amplified beyond what it normally would have been. There was so much excitement about being back.
"Yes, it's a slightly different audience for the T20 Blast, but by the number of people desperate to get their hands on tickets for the Blast I'd say the anticipation is greater than ever. I have never subscribed to this death of county cricket scenario. This club goes back to 1875. It has survived two massive world wars. A competition like the Hundred that is well intended is not going to destroy county cricket.
"There is such depth to county cricket that I don't buy that it's dying at all, I think it can and will go from strength to strength."

David Hopps writes on county cricket for ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps